Thursday, November 01, 2012

When acting 'on principle' is unprincipled behavior - part 1 of 2

When acting 'on principle' is unprincipled behavior
When I hear people proudly proclaiming that they are going to make a ‘principled choice’, that they are going to ‘vote my conscience’ or 'stand my ground!' by either not voting or voting for a 3rd party this election, I take notice.

I even Rant.

Especially when I hear mirror images claiming the same ground, I want to get clear on what it is that we're talking about. And not just out of curiosity or for argument's sake but because if they are being principled or behaving conscientiously in doing what I am not doing - then what am I doing?

If I don't agree, and have no basis but inclination for my position... then that's some scary thin ice to be standing on. That's disturbing. And it should be disturbing. Matters of principle and conscience should be taken seriously, and when people you respect come to opposite conclusions from yours, it's well worth reconsidering the issues and your reasons for them. Why? Because 'The Good Life' depends upon how you live your life, and if how you are living your life has little to do with being (properly) principled and conscientious... what kind of life can you be living? Isn't that Reason enough?Are there more important issues to your life as a whole, than living it thoroughly and well?

And if on reconsidering them, you find you still disagree? A decent respect for the opinions of others requires that you declare the reasons for your disagreement.

In this case, I only wish that I could chalk up the disagreement to disagreement alone, but for all the claims being made on the basis of principle and conscience, as I'm looking at their positions - and I have listened and reexamined them - I am not seeing actual principles being upheld - I see only the appearance of them... not the substance; a preference, not a principle.

Of course I grant the grounds for personal choice and disagreement as to what is best, but these particular claims, are claimed to be being made on the basis of principle and conscience, and that exceeds the reach of personal preference, or the deference of friendship.

And for one friend (who, BTW, has donated countless hours of his own time, effort & money defending our Rights in court) who thought my rant couldn't possibly apply to him:
"... are you suggesting that, me being a principled libertarian who has never voted for candidates based on their political party, I would not be acting on principle by continuing to vote only for those I believe to be the best candidates?"
, I've got to answer that if by 'best candidate' you mean, here and now, after the primaries, in the general election, if you are voting for who you think the best individual candidate is, who most reflects your views and convictions, as the primary purpose for giving them your vote; without regard to the purpose of the office and without regard to the dynamics of the race, without regard to the immediate and long term consequences of one the most likely winners winning, etc, then I regretfully must say - yes, then it applies to you as well, and perhaps it even applies to you most of all.

Despite what 'common sense' might tell you, voting for who the best individual candidate is, is not the purpose of an election. To vote for A candidate, without taking into consideration the dynamics of the race itself, the realistic chances of your ' best candidate' to either win or affect the overall race, and the consequences of the election going to one or the other of the most likely winners, and what effects the likely winner might have in that office, then you have divorced your principles from the purpose they are principally supposed to serve - how the nation will be served by the person who is elected - rendering your actions, unprincipled.

First, keep in mind that Principles are an aid for thinking, not a substitute for it, and it is an ever present temptation to cast what is the more pleasing choice, for the short term, as an appealing escape from the more difficult consideration of the long term deeper and more important issues, especially when it is so easy to name such actions as 'being Principled'. But you can't delegate your conscience to a single issue, and while I hope all will reconsider their positions, I strongly suggest you begin by looking beyond your positions to what principles are, and what they are for.

What are you talking about?
Let's start from the beginning: What does it mean to be Conscientious? To follow a Principle? To be Principled? Our friendly netborhood dictionaries, give us some definitions to begin with:
con·sci·en·tious - Guided by or in accordance with the dictates of conscience; principled

Principled: Acting in accordance with morality and showing recognition of right and wrong.

Principle: a fundamental, primary, or general law; an accepted or professed rule of action or conduct
There's a fourth that applies here, but leaving that for later, these three tell us about what we hope to be, but not how to become them or how to practice them. Essentially, the purpose is to do what is morally right, virtuous, so that you can act with a clear conscience, knowing that even if a decision was tough, maybe even painful, you know that it was the best decision available for you to make at the time.

But what do we mean by 'a good decision'? Good for what? Good... for the moment? Good enough to get you out of a prickly situation? Or do you mean to make a decision that can be seen as being Good over time, Good for the long run, Good that is in accordance with what is wise and true, Good as you can explain to your children what happened and why without feeling ashamed, no matter the outcome, Good so that you can rest easily in your own mind, for having chosen it, win or lose, right?

