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The moral imperatives behind regulatory compliance: Why we follow the rules (and sometimes break them…)

Whilst organizations must follow regulatory compliance at all levels, it appears that as individuals, our attitude to rules depends largely on the situation we find ourselves in. How often have you broken a rule to have a little fun, go a little faster or present yourself in a certain light? And what about the unofficial rule systems which exist within relationships; how often do these get bent out of shape? Games have rules, and this is surely what makes them worth playing.

But have you ever wondered how much of the perceived virtue within society is borne out of fear – or put more simply - following the crowd?

Posted 28 June 2024

Why Businesses Can't Ignore Compliance

Organizations are, of course, duty bound to follow the rules - and regulatory compliance is a must for any business that wants to be taken seriously. Amongst other things, compliance enhances efficiency and means that employees are protected and treated fairly, whilst ensuring consistency and quality throughout the whole organization. But it’s not just duty which makes organizations follow the rules; adhering to regulations also implies integrity, trust and long-term sustainability – all things which follow a moral imperative – and which we hope are a prerequisite for a ‘good’ organization. And within daily life it also seems that we want to follow the rules within societal norms because it is these very constructs which keep us safe and protected – plus, it’s the right thing to do… isn’t it?

Are We Wired for Conformity?

It could be said that humans are like ‘herd’ animals in the sense that we fare better within families or groups because our survival and ‘flourishing’ is largely interdependent. In that sense it is often easier to look to our peers for a kind of barometer on how to respond to any situation we are unsure of - we see this particularly clearly in teenagers. Teens are well known to crave the dopamine hit of new experience and more than any other age group, will override many sensible options (rules) to fit in and maintain the connection with their social group. Whilst it can be frustrating to watch a young person make less than perfect choices, their desire to be accepted by their peers is a developmental necessity which enables them to make better decisions in the future – and may even mitigate the ‘teenager action replay’, (aka midlife crisis), later in life!

The Early Roots of Rule-Following

Like many things, the instinct to conform starts early on and is strongly linked with learned behaviour; ‘social referencing’ is often seen in young children who will watch their care-giver’s reaction to a situation before reacting themselves. These ‘normative cues’ naturally develop within all of us over a lifetime and become very difficult to break; we really do depend on social acceptance to thrive.

The Struggle of Going Against the Grain

It can be very challenging to be the only person who is following the rules when everyone else is breaking them – or when there is a moral imperative to do so - even if the reasons behind said situation are complex. Take for example the dangerous regimes all over the world that have created desperate times for so many. In order to survive or protect others, it is well documented that people throughout history have been forced to follow the rules and make impossible choices, even when it went against their moral code - and whilst it is easy to say that you would stand up (from your comfortable armchair) in the face of injustice, what would you actually do or not do to save yourself or a loved one? Recent research suggests that social disapproval provokes the brain’s danger circuits, whereas conformity soothes it, so as with many things, we opt for safety.

When Following Orders Leads to Catastrophe

Philosopher Hannah Arendt famously argued that the atrocities of the Holocaust were enabled by ordinary people who had been put under an impossible pressure to conform – something which is echoed within countless traumatic situations in all walks of life. Aristotle famously said that ethics were practical, rather than theoretical and it is through this lens that virtue ethics was later developed into a branch of moral philosophy - emphasising the role of character and virtue in moral decision-making, rather than the adherence to a set of rules or the consequences of actions.

Virtue ethics are about how we live, and places importance on the development of ‘good’ character traits such as honesty, courage, compassion and wisdom. According to Aristotelian thinking, a person with integrity exhibits traits such as honesty, courage, and fidelity and virtues are habits that enable individuals to achieve the highest good. Integrity, as a virtue, is about maintaining one's moral character and acting in accordance with reason and moral principle – surely this is something we would all want to adhere to?

Rethinking Rules and Ethics

Philippa Foot (1920-2010) was a distinguished British philosopher renowned for her work in ethics and moral philosophy and is credited with ‘revitalising’ Aristotle’s virtue ethics and emphasising the importance of moral character within ethical behaviour. Foot studied at Somerville College, Oxford where she later became a fellow, and was well respected in her field, not least because she was often able to revisit and revise her own theories. She absolutely recognised that following the rules was a complex interplay of context-specific action and practical wisdom – not just the adherence to a strict set of pre-determined guidelines. Her famous ‘Trolley’ thought experiment is one such example which highlighted the various problems associated with ethical decision making. In it, one must decide whether to divert a dangerous and runaway railway carriage from a track with five people on it onto a track with only one person on it – thus killing only one and not five. The Trolley thought experiment has been repeated in various guises ever since its inception and highlights the dilemma of decision making versus philosophical and/or moral principles.

Compliance Under Pressure: What Would You Do?

It seems that whilst we want to follow the rules within society, and by and large do so, it doesn’t take much for individuals’ compliance to break down when put under external pressure. There have been several psychological experiments which show the various ways in which challenging circumstances can adversely affect the ‘right’ decision. Factors such as authority, social pressure, situational context, and environmental cues can all influence an individual's propensity to follow or break rules. The Good Samaritan Experiment of 1973, conducted by John Darley and C. Daniel Batson was one such study which tested the influence of time pressure on whether people would stop and help another person. Students were asked to go to another building within the college to give a talk, with some being told they were running late and others given plenty of time. On the way, they each encountered a person in distress – with those in a hurry being significantly less likely to stop and help than those who had been told they had plenty of time. It is interesting to note that even this simple situation of being late – which wouldn’t necessarily cause harm – impacted the decision making and moral behaviour of the people involved.

The Influence of Online Environments

Situation and context definitely impact the arena of rules, and in recent years the rise of social media has seen an apparent upsurge of behaviours which would certainly break societal norms if they were displayed in a real-world context. In 2014, research by John Suler explored how anonymity and lack of immediate social cues in online environments, led to rule breaking and ‘bad’ behaviour such as cyberbullying, trolling and sharing of confidential information. It is well known now, over a decade later, that the online world can sometimes create an echo chamber, where individuals are only given information which reinforce their existing beliefs, creating divergent pathways which are ethically questionable and yet still adhering to our desire for conformity. The worry then might be that spreading such misinformation or hate speech might actually shift pre-existing societal norms into endorsing such behaviours.

Breaking Rules to Spark Innovation

However, not all rule breaking is necessarily going to lead us into a moral maze! The world of creativity has often challenged or broken rules – leading to results which make us think and enable us to reach wholly positive outcomes. Sometimes strict adherence to rules can stifle creativity and innovation, and bypassing rules can lead to meaningful breakthroughs, in turn, enriching culture in ways which might not have been previously thought possible.

Let us finish by considering the words of Pablo Picasso, who famously said:

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist…

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