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Friday, May 28, 2010

My Principle on Principles

"I have no horror of principle -- only a suspicion of those who use principles as if they were axioms and those who seem to think that practical argument is concerned with proof. A principle is not something which may be given as a reason or a justification for making a decision or performing an action; it is a short-hand identification of a disposition to choose." -- Michael Oakeshott

11 comments:

  1. Sorry Gene I don't know if I can follow you down this route. Watch this:

    "A principle is not something which may be given as a reason or a justification for making a decision or performing an action; it is a short-hand identification of a disposition to choose."
    --Mao Zedong


    Wouldn't that be chilling?

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  2. "I love puppies."
    --Mao Zedong

    Wouldn't that be chilling as well?

    Why don't we look at the actual facts, though, and acknowledge the Mao was chuck full of principles -- it was precisely his principles that allowed him to kill so many people with equanimity!

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  3. Gene wrote:

    Why don't we look at the actual facts, though, and acknowledge the Mao was chuck full of principles -- it was precisely his principles that allowed him to kill so many people with equanimity!

    I thought you'd say that...

    I can't believe we're actually having an argument, Gene, over whether it's a good idea for a person to have principles guide his actions. You're actually disputing that, thinking you've recovered from the con of the 20th century?

    Mao had BAD principles. He ignored time-honored, dare I say "legal" traditional principles, like "you can't kill people to make society better in your eyes."

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  4. "I have no horror of principle -- only a suspicion of those who use principles as if they were axioms and those who seem to think that practical argument is concerned with proof."

    Bob, your assignment is to re-read the above until you stop saying silly things like "we are arguing over whether it is good to have one's conduct guided by principles."

    Also, if you knew Mao was a bad example, why did you use him?

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  5. Ah! How did you interpret the phrase "dispositions to choose" in the Oakeshott quote?

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  6. Also, if you knew Mao was a bad example, why did you use him?

    I didn't say he was a bad example, I said I knew what your response would be. Just like you probably knew what a Rothbardian would say in response to your examples of a peaceful squatter.

    Yes Gene, I read the quote carefully and it horrified me (if I actually thought you or M.O. took it literally, as opposed to describing the group of ideologs you can't stand). What I'm saying is that you are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. You don't like the particular set of axioms Rothbardians throw around, and instead of saying, "No you guys, that's not the essence of human society," you jump to the conclusion that people shouldn't allow principles to be primary reasons for their actions.

    Look suppose someone asked Jean Valjean why he announced his identity. If he said, "Because I believe in the principle of honesty," would you and Oakeshott roll your eyes and say, "No dude, it's not that you're guided by that 'principle,' it's just that you tend to behave in a way that we could describe as honest. Other people tend not to. It's not that you're principled and they're not, stop speaking such ideological gobbledegook."

    Again, I'm not saying this is how YOU or OAKESHOTT would actually talk, because I know that's not what he "meant" in his quotation. But the literal reading sure sounds like it to me.

    At the very least, I believe there are principles or "axioms" if you wish, that veto certain actions. So if you're just saying you decide what you WILL do through some other process, while the principles tell you what you may NOT do (like kill an infant), then OK I am more sympathetic. But Oakeshott's quotation looks like it goes even further than that.

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  7. One of your guiding principles seems to be that you generally seek to conform to the norms of society.

    By means of the Oakeshott quote, it appears you are saying this is merely a disposition to conform, that you will rebel and violate norms of society whenever it suits you.

    In other words, principles are to be temporarily cast aside (perhaps after careful deliberation) whenever one thinks a better outcome will result from an action that violates those principles.

    Or would it be correct to put it more succinctly by stating that your true guiding principle is that the ends justify the means?

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  8. Catching up after an Internetless holiday, but a quick note before more tomorrow:

    "you jump to the conclusion that people shouldn't allow principles to be primary reasons for their actions."

    That's not Oakeshott's point: he is not advising people on how they ought to act; he is saying that if they believe a principle can be given as a reason for an action, they are confused. And he is certainly not saying that a disposition to be honest, say, is no better or different that a disposition to be dishonest. He would say being morally good is precisely having a disposition to be honest, a disposition not to harm, etc., etc., and being morally bad is having the opposite dispositions.

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  9. And Bob, the reason that Mao is a bad example is that he would say, I think, that a principle can be given as a reason for an action.

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  10. "In other words, principles are to be temporarily cast aside (perhaps after careful deliberation) whenever one thinks a better outcome will result from an action that violates those principles."

    No, in fact, what I am claiming, and I think Oakeshott was claiming, is that principles are logically incapable of acting in the role the rationalist thinks they play. A skilled poet does not cast aside the rules of poetry to "compromise" or "sell out" or score a chick; he does so to produce a better poem than he can by mechanically following the rules. So with the skilled moral actor; he does not "violate" principles because it is convenient; he acts more morally than does a person who thinks morality is about the mechanical application of rules.

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  11. 'Look suppose someone asked Jean Valjean why he announced his identity. If he said, "Because I believe in the principle of honesty,"'

    Right. What he is declaring is a "shorthand for a disposition to choose" honest actions. It cannot possibly be the reason for that action, for there are innumerable honest things he (whoever he is) could have done in whatever this situation was that he was in. He could have, for instance, undertaken a vow of silence, fled, began talking in tongues, killed the person who asked his identity, etc. All of these are compatible with the principle "do not tell a lie."

    Or let us consider "Do not murder." IN that that means, "Do not kill wrongly," well, of course, it would be wrong to kill wrongly. But this principle certainly does not tell us what to do in particular situations. If someone is about to slit my child's throat and I have him in the focus of my high-powered rifle, I certainly may shoot (or so I say). But what if I am 99% certain? 90% certain? What if I am 100% certain but there is a gusty wind blowing and the bullet has some chance of hitting my child or a bystander? What if I am a lousy shot? What if I know that the child of the man with the knife is being held hostage and he is being "forced" to do what he is doing?

    As Aristotle says, these general rules will either be:
    1) So vague as to be no more than "guides" to action, but of only murky help in deciding a situation like the above; or
    2) If more specific, often they will lead us astray; e.g., property rights ought to be respected in general, but, contra Rothbard, if a parent is starving their infant to death, you bust down the door and rescue the kid. (And I consider this -- and, in fact, used it in my dissertation as such -- as a paradigmatic example of the error Oakeshott is fighting, that of turning principles as guides into a deductive system that tells you exactly what you should do in concrete situations.)

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