At any rate, that is what I have in mind when I try to make a Good choice... do you have something else in mind? I think the sense that sums this up best for me, is my favorite quote from George Washington's favorite play 'Cato', which puts it this way:
  • "’Tis not in mortals to command success. But we’ll do more, Sempronius, we’ll deserve it.”
, and when the dust settles, doesn't that sound like what you want to be able to feel and say? We strive to lead principled lives in order to succeed in more than apparent success, to conform our actions to what is Good and True, so that even if you do fail - and do not forget that no strategy, no choice, principled or not, is proof against the chances of fortune - you know that you did what was Right... right?

It is to serve those ends, that we seek to develop Principles from out of the mass of distracting particulars that are seeking to pull us this way and that. A Principle is a general law, a fundamental rule to guide behavior in accordance with what is known to be right and wrong; mental tools that have been discovered and honed, most of them over the course of thousands of years, as general rules for navigating us through the rough waters of Scylla & Charybdis, enabling us to see what is both practical and moral (and if you see those two as being in opposition, I suggest that you get your philosophical eyes checked), which the unaided inner eye might otherwise have missed.

So what's so tough about being principled? People have been talking about Principles for a long, long, time, it shouldn't be too difficult to locate some, why not just jot down a list of old stand-by principles, and consult that checklist whenever we have a tough decision to make. That should be easy enough to do, right? Let's just assemble those checklists and declare ourselves to be Checklistians - how transparent would that be?!

It's not prudent to let your Principle stand alone
As it turns out there are very good reasons why we can't just consult a checklist whenever we have a decision to make; principles don't typically operate independently and in isolation of each other, if they did, Judgment wouldn't be necessary, we really would just pull out a piece of paper and consult a checklist to determine our next move, and move on (BTW, that, taking your directions from a top-down series of positions on a checklist, and applying them without judgment, assured of the impregnable smartness of your checklist, is precisely how (and why) the proRegressive seeks to centralize power and live your life for you).

One of the oldest examples of exposing the folly of thinking and behaving as a checklistian, is still one of the best, from Plato's The Republic, where Socrates responds to Cephalus's comment that Justice is something like a simple matter of checklists, of speaking the truth and paying your debts. Socrates pulls out his patented philosophers pin and pops poor Cephalus's bubble of stability,
'...And even to this are there not exceptions? Suppose that a friend when in his right mind has deposited arms with me and he asks for them when he is not in his right mind, ought I to give them back to him? No one would say that I ought or that I should be right in doing so, any more than they would say that I ought always to speak the truth to one who is in his condition.'
The truth is that if you consider only the narrowest of considerations, taking heed only of your principles in isolation of each other, in this case thinking only of ownership and your promise to return to your friend what is his, then as a Checklistian you would have to return his property and endanger your friend's life - after all, if you approach this matter as consulting a checklist, in place of using your judgment, you'd simply say:
  • The weapons are your friends property (Check!)
  • You gave your word to return his weapons to him when he returned (Check!)
  • Hand over his weapons - and run (Check!)
Isn't that how it would go? Your typical Checklistian would say that not returning your crazy friends sword would be a violation of property rights! Doesn't matter if you had a good reason, you're breaking your word! See! My Checklist says so! Right here (BTW, that is the argument of Kant's heinous categorical imperative)!

But there is a problem with that, isn't there? In some strange way it almost seems as if it would be unprincipled to return to him what is his... can that be right? It seems as if your conscience would be troubled if you were to keep your word to your friend... wait... sooo... what, keeping your word and telling the truth... could be UnPrincipled? Wuh...?

Well that complicates things, doesn't it?

And while that may be annoying, that only proves that people haven't changed one bit in nearly three thousand years, for Cephalus exited the dialog at that point too, a 'practical' man, he had no time for discussing the annoying particulars of right and wrong. And of course soon afterwards, what with government being 'the greatest of all reflections on human nature', Athens rid itself of Socrates and his annoying questions of right and wrong, by providing him with a cup of Hemlock to swallow.

Problem solved? Check!

That is the way it tends to work, as consciences tend to be crushed by the power of checklists (see such historical Checklistians such as Robespierre, Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, etc., etc., etc.), because checklists don't ask 'Why?', they simply check their list and do what it says needs to be done, without thought and without conscience.


If you want to live as a human being though, a checklist just won't do. You have to ask Why; you have to weigh what you find in answer to the questions facing you, and you have to judge. Why would it be unconscionable to keep your word and return your crazed friend his arms? Because such an act would be in opposition to the larger considerations and greater principles and virtues involved. Acting by checklist would do violence to the higher and deeper principles of friendship and justice as well as to your obligation to your community - but you won't find that answer within the Checklist; you have to look outside of, and think beyond the list, for the purpose and for the Why.

You can't be principled, conscientiously respecting principles, without also being something else, and that is our missing fourth definition.

