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Why Should One Act on Principle?

Why Should One Act on Principle?

5 Mins
June 18, 2010

A person of "principle" is commonly thought to be one who cleaves to his moral ideals and shuns "expediency" and compromise. Objectivism , by contrast, holds that principles, when properly understood, are extremely expedient because a person who thinks in principles makes himself aware of the most practical means of achieving his ends in the full context of his life. Nevertheless, Objectivism recognizes the essential connection between a person's principles and his moral integrity.

Such a connection is possible because the traditional dichotomy between the realm of morals and the requirements of one's own life and happiness is false. Happiness in life is the highest moral goal we can achieve. The moral is the practical, and moral principles are essential to achieving our happiness in practical terms.CONCEPTS AND PRINCIPLES

According to Objectivism, a principle is a proposition that integrates one's knowledge of an important subject. For example, every child learns the simple principle "fire burns." Once he knows the principle, he knows better than to stick his hand in a flame: the principle lets him grasp what the effects will be without considering the fire in front of him in any detail. Thus, when he comes upon the unfamiliar blue flame of an acetylene torch, his mother's warning: "That's fire!" instantly conveys to him the very practical knowledge that the torch is dangerous.

When we think in principles, we make a virtue of necessity. We have only a limited ability to hold distinct things in mind; for instance, though we all know what typing is, no one can hold in mind Joe typing on his old Remington, Jane tapping on her PC, Tom working at his Mac, and so on ad infinitum. The power of human reason derives from our ability to integrate our awareness of many distinct units into a single new unit (for example, "typing") that we can hold in mind. This process is known as abstraction. As Ayn Rand put it: "You have no choice about the necessity to integrate your observations, your experiences, your knowledge into abstract ideas, i.e., into principles. Your only choice is whether these principles are true or false, whether they represent your conscious convictions-or a grab-bag of notions snatched at random, whose sources, validity, context, and consequences you do not know. . . ." ("Philosophy, Who Needs It," p. 6)

Principles put the power of abstraction to work. Principles integrate fundamental facts about broad subjects and various cases. An architectural engineer, for example, could never approach each new project from the ground up, rediscovering the properties of metal, the ingredients of concrete, the physics of stress and weight-bearing. Instead, he applies to the case at hand the principles of engineering and physics that he has learned by studying other cases. In this way he is able to leverage a vast amount of information in compact form.


In the Objectivist view, principles are essential to moral integrity and character, not because they embody moral dictates or some "categorical imperative," but because moral principles, like all proper principles, summarize objective knowledge. Each of us is, as it were, the architect of his own life and happiness. So we each need principles that provide us with fundamental guidance in living. As Ayn Rand wrote, "[morality] is a code of values to guide man's choices and actions-the choices and actions that determine the purpose and course of his life." The principles of a moral code can therefore provide us with the guidance we need, if that code is based in the standard of life and happiness, as is the Objectivist ethics. A person of moral integrity acts on his grasp, by means of principles, of the causes of long-term well-being and happiness, and thereby sees beyond the incentives of the current moment to the full context that is at stake.

Inasmuch as principles, including moral principles, identify facts, they are absolutely true in their proper context. Their absolute character causes principles to be commonly equated with rules, laws, and unshakable assumptions. Some true principles that apply to scientific subjects are called laws, as for instance the law of gravity. In the moral realm, however, principles are often misidentified with commandments. There is a crucial difference between the absolute, contextual knowledge we grasp through a principle and the commandment expressed in a rule. Rules apply categorically; they are not sensitive to context and do not give one an understanding of fundamental causes or reasons. "Don't drink and drive" is a rule. By contrast, "the more alcohol one ingests, the more impaired one's judgment and reactions" is a principle. When we act on a principle, we do so because we grasp the facts of the situation, not because we ignore the facts and hew to a rule.


We can see this distinction clearly if we consider the virtue of honesty. The traditional moral rule of honesty is: "Do not tell a lie." Faced with a mugger, or the KGB, or an awkward social situation, this rule contradicts what seems beneficial. Should we admit to a confused mugger how much money we have? Should we admit to the secret police that we oppose the government? Should we answer a friend's sincere question with a hurtful yet significant truth? It seems expedient in each of these cases to lie, yet the rigid moral rule condemns one for doing so.

The Objectivist principle of honesty, by contrast, is the recognition that evading or misrepresenting the truth is not an effective means of gaining values from others, and that one benefits from grasping the truth and being open to facts. Regarding telling lies, it implies that one cannot expect to obtain values from others through deceit. Apply this to the case of the mugger: do we hope to gain something from him? What about facing the KGB? The secret police are not offering any values. If one is not seeking to gain values from the interaction, then honesty offers no general guidance. In these two cases, an expedient lie may help prevent a theft on the one hand, or forestall an undesired visit to the gulag on the other. Now consider the case of lying to a friend to avoid saying something discomfiting; here, the principle reminds us that deceit is not going to enhance the value of our friendship. What one really needs in this situation are principles of courtesy and sensitivity, so one can tell the truth in an affirming, supportive manner.

Principles give us a practical grasp of the fundamental facts in a given situation. Of course, principles are harder to apply. Since they represent knowledge, we have to think in order to apply our principles to the circumstances at hand. This is as true of principles of engineering or chemistry as it is of principles of morality. But properly applied, our principles allow us to act on our full grasp of relevant facts. When we act on principle, with integrity, we act not on the incentives of the moment, but on our full understanding of long-term expediency. Recognizing this enhances our sense of being in control of our lives, and of being able to succeed in our aims, which augments our self-esteem. When we make a habit of acting on sound principles, we incorporate our moral orientation toward happiness into our own characters. Thus it is by thinking in principles, and consistently acting on that understanding, that one becomes a person of principle.


William Thomas

William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.

William Thomas
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William Thomas