Rebirth of Reason


On Principle
by Joseph Rowlands

It's common for people to perform an action while saying they are doing it "on principle". You might refuse to do business with a relative "on principle". You might pay off your own loans in a timely matter "on principle". You might refuse to deal with someone who has betrayed you "on principle". There are countless ways in which people claim to act on principle. So what does it mean?

According to one view of morality, principles are a kind of moral edict telling you how to act in certain circumstances. In this view, you may choose to act in a particularly way only because the moral principle requires you to. You are acting on the principle, and for no other reason. Often the moral choice will seem to be the least optimal choice, but you may decide to do it anyway for the sake of the principle.

I reject this view of morality, and it's view of principles as moral edicts or rules. I view principles as a kind of knowledge. It is a kind of wide-reaching generalization. A moral principle is the recognition of an important causal relationship that connections our actions to expected results. It's an awareness, not a requirement.

In this alternative view, what does it mean to say that you are acting "on principle"? It shouldn't mean that you are acting on a moral edict, for the sake of being moral. Instead, it should mean that you are acting based on a deep recognition of the likely consequences of the action.

As an example, imagine a businessman who is supposed to decide which supplier will get the contract. One of the suppliers might offer to take him out to eat, or give him a gift. The benefits in accepting the offers are obvious. But the businessman may decline the gift and claim he doesn't accept them "on principle". This doesn't mean he is acting blindly for the sake of achieving some moral status. It can just mean that he recognizes long term negative consequences that may result, and is acting according based on the insight the principle has provided. In this case, the apparent acceptance of a bribe could make people question whether his eventual choice is fair and objective or not. If they think he has been influenced, they won't trust him in the future to make fair choices.

In this case, acting "on principle" does not mean blind obedience to a rule. It means acting because of this insight. The principle informs him of likely consequences, and he can act based on that new information.

A related interpretation of the term "principle" views it as being independent of degrees. If someone steals from you, they might argue that they only stole a dollar, explaining that the actual crime was very small. The harm done was minor. But an appropriate response is that the size of the theft is not important. It's the principle that matters. In this case, it's the fact that he stole anything at all. The act of taking your property for his own use makes it theft, not the amount he stole.

"It's the principle of the matter". This phrase is often used to describe the fact that the degrees don't change the nature of it. If you lie to someone, and then claim after that it was a minor lie, they may respond that it is the principle of the matter. It doesn't matter how big the lie was. The fact that you lied at all has serious ramifications.

This is also consistent with the view of principles being identifications of causal relationships. It's not saying that the degrees don't matter at all, but that the actions fit the causal description and so the effects will be expected, to some degree. The lie, no matter the degree, shows that you are willing to distort the truth to get what you want, and you are willing to sacrifice the other person for that benefit. The sacrifice is created by providing them with false information that they could end up acting upon.

So dishonesty is important no matter the degree. The negative consequences are expected to occur, although their degree may be proportional to the degree of the lie. But it also says something about the character of the person who told the lie. You can learn that you shouldn't trust him. And while it's easy to say that you didn't like about anything big, a perfectly legitimate response is to say that you were willing to lie for so little!

The view of principles as moral rules might see things differently. They may see a claim that the principle is what matters as meaning that the moral rule is the important/only consideration. They would see the lack of degrees or the lack of a cost/benefit analysis as being an appropriate approach given moral rules that you are supposed to follow.

If you reject this view, and view principles as identifications, it looks very different. Discussing the principle of the matter is a shift from discussing degrees to discussing kinds, since the different kinds of actions will have different kinds of results. It doesn't reject degrees or view them as unimportant. It just focuses on how all actions of a single kind have shared qualities that exist regardless of the degrees. Those shared qualities are those identified by the principle.

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