Rudyard Kipling on Societal Pressures

In the short story “A Wayside Comedy,” published in 1888 in Under the Deodars, Kipling wrote:

You must remember, though you will not understand, that all laws weaken in a small and hidden community where there is no public opinion. When a man is absolutely alone in a Station he runs a certain risk of falling into evil ways. This risk is multiplied by every addition to the population up to twelve—the Jury number. After that, fear and consequent restraint begin, and human action becomes less grotesquely jerky.

Interesting commentary on how reputational pressure scales. If I had found this quote last year, I would have included it in my book.

Posted on August 16, 2012 at 1:52 PM12 Comments


Daniel August 16, 2012 2:04 PM

Define a “certain risk”.

What psychology teaches is not that groups are any better or any worse than individuals when it it comes to risk assessment in the aggregate. But the type of risks they are susceptible too are different.

One of the nice things about being a loner is that you’re not susceptible to systemic risk because your not part of any social system.

Sean Stapleton August 16, 2012 3:45 PM

Risk is a noun here, making certain an adjective: “Known for sure; established beyond doubt.”, rather than a pronoun (“Some but not all”).

Mark Roberts August 16, 2012 5:04 PM

Interesting to hear that from Kipling in 1888. Joseph Conrad expanded on the idea quite dramatically (in both senses of the word) about 10 years later with Heart of Darkness.

NobodySpecial August 16, 2012 5:05 PM

And of course it depends on your definition of “evil” – you can get into a lot more evil ways with 12 of you than you can on your own!

Will August 17, 2012 12:36 AM

It sounds wrong to use the word “evil” in any way except conduct towards other people. That’s not in the dictionary definition, but it seems really usual to use the word even in a context of animal abuse or something.

I mean, if you’re alone, can you be evil? Who would you be evil to?

Prof Andrew A. Adams August 17, 2012 1:14 AM

An interesting observation, though it could do with some support from empirical psychology studies.
I wonder how this fits together, though, with the concept of the “Monkey Tribe” number, the idea that the largest number of people we can reasonably care about in any meaningful way is 30-50: One death is a tragedy, a {thousand|hundred thousand|million} is a statistic.

TimP August 17, 2012 4:21 AM

Discordian Law of Fives states that 5 is the magic number for group behaviour to start becoming honest:
the number of possible conspiracies becomes too large to track.

vasiliy pupkin August 17, 2012 7:19 AM

From prospective of evaluation / punishment of ‘evil-doer’ evil should include mens rea (bad intention) + actus reus (bad action), but from prospective of ‘evil-getter’ mens rea is not so important as actus reus, e.g. evil considered as anything negatively affected you in any aspect: actions of other people, animals, mother nature and you own actions as well (when you alone). Time and again, where is criteria? I guess animals and nature, kids and mentally ill could not have mens rea at all, so could not be considered as evil, but as pure danger/risk to handle.

Craig August 17, 2012 8:43 AM

Twelve looks like a symbolic number to me, chosen because of the size of a jury. Kipling’s point seems to be that societal pressure reinforces conscience, or supplements where conscience is absent. Which is, I assume, why Bruce would have included it — although my copy hasn’t arrived yet, so I argue ex nihilo on that point.

paul August 17, 2012 9:30 AM

Kipling’s number is a little bit complicated because what he’s talking about is the number of (more or less) social peers rather than the number of actual people. So if there are three European White Men at the station and five or six dozen locals, that’s still only three for Kipling’s shorthand purposes. Which helps to explain how even one can get into a lot of evil.

martino August 17, 2012 1:08 PM

I must admit I feel a bit out of place commenting on this partly because I’m not at all a theory/psychology guy in many ways…But…I’m trying to learn (just picked up Bruce’s latest book thanks to his special offer!).

The title…It’s a comedy?

Maybe I’m missing the entire point but I have no clue who this Kipling fellow is (I could research it, but what fun would you have then?).

Of interest to me is that it’s published date was 1888. How much of what was true of culture and pressures then remains true and accurate today? What was considered evil then, or moreover what wasn’t considered evil then is considered evil now? I’m sure most people would agree in the least sense that slavery is evil, but back then? Twas (yes, I just said twas!) borderline then, yes?

As well, what about all the other colloquialisms about that time used in the noted text and throughout the rest of the referenced article that are hidden (to us in our present day and age) in his message that we fail to fully understand in context? I’m not saying there are any, but has it been considered? Just my two cents on something I know nothing about but that’s where I’d start digging if I intended to learn more (which I don’t, but interesting nonetheless).

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