A Personal View



Sociology and Criminology

Rules Theory

By Bruce Barbour
(This version - October 1999.
Based on earlier versions from March 1999.)
Please see disclaimer.

For a society to work cohesively the majority of its members need to accept the underlying rules of society. These include the rules encoded in the law and may also include some of the other rules of social interaction that are used in the society.

The question of why society works now becomes why do its members, individually, obey the rules of society, or alternatively, why they decide to break the rules.

The answer to this question can be broken into a number of differing reasons which will vary with the individual. The various categories of reasons are summarised below.

1. Personal Philosophy and Beliefs. A Personal Philosophy is a cohesive set of beliefs, ideas or understandings. A Personal Philosophy may be conventional religious philosophy e.g. Christianity or Buddhism, or a humanist ethical philosophy or other set of beliefs. A Personal Philosophy or belief can be a factor that reinforce the rule or factor that may encourage rule breaking.

This category also includes:

  • The person’s Conscience, which is the person’s beliefs about what actions are “Good” and what are “Bad”. The person gains these beliefs by the processes of socialisation while young. Depending on upbringing the beliefs gained in this period may not necessarily be the generally socially accepted views (but are usually). The beliefs are also subsequently reinforced or weakened by experience and the adoption of personal philosophies later in life.

  • Social and Cultural Beliefs that the person may hold. These are beliefs held by the individual about what is valuable in the society or how a society works. For example, a person may believe in the value of the family or the rule of law, a teenager may believe in the value of a peer group.

A person can hold a number of Personal Philosophies and beliefs simultaneously. For example, there are many Capitalists that claim to be also Christian.

2. Social Contract (or Self Interest in Maintaining Society or Specific Rule). The thought process of the individual may be “Society has been good to me. I have been provided with food, shelter, social interaction and protection from others therefore I have an interest in helping to preserve the structure of society :- I will obey its rules, I will surrender some of my liberties”. In this instance the person may feel that they have an interest in maintaining society. However for some people this is not the thought process that they adopt, quite often for good reason. For them the Social Contract has been broken, society has not been good to them, and they may feel no need to follow society’s rules, or indeed they may feel a need to break them. The Social contract for them is a negative factor, and they may feel anger towards society.

Fortunately Society is good to the majority of its citizens (at least in Australia). It is however better for some than for others.

3. Fear. This is the most obvious reason for not breaking a rule. This is the fear (and the perceived probability) of getting caught breaking the rule, usually by law enforcement agencies and also the fear of the severity of the punishment to be imposed. Also includes fear of detection and punishment (by rejection, or by lowering of status etc.) by peer groups, by other groups significant to the person (eg family or community) or by society in general.

4. Personal Gain (Loss) From Rule Breaking. This is the gain that would be realised by the individual by breaking a rule. This gain can be either a material gain from the use of an item that has been obtained through illegal means or a psychological, non material gain such as increased peer group status.

The personal gain achieved is a factor encouraging rule breaking. However it is also possible in an act of rule breaking driven by a personal philosophy that a person could suffer a personal material loss (which could be a factor that reinforces the rule.) This type of rule breaking includes altruistic rule breaking. As an example someone may choose to spend hundreds of dollars to travel interstate in order to illegally stand in front of a bulldozer that is threatening native forest.

There is another reason why people don't break the rules.

5. Habitual Conformity. This can be the result of upbringing and the continuing effects of other social processes. If people are not unhappy they will tend to stick with the status quo, not through a continual process of conscious choices but because there is no reason to change. A person's conformity with rules becomes habituated, and their reasons for obeying a rule is not analysed each time a usual opportunity to break a rule is encountered.

For example, every time a person walks into a shop they do not do an analysis of their reasons for not committing shop theft. If they have not committed shop theft in the past and this has proven satisfactory then it would probably not even enter their minds to commit shop theft on this occasion.

However situations will arise where the individual is forced out of this complacency. This will arise when something different occurs in their environment or in their mental condition. There could be a change in their economic, social or physical circumstances, or the opportunity for individual gain from rule breaking could be greater than normally experienced or they may have changed an aspect of their personal philosophy or their perceptions of the likely hood of getting caught and the severity of punishment may have changed. In these circumstances they may have cause to evaluate their reasons for continuing to obey particular rules.

