Making and using rules
Making and using rules

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Making and using rules

5.2.2 Avoiding absurdity

One such strategy is to be as true to the literal meaning as is possible but to ensure, so far as the words allow, an interpretation which avoids absurdity. In the case of the rule I have just set out, this would mean an interpretation which ensured that only those customers who had caused breakages were obliged to pay for them.

This approach works well in most cases, but not always. Take, for example, another rule posted up in a shop selling china and glass:

Read literally, this rule suggests:

  • (a) that a person must take care when putting on or taking off their spectacles (another meaning of ‘glasses’) in the shop because there is the possibility that the spectacles have smashed in their case, or in the person's pocket; or

  • (b) that a person must handle (drinking) glasses on display with care if they are already broken; or

  • (c) that a person must handle the unbroken (drinking) glasses on display with care because otherwise they may end up being broken.

Here, it is not possible simply to avoid an absurd result by excluding interpretation (a) because this would still leave both (b) and (c) as possible interpretations. It is conceivable that the rule-maker intended both (b) and (c) when formulating the rule, but the rule-applier cannot be sure. For example, would the rule-applier be able to say that a person who carelessly picked up and dropped a cracked glass had broken the rule? If interpretation (b) is adopted, then the answer is yes; but if interpretation (c) is adopted, then the answer is no.

In this case, using the literal rule would result in absurdity, but interpreting the rule simply to avoid the absurdity merely leads to other problems.


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