Herbert Simon on the Distinction Between What is Legal and What We Will Tolerate

You’d break the law. In fact most of us would. How can I say this with near certainty? Because if you were put in a position where the ends justified the means, the means would become acceptable.

The person who steals bread so his starving child can eat is an easy one to sympathize with. While illegal, most of us understand and even tolerate this petty behaviour.

However, would we tolerate bigger transgressions? For the answer to this question we turn to Nobel Prize winning social scientist Herbert Simon. Simon’s contributions to our growing repository of wisdom include why the principles of good management are not often followed, the role of intuition in experts, and why organizational planning is doomed to failure.

In his autobiography Models of My Life, Simon touches on the difference between what a society will tolerate and its laws.

A revolution aims at bringing about fundamental changes in institutions by employing illegal tactics. What is legal and what a society will tolerate are distinct. When there is sympathy for ends, illegal means may become acceptable and the laws against them unenforceable.

Fundamentally we seem to believe that if the means warrant the ends, they will be accepted. Killing to overthrow a dictator, which is obviously against the law, becomes acceptable at a certain point if the dictator is too horrible. The question of when it becomes acceptable, however, while easily distinguishable for the edge cases, becomes grey in the middle.

Simon continues:

If a revolution aims at overthrowing an entire legal system, the role of the illegal action is to arouse an already sympathetic population; to goad the defenders of the legal system to severity that will arouse additional sympathy; to demonstrate strength, hence to reduce fear fo the authorities and to increase fear of the revolutionaries; and finally to seize weapons and strong points. When people no longer believe that the existing laws can be enforced, the first half of the revolution has been won. There remains the task of securing for it the “right” party. This has been the common point of failure for the moderates.

There are also situations where the laws are better than what the government will enforce. Something to think about.