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In the following sentence:

Johnson never scrupled to ignore the standards of decent conduct mandated by company policy if literal compliance with instructions from his superiors enabled him to do so, whatever the effects on his subordinates.

What role is the word literal playing here?

From the sentence, what I understand is that, whenever Johnson had some instances which were completely in compliance with superior's instruction, he ignored the standards. So, the word literal is playing the role of complete or absolute in the above sentence.

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To take things literally is to understand words as only what was actually written/said rather than what the author/speaker intended it to mean. In the case of laws or policies, we sometimes contrast “the letter of the law” (literal) and “the spirit of the law” (intent), which are often quite different and can be exploited by creative people.

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