Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham
Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham

The consequences of loyalty

When rules and consequences clash, we had better weigh up carefully what matters most

When a pandemic is wreaking havoc, and many hundreds of people are killed by a virus every day, it is important that the population as a whole takes sufficient precautions to slow down its exponential spread. Self-interest may not be sufficient to ensure the right behaviours are widely adopted. So, governments tend to impose rules that transcend people’s conventional decision-making approach in which they weigh up the costs and the benefits of a decision.

In essence, a rule removes the burden of having to work out the trade-off: Just Do (or Do Not Do) This (or That) Thing. Laws, religious prescriptions, and social conventions are full of them: we drive on the correct side of the road, do not covet our neighbour’s ass, and, unless we are a life guard, we don’t go to work in a swimsuit. And during a pandemic, when the government says “Stay at home” that is what we do.

However, such rules may come into conflict with other concerns at some point. When I wrote about this a few weeks ago, I discussed the potential for behavioural fatigue and alluded to the fate of the Scottish Chief Medical Officer who had had to resign for breaking the terms of the lockdown. I had no idea that in the weeks to come epidemiologist Neil Ferguson would be resigning as a member of SAGE, the group of senior scientists advising the UK government on COVID-19-related policy, also for breaking the lockdown rules. But I had even less expected that prime minister Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, would become embroiled in a similar controversy.

This latest affair offers a kaleidoscopic perspective on decision-making, at three levels, each of which merit our attention.

A worried father

Nevertheless, it is an understandable option to consider. As a fearful parent, we feel the most secure when we are close to our family. Moreover, Mr Cummings’ own account of the episode suggests his actions posed negligible risk to others — not least since, despite both his son and he falling ill while away, none of the family did actually tested positive for COVID-19 throughout.

Sign for Barnard Castle, with the text repeated in ever smaller type, as at an optician’s
Sign for Barnard Castle, with the text repeated in ever smaller type, as at an optician’s
A short trip to test one’s eyesight (image: Twitter)

But this is precisely why simple, unconditional rules, respected by all, are important. This rule was intended to manage the externality that Mr Cummings (and everyone else) — whether with symptoms or not, since also asymptomatic carriers can spread the virus — was imposing on others, by increasing the risk to them.

So, some take a dim view of this escapade. The case for having acted as a worried father seeking to do the best by his family is not really helped by a somewhat surreal twist to this tale. A few days before returning to London, he made a trip to Barnard Castle, a popular tourist attraction about 30 miles away, supposedly to verify his eyesight was good enough for the long drive home, and with wife and son in the car. (Meanwhile the Durham police have declared it “might have been a minor breach” of lockdown rules.)

The citizens are revolting

Hypocrisy is hardly an unusual allegation to be levelled at politicians, so it should not be unexpected for chief advisers either. But while perceiving someone as a hypocrite is often enough to call for their resignation or for them to be sacked, being a hypocrite is not, in itself, unethical, and rarely grounds for actually having to resign, any more than being bald or wearing a terrible T-shirt.

In this case, however, the consequence of the controversy goes beyond the potential loss of reputation for the ruling party, or a shift of voting intentions towards the opposition. The government relies on the broad willingness of the citizens to respect the rules imposed for handling the pandemic. Such behaviour depends on social proof, visible evidence that others are following social norms and adopting that desired behaviour too.

The widespread perception that the prime minister’s chief adviser broke lockdown rules (this is violating the descriptive norm, “what people do”), and that it is actually OK to break the rules (this is violating the injunctive norm, “what people ought to do “) flips that social proof around. When we see evidence that others — especially figures in authority — are disregarding the rules, and leaders are condoning such transgressions, we will be inclined to do likewise, especially if the behaviour the rules aim to achieve is costly or inconvenient.

Uncompromising loyalty


It is hard to disagree both with both the advice, and with the conclusion that it has not been followed particularly diligently. The fact that, a week on, the controversy shows little sign of dying down, despite appeals by Boris Johnson to “ move on “, indicates the government might have been wiser to do so. Mr Johnson’s defending his chief adviser is understandable: he relies heavily on his top aide, and would be loth to lose him. But he appears to have manoeuvred himself in the tricky position of now having to choose between his right-hand man, and the trust and support of a considerable proportion of the people.

The word RULE in blue graffiti lettering on a wall
The word RULE in blue graffiti lettering on a wall
The rules of loyalty, writ large (photo: Steve Rotman/Flickr CC BY)

It is the uncompromising loyalty of his ministerial team that is the most remarkable, however. One junior minister resigned over the matter, but most members of the cabinet have expressed their backing for the PM and his chief adviser, in uncannily similar tweets, almost as if they received instructions to do so.

These cabinet members appear not to be Benthamite consequentialists, aiming to achieve the best possible outcome, but Kantian deontologists, who doggedly stick to the rules of loyalty to the party and to each other. Being guided by such a principle may well help avoid making difficult trade-offs, but when a conflict arises with another rule, or when the consequences of the principle begin to, well, be consequential, then obstinacy can be poor counsel.

On 28th May the UK officially started its test-and-trace programme, which — in the words of the government — relies on “people doing their civic duty”, and obeying the instructions to quarantine for two weeks when that is demanded. A government that is perceived as condoning the breaching of its own rules by a senior adviser, and to be valuing tribal loyalty more highly than maintaining solidarity with its subjects may find this civic duty not to be as forthcoming as it would wish.

Even deontologists would be well advised to have an eye for the consequences of the rules they uphold.

Originally published at on May 29, 2020.

Thanks for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every Friday) here. Thank you!

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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