by Michael C. Kelly, MA


What is right and what is wrong? This is a pretty big moral question, impossible to answer completely in one short essay or even in a lifetime. But let’s engage in a bit of imagining. 

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a clear and unambiguous line that could be drawn as an objective standard to determine what is right and what is wrong in any situation? Wouldn’t it be perfect if it could be consistently applied in every situation? Well, there is - sort of! We could use bright-lines. To see how, let’s start with a definition, follow up with how bright-line criteria develop, and then see how they can be applied.


The term “bright-line” or “bright-line rule,” usually used in the legal profession, is said to be “composed of objective factors, which leaves little or no room for varying interpretation." When applying a bright-line, so the definition goes, there can be little doubt about the boundaries of an issue - there is a moral and often legal right and wrong clearly established. Let’s say, for example, Kasey is driving a car on a highway. Let’s also say Kasey is fifteen years old and gets pulled over by a police officer. In this situation Kasey would be charged with driving under age (in Ontario at least). Later, in court, there would be no doubt Kasey was in the wrong or that a law was broken since Kasey’s age could be verified by an authentic birth certificate or some other form of legal identification. The law says driving under the age of sixteen is illegal - end of story! We have a clear and unambiguous bright-line between Kasey’s age and the statutes of a highway traffic act.

This is where the words “sort of” come into play. In the above example the bright-line is easily established between two objective facts - the actual, verifiable age of Kasey and the law as stated in the statutes. What if we aren’t dealing with age or statutory facts? What if we are dealing with positions? “While it is desirable to have as clear and objective criteria as possible, it is impossible to remove all subjective aspects when the purpose of the criteria is to assess positions, which all inherently require some level of trustworthiness and good conduct, on a case-by-case basis in relation to a standard. In these circumstances, the application of ‘brightline’ criteria becomes difficult and potentially arbitrary."

While bright-lines may not be exact, they contain two distinguishing features. First, they produce predictable and consistent results - as in our story concerning Kasey. Second, they are in demand by all of us.

While bright-lines are predictable, clear and unambiguous, fine lines aren't. The term "fine line" suggests ambiguity, hair splitting, etc. For example, we might say "there's a fine line between what is considered casual  and formal wear in Toronto's business district."

Testing the waters (developing)

We are all made aware of bright-lines when we test the limits of what is and what isn’t acceptable in our family, workplace, community or other social settings. We also begin to develop a sense of their significance from a young age. Take for example this unfortunate story related to me by a police educator a few years back. He described how it was easy to distinguish elementary and secondary school kids in his presentations by the nature of the questions they asked. “Presentations,” he said, “are usually predicated at elementary schools with questions asked by wide eyed, inquisitive and admiring children about the policing profession itself. ‘What do I need to do,’ they excitedly ask, ‘to become a police officer like you?’”

Secondary school presentations are another matter. Here they typically end with bright-line questions asked by curious and sometimes boastful adolescents. “So,” they challenge, according to the officer, “just exactly how much pot do I have to have on me before you’d bust me?” An unfortunate question indeed, but one clearly showing how we test our limits to establish bright-lines between acceptable behaviours and those conflicting with the law.

Our limits (application)

When I worked as a money-market trader I was frequently offered tickets to major league sporting events. I was uncomfortable at first since the intent seemed clear to me. I, a trader, receive tickets from you, a broker, in exchange for my organization’s business. Was this a bribe or a simple, harmless, cost-of-doing-business gratuity? Was there a limit to its size and value? How could I know the limits?

This is where policies and bright-lines come into play. For example, I discovered my organization had a policy where consumable gifts under $30 could be given and received. My gratuities, as it turned out, were deemed to be appropriate gifts. Notice the bright-line drawn at consumable and at $30. I had to consume the tickets by attending the games; I could not sell the tickets. Also, the tickets always cost less than $30. 

There were other bright-lines drawn in the policy. The gift could not be alcohol. It could not be cash in any form. It could never be salacious. In these cases I always had a limit that could easily be compared with the organization’s policy.

The policy was less clear on permissions. It recommended the gift giver or receiver get permission from their supervisor first. Notice, it was recommended, not insisted. The bright-line around the reporting positions - in my organization’s case - was based on a subjective understanding of what it meant to keep a supervisor in the loop and an inherent trustworthiness between the parties involved.


The example above relates to the business world, but bright-lines can be established in many settings - including workplace, family, community and other social forums. A mine supervisor, for example, may establish a bright-line to cordon off a certain physical area for his or her work group - allowing them to account for everyone in the event of an emergency. The bright-line could include a special notification, directly with the supervisor, to allow for ventures outside the cordoned area. A parent, to give another example, may designate a certain area as a playground for their child. From a position perspective the bright-line may establish parents and playground supervisors as the only adults the child can talk to. Anything above this bright-line - working or playing outside the boundaries or talking to people other than parents or supervisors - would be wrong in the sense that it could put people at risk.

There is a certain convenience in knowing the bright-lines in our organizations and communities. They help guide us through those moral moments when we need to simply know the difference between what is accepted as being right and wrong. Where ever we come to work, volunteer, or live, we ought to know the bright-lines.



  1. See Wikipedia.
  2. See Vancouver (City) v. Vancouver Firefighters' Union, Local 18, 2010 CanLII 81705 (BC L.A.), Paragraph 2.3.1(b), p. 118.
  3. This was sometimes quite irritating, as when I attended a hockey game with a broker who insisted on talking throughout the game about his organization’s position on bond rates - rather than watch the great Wayne Gretzky in action. I’m not really a hockey fan but I did want to see what all the fuss was about relative to “The Great One."
© 2011  Michael C Kelly