Unlike Eagles, Principles do flock together
Principles do not operate separately from one another, there are always several principles in play in regards to every decision, and when your principles seem to be in conflict, it's more likely that you are taking a too narrow view of matters, and allowing a lower level decision to take command over a higher one - and as if that's not enough, as the context changes, what is principled behavior one minute, might become unprincipled the next. For instance, to refuse to return your friends arms to him when in his right mind, would be just as wrong as returning them to him when he's not in his right mind.

This is not an example of expediency (as it's usually used), it is not an example of bending the rules, and it is not an example of pragmatically making an exception. In the full context of our weapons scenario, not keeping your promise and not respecting your friends right of property, would not be unprincipled; and it would be highly un-principled to 'strictly adhere to the letter' of the two seemingly separate principles.

In this context, keeping your word, would be a false expedient, a salve to your vanity, seeking to keep up the appearances of seeming 'principled' in the eyes of others ("I didn't want to, but I had to respect the Principle of the matter... may he rest in peace"), but to do so would be to do so at the expense of everything that gave those principles meaning and value to your life in the first place.

The way to keep your principles from becoming tangled up, is to always be looking to the higher and wider perspective of context and purpose; you need to always keep in mind that principles exist for something beyond themselves, beyond 'the letter of the law', you might even be tempted to paraphrase that as "The Principle was made for man, and not man for the Principle".

If that seems too hard, too complicated, well, tough! , if you wanted an easy life, you were born into the wrong species! There is no guarantee for success, principles simplify judgment, but they don't make it easy, there is no 'easy way out' of life, your only choice is to go through it sighted or blind.

The method of going through life sighted, rather than blind, is by looking always beyond the immediate moment, of taking careful note of the hierarchy of relevant principles involved, ranking them by keeping their purpose, and their context, foremost in mind, and that method is called Prudence.
Prudence mid-14c., "wisdom to see what is virtuous, or what is suitable or profitable,"... from Greek 'sophrosyne' “prudence, moderation,” from sophron “of sound mind, prudent” (see Sophronia).
  • Prudence; 'Practical Wisdom', the art of applying a knowledge of universal principles to particular actions in time
Since men first began trying to puzzle out a systematic approach to do what was Right to do, what Wisdom was, the Cardinal Virtues; Prudence, Justice, Courage and Temperance, have been seen as the key to unlocking the pursuit of happiness. And though neither could exist without the others, Prudence ranks first and highest amongst equals, because it is through Prudence that you are able to apply general laws to particular happenstances, and so do what is best in each moment.

Those general laws of behavior which we call Principles, serve the Cardinal Virtues, not the other way around. Being prudent is how you rise above the moment and see how a short term decision could cause deep and long term damage. A too rigid regard for Principle would return your addlepated friend his arms and destroy his life and possibly others as well, it is Prudence which saves you from turning principles against the good.

Being principled without being prudent, makes a mockery of what principles are and are for, and they can and should never be divorced from their purposes, that of moving our lives forward in a worthwhile manner, in pursuit of happiness (in the classical sense). Cicero put the above dilemma this way, and steers it closer to our voting question:
"If one had deposited a sword with you when he was of sound mind, and were to ask for it in a fit of insanity, to restore it would be wrong; not to restore it, your duty. What if he who had deposited money with you were to levy war against the country? Should you deliver up the trust? I think not; for you would act against the state, which ought to be nearest to your affection. Thus many things which seem to be right by nature become wrong by circumstances. To keep promises, to abide by agreements, to restore trusts, by a change of expediency becomes wrong. "
Once more, Prudent judgment must always be circumspect - taking into account your options from all angles and with your long term purpose, your goal, firmly in mind and in line with what is Right to do - and making the choice in applying right reason, using all the applicable principles and understanding of the realities you face, in order to make the decision that advances your position, both practically, and morally.
11 For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it.

12 I wisdom dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge of witty inventions.
Getting down to brass tacks
If you look towards this November's ballot, whether for President or Senator, or even that of convention delegates, and look no further than the choices offered to you, then you are not applying principles in order to make a worthwhile and principled choice for the long term; instead you are taking the easy way out by making a choice for, and restricted to, the present moment in time, at the expense of what is true across time.

