Is what seems to be ethical only ethical when arrived at "during" versus "brought into?"
What do we talk about when we talk about “principles?”
If by “principles,” I mean “morals” like “don’t lie,” “don’t be afraid,” and the like, then the terms “principles” and “morals” are one and the same, and to avoid confusion, it’s likely best that the term “principle” is deconstructed.
Correct or incorrect, it is impossible to live without a sense of the good and the bad. Hence, everyone lives with morals, but does everyone live with principles, and are principles necessarily good? Morals don’t necessarily have to be: I may think it is ethical to murder millions to stop overpopulation, and arguably in the name of a good, I am incredibly evil. If the value of morals is debatable, certainly the same holds true for principles, but regardless isolating the meanings of the terms should be attempted.
Whatever they are, principles feel like morals, for they must feel as if they are good; otherwise, I wouldn’t ascribe to them. The phenomenology of principles and morals blur, giving us reason to think that when we discuss one, we discuss the other, but if the term “principles” has distinct meaning and shouldn’t be deconstructed, then perhaps we are making a mistake.
Preferences feel “good” as do morals, and so there seems to be a natural blurring of “preferences” and “ethics,” especially when those preferences aren’t obviously selfish and entail some degree of moral logic (furthermore, we naturally desire for our wants and preferences to be moral, for this justifies them and helps us not feel self-centered). Consequently, we can refer to our preferences as “virtues,” and furthermore blur “preferences” with “principles.” This is an easy mistake, since by definition we must “prefer” what we believe is good over what we believe is bad. This means all our virtues naturally become preferences, but it does not follow that all our preferences are necessarily good. They might be, but if principles increases the likelihood that we somehow err in this way, “principles” likely should be removed from our thinking.
Is the term “principle” a simile for the term “preference?” If so, the term should be deconstructed, but though it is the case we must necessarily prefer our “principles” as we must prefer our “goods,” it isn’t necessarily the case the principles are only preferences in moral disguise. More work must be done before we can accept that conclusion.
If by “principles” I mean “ways of thinking” and/or “guidelines,” then the term “principles” is seemingly indefinable from “mental models,” as discussed by someone like Charlie Munger, and considering the confusion to which “principle” is prone, the term should be discarded. “Thinking well” requires knowing how to think (relative to what), and when people lack different models by which to approach different phenomena, they are likely to draw incorrect conclusions. Ray Dalio titled his incredible book Principles after the problematic term, but it’s clear he uses the term like Munger does versus as an ethic. The term in business is meant more like “operating principles,” though if we still lived in an Aristotelean society there might indeed be a blurring of “ethical principles” and “operating principles,” since for Aristotle humans are “good” when they are acting according to their nature. (Perhaps Aristotelian and Thomist thought is a reason why “principles” are used like they are in business? Hard to say.)
It shouldn’t be denied that when everyday people talk about “principles,” they are indeed talking about “ways of thinking” and/or “ways of operating,” and ethics necessitate such modes. If x is a person’s principle, that means a person will think and act according to x (perhaps regardless the situation), which is to say x is the default “staring position.”
Are “principles” and “defaults” similes? If so, given the confusion and vagueness of the term, “principles” seems like it should be deconstructed. A default is a premise I start and work my way from, and seeing as I must always start from somewhere (considering Thomas Nagel), it is a necessarily assumption if operation of any kind is to prove possible, logical, methodical, and unchaotic. However, a default is a premise that I will move away from (to another premise) if the procedure, investigation, etc. makes it clear I should, but is that the case with a principle? If “principle” and “default” are distinct, it would seem a principle is a starting assumption I never abandon (for “the good” is never to be left behind), while a default is a starting assumption that may vary between situations. Hence, while both principles and defaults are enacted on grounds that assumptions (like axioms) are necessary for anything to start, a principle is far less flexible. In some respects, a “principle” seems to be “a noncontingent default,” but we will see.
Both “principles” and “mental models” are default ways of thinking and operating, and as one can have many principles, one can have many mental models. But in principles being less flexible than mental models, it might be the case that principles are more prone to problems, though not necessarily: perhaps the inflexibility of principles is part of why they are good, for they are strong. Arguably if principles are not strong, they are not principles. Does this mean “principles” and “convictions” are repetitive similes?