While habitual conformity is an important consideration in the short term, in the medium to longer term the rules that exist in society must be underpinned by a set of substantive reasons for continued conformity. Habitual Conformity in itself is not a substantive reason. The substantive reasons can be categorised as above (Categories 1 to 4). If the rules are not underpinned by substantive reasons then over time more and more people, when they have the opportunity to question their reasons for continuing to obey the rules, will come up with negative answers and the proportion of people breaking rules will increase. Another situation which may force a negative evaluation would be if the reasons themselves are questioned and shown not to be as substantial as originally thought .

A person may also have the opportunity to question their reasons for continued obeying of rules if they were asked, directly and in depth, their reasons for continued conformance.

While habitual conformity with rules is important it is not sufficient. It is the underlying substantive reasons for obeying rules, that determine the stability of the proportion of a population that obey the rules and are therefore more important than habitual conformity. (Note 1)

The rest of this article looks primarily at the underlying reasons for continued acceptance (or otherwise) of the rules.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

For every rule of society different individuals (when they are in a situation which makes them question their reasons for obeying a rule) will have a different reason or set of reasons for obeying that rule.

As a preliminary example, let us consider the usually universal societal rule (which is codified in the law) against murder. Different people will come up with different reasons for obeying this fundamental rule of society. They may either think (using category 1 above) “I shall not kill because the Bible says “thou shall not kill” and to do so risks eternal damnation” or “I shall not kill because I believe that all humans have intrinsic worth”. Or (category 2) “If I kill, someone else may kill me” or “Society has been good to me, and I have a stake in maintaining society therefore I will obey the rule and not kill”, or (category 3) “I fear getting caught and punished for killing by the law enforcement” or “I will lose all my friends if I kill”. Alternately (category 5) “I haven’t killed in the past, so I won’t now”. People of course may adhere to a number of the above reasons for obeying the rule, or indeed, an entirely different set of reasons for obeying the rule.

For the stability of a society it is not important why the majority of people obey the rules but that they do obey the rules. (It is of course necessary to know the reason why people obey or don’t obey the rules if you want study society and also to look at methods of lessening crime.)

Other factors also need to be taken into account:

  • The strength of the belief in the personal philosophy, or of the fear of getting caught, or the individuals feelings of acceptance or rejection by society, or the value that is perceived to be achieved from breaking the rule will vary for different people;

  • One person’s personal philosophy and beliefs may be less well developed or considered than another (e.g.. the young) and will therefore impact less on their rule breaking / reinforcing decisions; and

  • Personal philosophy may impact more on some crimes than on others. E.g. Very few personal philosophies would have anything to say directly about the crime of speeding or graffiti, however they may impact indirectly (in say the area of their belief in personal freedom or loyalty to a group). Most personal philosophies however would have more to say about murder.

The strength of a person's belief in each of the person's Categories of Reason's varies from a belief which is fervently held to a belief that not very strong or important to that person. For the purposes of theoretical analysis I propose that a belief which is fervently be attributed a high numerical "Score", either positive or negative depending on whether the belief reinforces the rule or encourages rule breaking. Close to zero the belief is not very strong or important to the person. I propose a "Score" range of -10 to + 10 for each of the four Categories of Reasons. Scores in the range -10 to 0 indicate that for the particular Category of Reasons that in the person's consideration this Category would be a factor which would encourage them to break the rule. If the Score is closer to -10 it indicates that the strength of the belief is high, closer to 0 and the strength is low. Scores in the range 0 to +10 indicate that for the particular Category of Reasons that in the person's consideration this Category would be a factor which would reinforce the rule. If the Score is closer to +10 it indicates that the strength of the belief is high, closer to 0 and the strength is low. (Note 2.)

Pictorially the above Categories of Reasons (except Habitual Conformity) could be shown on the figure below.

When confronted with a novel opportunity to rule break a person may mentally examine his or her personal reasons for obeying the rule, weighing the relative importance of these reasons, taking account all of the Categories of Reasons, in effect doing a mentally sum. Obviously the person does not allocate a numeric figure to their mental processes. The "Score" that I propose is a useful tool for our understanding and analysis.

The above theory gives rise to the possibility of being able to do an analysis to measure whether it is likely that a person will obey a particular rule. The practicalities of being able to do an actual analysis of the rule breaking and rule reinforcing factors for an individual may be difficult as there are a large number of variables. However let us ignore these difficulties for the moment and look at a hypothetical example of the crime committed by TM in the blowing up of a Government building. In terms of personal philosophy TM was a radical libertarian and considered the Government evil and acting against the citizens, he strongly believed it should be brought down. He may have had other philosophies on the value of human life but these would be overridden by his primary philosophy. In this case this could score -9. Social Contract - TM is probably a bit of a misfit, society is not providing him with what he wants. He would score say -5. Fear of getting caught. TM is probably aware that he is likely to get caught and the punishment for what he was going to do is severe. He would score say +8. Personal Gain from the bombing. No material gain, may gain due to support from peers with similar philosophies. Score say -2.