That is not behaving in a Principled manner, but its very opposite, that of behaving pragmatically, regarding 'truth is what we agree “works”' for the moment. It's taking the easy way out of a hard decision, it is the action of someone seeking to flatter their own faux pride and self regard, which is itself a violation of conscience and a disregard of principle.
A few moments thought about pragmatism's 'Truth is what people agree works', leads to Richard Rorty's confession that Truth "... in the pragmatist’s eyes, are empty metaphysical compliments – harmless as rhetorical pats on the back to the successful inquirer or agent, but troublesome if taken seriously and “clarified” philosophically." IOW Pragmatism ultimately means the rejection of the very concept of Truth
To act in the narrow observation of the letter of principle, in blinkered disregard for the larger purpose the principle serves, is, far from being principled, it is deeply unprincipled. Can I speak freely friends? Such an action is shallow. It is inadequate. It is short sighted. It is cowardly. And above all else, it serves nothing more than your own vanity.

If you are puffing yourself up with a righteous dose of constitutional self regard, refusing to vote for a candidate or party because they themselves show little or no regard for the constitution - if you show little or no regard for the wider context of the election - the consequences of one or the other likely winners becoming president, or senator - then you are doing a disservice not only to the constitution, but to the purpose for which the constitution was written to serve in the first place; that of the prosperity, under law, of the nation, which is the actual meaning of the 'General Welfare'.

For Checklistian Libertarians, if you refuse to vote, or refuse to vote for Romney, or Akin, etc, because:
  • *Voting for the lesser of two evils is still promoting evil
  • *I'll vote my conscience rather than vote for ____
  • *I'll remain prinicpled and vote for a 3rd party candidate
, then please, please don't claim that you are voting your conscience - you are not, you are seeking only to soothe it.

And don't try and tell me that your are being principled, for it is most certainly NOT being principled, it's consulting a paper thin checklist and checking your brain at the door while you add up the tallies to determine your 'choice', and what that furthers, the ends to which it aims, is evil. And I mean that in the most level headed, secular fashion possible (those of you who'd like to expand on that from a religious angle, please, feel free).

Again - to vote for A candidate, without taking into consideration the dynamics of the race itself, the realistic chances of your ' best candidate' to either win or affect the overall race, and the consequences of the election going to one or the other of the most likely winners, and what effects the likely winner might have in that office, then you have divorced your principles from the purpose they are principally supposed to serve - how your state and the nation will be served by the person who is elected - which renders your actions, unprincipled.

The purpose of an election is not to soothe your conscience  or to declare 'your principles', or to excuse you from the unpleasantness of making a difficult decision. The decision on how, or even whether, to cast your Vote does not begin with casting your vote or even who you will vote for, but with why it is that we have voting in the first place.

So what is the wider perspective that should inform your voting decision?

Voting comes full circle to the point from which your Rights began from: your necessity to think and to choose. Because you must be at liberty to act as you see fit to live your own life, govt's are instituted among men to uphold their Rights, and deriving its just powers from those it governs, a Just government will not violate the Rights of the governed.

But that is not an easy proposition to live up to, because govt means, and is, power. And Power is too dangerous to leave, unchecked, in the hands of any sovereign, whether the One or the Many; the sovereign is best kept as far from directly wielding their power as possible, which is why in our system of government, we use representatives chosen (directly or indirectly) by the sovereign (you & me) to do the work of holding Sauron's ring for us. Our representatives in govt serve in the several branches of government - Legislative, Executive and Judicial - where not only we can keep an eye upon them, but where they can, and will, be trusted only to be jealous of the power of their fellow branches, each involved slightly in the doings of the other and so balancing their desire for power against each other's desire for power.

One reason why agencies such as the EPA are so dangerous, is that they operate with virtually none of their power balanced against anthers - each of these agencies contain within themselves an Executive (dept Head & minions), Legislative (bureaucracy that writes their regulations), and Judicial(each has its own Judges who decide upon the objections you might raise against what their agency thinks is best). Such a situation, the combining of Legislative, Executive and Judiciary into one was the very definition of Tyranny, as our Founder's generation understood it.

Whichever candidate, for whichever office, is more inclined to empower these agencies, or expand them - Hello Barack Obama. Hello Claire McCaskill - is the candidate who must be opposed most.

Why? Because in a general election, you should not primarily be voting for a candidate, should not primarily be voting for their ideals, or even for who you feel most comfortable with, the fundamental reason for why you vote, is that it is a fundamental expression of, and a defense of, your Rights, and you should primarily cast your vote for the purpose of asserting, upholding and defending those Rights. You should cast your vote in a manner that in your judgment affords your rights (and the full context of what they depend upon, as thumbnailed above) the best defense possible.

The fact that your vote might benefit one candidate, or party, or another, is the least worthy aspect of consideration in the whole process. Voting is how we affect who will represent us in that process, those who will operate the govt which upholds our rights (and from which it derives its power from).

That is the purpose of voting. And if your vote is not used to see to it that those elected will pose the least threat to that purpose, then you are not being principled in your actions.

Part 2 Tomorrow, putting those purposes into principled actions.

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