If a principle is to be distinct from a conviction, then perhaps a principle must be something internally generated as opposed to something externally “put upon” a person. You are “convicted” by externalities, while “principles” seem arrived at within one’s self. Why principles come into existence depends on the individual and circumstance, but again, if they are to be distinct, they seemingly must be internal as opposed to external.
If a law is passed that “it is wrong to kill,” and yet at the same time my mother scolds me for not caring about “the wellbeing of others,” then I can simultaneously come to believe “it is wrong to kill” because it is illegal and because it opposes a conviction I feel. It may also be a principle I hold that I failed to live up to, which is why my mother scolded me. Hence, it is possible for “do not kill” to be a law, principle, and conviction simultaneously, blurring the terms and making it notably difficult to define them apart. Since such situations are possible, it is also possible for me to conclude “law,” “conviction,” and “principle” are practically identical, perhaps giving my “principles” (whatever they are) more weight (for good and for bad).
It seems our minds are constantly engaged in games of hiding the meanings of words from us so that we can continue to live and think as we prefer: when we don’t know what “love” means (for example), we can believe we are “being loving” when in facts we are only engaged in “niceness.” If love demands more of us than niceness, with the word wrongly defined in our minds, this means we can do less and yet fancy ourselves as living out the virtue of love, deserving all the honor and respect that follows. Furthermore, by never asking ourselves to define love, we can commit this mistake and be “innocently ignorant,” which is to say we can make sure no one has a right to criticize us (and honestly believe we don’t deserve it), for “we didn’t know better” — and thus there is incentive not to think (to leave blindness uncured, per se). Where there is philosophy, there can be less “innocent” self-deception: feelings, preferences, and wants are less easy to exercise without knowing them to be possible methods of self-diversion…
When it comes to “principles,” we must seek to isolate a meaning for the term to make sure it isn’t hiding something “self-congratulatory” behind an appearance of ethics and virtue. This isn’t to say people intentionally use principles to moralize preferences (for example), but it is to say that where terms are left undefined, this can occur without people realizing it (or wanting to realize it). When people don’t know what a term must logically mean, which is to say when the meaning of a world isn’t isolated, then people can use it wrong and not know any better. They can get away with misunderstandings that benefit them but not others.
If by “principle” I mean “generality,” then the term lacks distinct meaning and should be deconstructed. Principles are certainly general and universal, but not every generality is a principle. “It’s always sunny in Virginia,” for example, is a generality, but it is not a principle, for the phrase does not inform us about how we should operate (though perhaps suggests that, whatever we do, we don’t need to bring an umbrella). Alternatively, “always use the right mental model” suggests a way we should always act (universally), but the notion isn’t merely descriptive: the phrase is also prescriptive. Hence, though principles and generalities are similar in that they are statements which seem to apply regardless particularities and/or contingencies, while generalities are descriptive, principles are more prescriptive: principles don’t just tell us how things are, they also tell us how to act.¹ Yes, a generality and description might lead to action, but it is not so definite, and the particularity of the action is far more open-ended. A principle, however, seems to more directly lead to specific action.
Principles seem to be “prescriptive generalities” about what constitutes right action regardless of circumstance. In making x a principle, I attempt to universalize x, to make it noncontingent and something that always “fits.” And this is problematic, in the same way that generalities, stereotypes, and assumptions are problematic (even though starting assumptions are necessary, and even though conversations would be nearly impossible without generalities). When I believe “all girls like dresses,” a blanket generality, then I can problematically began thinking that “normal girls” wear dresses and that dysfunctional girls do not. If I believe “all men like to fight,” when I encounter a man who is practicing painting, I might think the man is failing to be a man. These are obvious examples of bad generalities, but is a generality like “women have different interests than men” necessarily bad? Perhaps, but there is research that shows women pick different fields to start careers than men in prosperous societies, so though the statement is a generality, it isn’t necessarily inaccurate.² Also, if the premise is held with an open hand — with the holder being ready to abandon it if evidence suggests otherwise — the oppression and pain generalities can sometimes cause can be avoided (though I do think there is always danger).
Generalities tend to be bad because they tend to be arrived at without rigorous investigation — they are sputtered out lazily, assented to because they “seem” true, accepted because they are never critiqued, etc. — but generalities aren’t necessarily bad (we’d have to know all truth to know “no general truth was possible,” which is impossible). Likewise, in being general, principles too are more likely to be problematic than useful, but like generalities, we cannot assume they are always bad (for that would be a generality). Generalities tend to cause thoughtlessness (as Hannah Arendt discussed with “the banality of evil”), when in life it is generally better for people to think through particularities: to think about each and every girl encountered, for example, and take them on their own terms as opposed to think “all girls are like x, y, and z.” Yes, starting assumptions are needed (to some degree), but as soon as the defaults are proven wrong by particularities, they must be abandoned. Similarly, principles too are prone to cause thoughtlessness, but some of the risks can be mitigated if those who hold the principles do so with open hands.