Discounting at the moment the differing weighting of the various factor, adding the scores together we get a total score of -8 (therefore below zero) meaning that it has become logical to TM to blow up the building. A different person with a different personal philosophy and idea on the worth of society to that person would score highly positive and therefore it is illogical to them to blow up the building.

Even if it proves to be impossible to actually do an analysis and quantify the above factors, the theory provides a conceptual framework for considering factors which may contribute to rule breaking and social stability. The rest of this paper will expand on the conceptual view and its implications.

A similar analysis to the above could be conceived of for other lesser crimes such as theft or assault. Each person would have differing reasons for not committing the theft or the assault and also differing strengths of belief. They would consequently have a different "Score". Some would find that on the balance they would commit the crime, the majority however would come to the conclusion that it was not in their best interest to commit the crime (at least in a stable society). If we accept this logic then by sampling over a reasonable size sample population it is likely that a distribution of scores would occur (most likely a Normal Distribution) as shown in Figure 2 below.


Below a score of “0” are the people who are either classed as criminal for that particular rule, or the people who are likely to commit the particular crime or to break a social rule which may not be classed as crime. The shape of the curve and the location of the mean will vary for each separate rule. For the “lesser crimes” such as say speeding the mean would be closer to “0” meaning that a larger proportion of the population would be prepared to break the rule compared with more “serious crimes”.

Analysis for a Weighted Average of Rules

The analysis above is shown for a single rule or law. It may also be possible to do the analysis (or conceive of the analysis) for a number of societal rules, from which a weighted average curve could be derived and plotted. (Crimes such as murder would be given a much higher weighting than compared with say shoplifting.) This would generate a similar shape to the curve shown above. If such a task was possible the location of the mean and the positive area under the curve would give a measure of Societal Goodwill and Social Capital (although for a real measure of Goodwill, and also Social Capital, the contribution of the fear factor would need to be removed.)

Some Implications:

Crime Reduction. There are four areas that can be adjusted to make it less likely that a person will consider committing crimes.

  • Change people’s Personal Philosophy and Beliefs. Educate the “criminal” to think about their current philosophy and beliefs in a more critical way. Show where their current belief is defective. Analyse the reasons behind the beliefs. Teach a more appropriate Personal Philosophy (Note 3).

  • Social Contract. Provide vocational and life skills training , educate to teach more about their society and its benefits to them (and their responsibilities to society), increase social security support and other support etc. to integrate into the society. Improve the value of society to the “criminal” (and to the normal populous).

  • Fear and probability of being caught. Increase policing, prison sentences and punishment (as per Classical theory) although such an increase for someone who experiences the punishment (rather than just reacting to the thought of it) may impact adversely on their ideas of the value of society to them, the social contract, unless the treatment and experience of prison is improved. (See more below).

  • Personal Gain from Breaking Law. Decrease (by various methods, e.g. comprehensive marking of household goods making it more difficult to dispose of the goods and less value achievable, or decriminalise or legalise the act that was previously criminal, effectively removing the value achievable).

Other Implications.

  • In society there are not just criminals and non criminals / law abiding citizens but a continuum of individuals from mass murderer to saint.

  • In this view of society crime is not (usually) the result of some sickness of the individual but the result of what is to the individual rational decision making based on the individual’s experience of society and beliefs. This is not to say that a mental illness (or a drug addiction) cannot impair the ability of an individual to make rational decisions or affect their personal philosophies, their views on the value of society to them and the value of the benefit that they receive from rule breaking.

  • While increasing fear of punishment may decrease crime it is not the preferred method. Increased fear in a society does not make for a happy populous. Totalitarian police states are quite often stable (at least in the short to medium term), however many citizens don’t want to live in them. Solely increasing the penalties for the various crimes as a panacea for society’s ills is simplistic at best and at worse could do more harm than good.

  • The crime reduction approaches outlined above can work on an individual or a society wide basis. It is better to work on these prior to any crime being committed. In particular the social contract can be worked upon for everyone by improving everyone’s experience of society or perception of the value of society to them.

Social Stability and Society Type.

