20 May 2015

Power of Rules

The Lucifer Effect by Zimbardo, 2007, Excerpts

Rules are formal, simplified ways of controlling informal complex behavior. They work by externalizing regulations, by establishing what is necessary, acceptable, and rewarded and what is unacceptable and therefore punished. Over time, rules come to have an arbitrary life of their own and the force of legal authority even when they are no longer relevant, are vague, or change with the whims of the enforcers.

Absolute ethics are embodied in communal codes of conduct. These codes are often based upon adherence to a set of explicit principles, as in the Ten Commandments or the Bill of Rights. Such absolute ethics allow no degree of freedom that might justify means to an end or circumstances that might qualify instances where the principle is suspended or applied in an altered, watered-down form. In the extreme, no extenuating circumstances can justify an abrogation of the ethical standard.

Some rules are essential for the effective coordination of social behavior, such as audiences listening to performers speak, drivers stopping at red traffic lights, and people not cutting into queues. However, many rules are merely screens for dominance by those who make them or those charged with enforcing them. Naturally, the last rule always includes punishment for violation of the other rules, and there must be someone or some agency willing and able to administer such punishment, ideally doing so in a public arena that can serve to deter other potential rule breakers.

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