Generalities are problematic because they can “do our thinking for us”: I don’t have to think about every girl I encounter (a hard and laborious task); rather, I know what to think of them in every circumstance. I have a framework that enables me to know what to think, and it never must change. And it is precisely this “certainty” and “unchangingness” that can make generalities “oppressive” (like verbal totalitarian regimes). In being necessarily assumptive and general, principles run a similar risk of “doing our thinking for us,” proving inflexible, and oppressive, and considering this (along with the distinction that “defaults” are much more flexible), it seems likely the case that principles should be avoided as much as possible.
But can’t this problem be solved if we think about our generalities and principles, if we make them more flexible and particular? Indeed, but at this point, it’s not clear what the difference would be between a “principle” and an “idea” and/or “conclusion.” A “principle” seems to be something I hold before I move into situation x by which I then try to understand, solve, etc. situation x, while an “idea” or “conclusion” seems to be something I reach in situation x. If a principle is something I “reach during” versus “hold before,” it is not clear how the term is distinct from “conclusion,” and thus “principle” should be deconstructed to avoid confusion.
Though in the last section the problem of “thoughtlessness” was stressed, there is something about “conclusions” that can also “do our thinking for us,” for once we reach them, we stop thinking (or else never function, considering On Certainty by Wittgenstein). But there is a difference between “being thoughtless after thinking” and “being thoughtless instead of thinking,” between a cessation of thinking as a “reward” for thinking as opposed to a “replacement.” There is a real sense in which we should want to be thoughtless upon reaching a logical conclusion, for at that point a continuation of thinking would be a movement into irrationality or error.³ And yet it could be argued that a conclusion isn’t thoughtless at all, for it took thought to reach, which is to say that though thought stops upon it, the thought continues through the following “thoughtless” action.
Conclusions are reached in and through particularities, while principles (if distinct) are held before and into particularities. Yes, people “conclude” they should hold certain principles, and this sense principles are like conclusions, but they are conclusions reached once or rarely (by experience, thought, etc.), while “conclusions” (as understood here) are constant, regular, and daily. Principles tend to be lifelong, while conclusions (or premises) might apply for no longer than “now.”
Perhaps it could be said that principles are what we have when we can’t make arguments or don’t know what conclusions should be drawn, and it doesn’t necessarily follow that thus principles are bad because it is possible to believe and live by something true and yet not be able to argue or think why it is true. X could be true and I could believe in x even without understanding it, but in this situation I would mostly “happen” to be right, which is to say I would be lucky (and do note that it’s precisely becomes principles can and do sometimes work — like generalities and assumptions — that people continue to hold to them, while if they never worked, they could be abandoned). It is thus possible that even if principles are thoughtless and problematic, I can be lucky with them, but in all probability though I might “happen” in some situations to act according to “what is best,” it is unlikely that I will do this more often than not. Though in a given situation a principle could “happen” to be as useful as a conclusion, it is unlikely that over many situations that principles will prove as effective as conclusions. Yes, shortcuts sometimes work, but over the long run it’s likely shortcuts get us lost.
A conclusion is what I have decided is right (nobody intentionally concludes something wrong), and it is precisely this feeling of “rightness” and/or “justification” that contributes to principles feeling moral, “thoughtful,” strong, and so on, attributes that contribute to us not believing we need to be critical of our principles, for they don’t feel wrong, and it is what feels wrong that we naturally feel we need to “critically think” about (“critically thinking” in its nature tends to be “toward” that which we don’t need so much to “critically think” about, ironically). Principles tend to blind, but just because we are blind it does not follow that we won’t reach our destination. Luck can favor us, every now and then, contributing to our denial that we can’t see.
Are “principles” distinct from “preferences?” I necessarily prefer what I think is good over what I think is bad, and thus principles are things I must prefer in the same way I must prefer goods. All principles must be preferences, but are all preferences principles? The like and enjoyment of vanilla ice-cream over chocolate is a preference but isn’t a principle, while “don’t lie” seems like a principle and suggests that I prefer not to lie (though that’s not to say it’s always easy to tell the truth).