In accordance with Figure 2 above (and experience), the majority of the citizens do not commit serious crime. Furthermore a large proportion of them have a “Score” which means that they are not close to committing a crime. They have a considerable amount of “goodwill” which would have to be eroded before they would consider committing a crime. For some the “fear of being caught and punished” factor may be able to be removed (say in the case of a police strike) and they would still not commit a crime.

If the proportion of people willing to break a rule increases sufficiently (due to changing social circumstances or society wide change in personal philosophies and beliefs, both of which occur normally and usually gradually over time) then change in the society may occur. This could be a change in the fear factor (stiffer penalties) to force less people to rule break or a change in the rule so that breaking it is no longer prohibited.

The amount that “Fear” inducement necessary so that the citizens do not commit crime is indicative of the type of society. The more fear that is used to maintain a low level of crime, the more the society could be classed as a police state. The various proportions of the other Rule Reinforcing / Breaking Factors shown in Figure 1 would also tell you a lot about the type of society.

Relationship with Other Criminology Theories.

One of the problems with other theories (such as Classical, Strain and Labelling) is that the theories are not a complete explanation of why crime occurs within society and may tend to concentrate on only a limited section of society e.g. the young or the people in the lower socioeconomic section of society.

The theory that I propose (Rules theory) does a better job of explaining all crime. However it doesn’t explain completely all of the social processes of crossing over from a law abiding citizen to become a criminal. For example, what forms a person’s personal philosophy and why do some people form philosophies which tend to reinforce rule breaking, why do people come to the opinion that the social contract for them has broken down and that society does not offer them what they expect. Some of the other theories endeavour to achieve an explanation for some of these social processes and therefore can complement Rules Theory. (Note 4.) This allows crime to be looked at on two levels - the individual’s rule breaking decisions (Rules Theory), and the social processes operating in the individual’s environment (which are dealt with in some other theories).

As an example, Strain Theory provides an explanation for the breakdown of the social contract for some people. What Strain theory doesn’t explain is what level of “Anomie” is necessary before a person feels forced into crime. Nor does it explain why two people in a similar situation (potentially identical “anomie”) behave differently. The Rules theory outlined in this article; may provide some insight into this. Rules Theory would say that while the social contract may have broken down for an individual, this is not the only factor considered by the individual in a decision to commit a crime. The individual also considers their personal philosophies, their understanding of the probability of being caught and the severity of the punishment, and the personal gain that could be achieved from committing the crime.


I believe that Rules Theory is a comprehensive method of looking at the workings of society and the reasons that crime occurs and suggests methods of lessening crime.

Read some further thought about this subject by clicking here.


(1). Habit can also be a factor which keeps people breaking rules. Once a person has decided to break a particular rule on a number of occasions and the rule is broken successfully then that rule breaking may becomes habitualised until something changes in the person's environment or affects their outlook and makes them re-analyse their rule breaking.

Also a Reason for continued conformity need only be apparently substantive to the person rather than actually substantive. So the absolute truth of belief or the validity of the reason held by the person in their decision to obey or break the rule is less important in Rules Theory than that the belief is thought by the person to be true or valid.

(2). The "Score" range I have chosen between -10 and +10 is arbitrary. It is possible that a particular factor could go greater than this range. It is likely that the distribution of "Scores" in a population in society would also be a normal distribution. Also the various factors may interact. For example, a person’s philosophy may impact on the personal gain that they attribute to getting a sum of money (by criminal means).

(3). The teaching of a personal philosophy is potentially controversial. What Personal philosophy should be taught and how appropriate is it for someone who may be employed by the State to teach a personal philosophy? Some level I believe is acceptable. For example a person could be taught the rights and obligations of citizens and the operations of the “Social Contract”. The State at present also has no qualms about teaching patriotism (although history has shown this to be potentially open to abuse).

Other Philosophies could be taught, but in Western Democracies perhaps not by the State. For example Christianity or Buddhism or a Humanist Philosophy. Let me explain this in more detail. I am not necessarily saying that the beliefs taught by Christianity (or Buddhism or Humanism) are correct or true, just that the beliefs can give rise to a set of reasons for obeying society’s rules. (Correctness is a matter for philosophical rather than sociological debate.) I am also not commenting on how appropriate religions are, or the possible inherent problems in religion for society.

(4). Classical theory is subset of Rules theory which only takes into account the Fear and Personal Gain factors and part of the Social Contract. Classical Theory ignores the effect of Personal Philosophy and deals differently with the Social Contract.

Contents Page.

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