If we’re not careful, principles might be preferences in moral disguise. Perhaps they are some degree of a preference, though not different in kind. Problematically, while preferences strike us as just being ours, principles can seem “objective” and “universal,” as if they couldn’t be a reflection of individual desire. When I get upset over not getting the ice-cream flavor I want, it’s clear I’m in the wrong, but when I’m angered by my principles being violated, it seems more so the case that the people who violated my principles are the sinners. In principles, preferences are projected away from the self into an objective realm that makes them much more difficult to identify as “ours,” and considering this there can be a temptation for me to christen my preferences “principles” precisely so that I can increase the likelihood that I get my way (and can frame myself as a martyr if I don’t). To call my preferences “principles” can make them more powerful: I can use ethics for strength (just as Nietzsche admonished).
I am not claiming here that what people call “principles” are never good or virtuous: rather, my point is that once we isolate the meaning of the term “preference” (untangle it from “virtue,” “conviction,” etc.), we are left with an understanding of “principles” that is difficult to defend. It seems principles are disguised preferences, hiding behind senses of ethics, conclusions, thoughtfulness, and convictions. They are empty and dangerous, for even though they can “happen” to be right, it is unlikely they will be right for long.
In conclusion, if meaningfully distinct, when I say, “I live by my principles,” it should seem I mean:
“I live according to a set of inflexible assumptions distinct from my moral code, though my principles necessarily strike me as ‘good’, for otherwise I wouldn’t ascribe to them. They are strong positions that shape how I think and operate, which I have more so internally generated as opposed to had them ‘put on me’ by others or the law. They are general prescriptions I ‘hold before’ versus ‘reach during’ situations, and thus prone to cause ‘thoughtlessness’ and oppression over a lifetime, even though in a given situation I might get lucky and find ‘the short cut’ works. They feel like conclusions and thus justified, but ultimately — though I probably don’t realize it — they are just disguised preferences that I have projected into ethics to increase their power. I live, and my way is the way. Come.”
¹Are “principles” and “advice” identical? They are certainly similar, and perhaps what one internalizes into a principle was first encountered as advice, but advice isn’t something that a person necessarily accepts. “Advice I’ve heard” and “principles I hold” are different in gravity.
²See “Relationship of gender differences in preferences to economic development and gender equality” by Armin Falk and Johannes Hermle, as can be found here:
³And yet “rational” and “right” aren’t similes, considering Kafka.
For more, please visit O.G. Rose.com. Also, please subscribe to our YouTube channel and follow us on Instagram, Anchor, and Facebook.
very interesting thoughts here,
it makes me think of "For the letter killeth, but the spirit quickeneth."
or in some translations "for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life."
I tend to think of the Spirit of the law as the Principle, an unchanging metaphysical Principle
that is above human reason or ability to fully express
and the letter of the law as more contextual or preference based (more at the human level)
it depends if the letter of the law refers to Scripture,
in which case then the letter of the law does become more like a principle,
and the interpretations of it are the Spirit of the law
(i think this gets to the "operational principles" that you refer to)
but if we think the "letter of the law" refers to the natural law,
or the limited context of our particular human situation,
in relation to a transcendent Principle,
then this would suggest the more situational, Aristotelian idea of Principle
there is a natural harmony between particular context and eternal truth
"The term in business is meant more like “operating principles,” though if we still lived in an Aristotelean society there might indeed be a blurring of “ethical principles” and “operating principles,” since for Aristotle humans are “good” when they are acting according to their nature. (Perhaps Aristotelian and Thomist thought is a reason why “principles” are used like they are in business? Hard to say.)"
it seems to me that the 'operational principles' as the term is used in finance,
derives more from thinking of principles as individual interpretations
and replaces the eternal truth with truths of the "market" and "self-interest"
i like this insight: "It seems our minds are constantly engaged in games of hiding the meanings of words from us so that we can continue to live and think as we prefer: when we don’t know what “love” means (for example), we can believe we are “being loving” when in facts we are only engaged in “niceness.” If love demands more of us than niceness, with the word wrongly defined in our minds, this means we can do less and yet fancy ourselves as living out the virtue of love, deserving all the honor and respect that follows."
see all these bumper stickers that say "Be nice, be kind, etc." Sure, have manners, but also hold each other accountable !
Great exploration of our cultural assumptions