Lives and Principles

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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The older I get, the more I appreciate the importance of having principles and of living a life of integrity and honor. I recognize this quality in my friends, too, and it’s admirable. People who lack these qualities are sad, and likely are surrounded by others without scruples.

–Nicholas A. Christakis, Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science, Yale University. (Posted on Twitter)

You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe.

–Al Jarry (aka William Mercer), in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick

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This essay comes in the wake of an exchange I had recently on Twitter. (Well, perhaps not really an exchange, which suggests people actually talking to one another, something that never happened in this case.) Nicholas Christakis, of Yale-Halloween-Costume-Woke-Meltdown fame, tweeted the remark quoted above in the header. I thought it interesting for its somewhat unusual combination of naivety, ordinariness, and contempt. (Indeed, if not for the contempt, I likely would have ignored it.) It’s the sort of thing that people say all the time, yet it is entirely wrong. It is the kind of thing people express, when they think they are channeling their virtue, but which, in fact, reflects a lack of understanding of it. And it is the sort of thing one says after being thrust into the public eye, having survived some well-publicized ordeal, and discovering that people suddenly expect you to have some special moral and political insight as a result. The same thing happened to Brett Weinstein, an unassuming biology professor, who was made famous after having been the target of a deranged mob of woke students who staged a bizarre coup at Evergreen College several years ago. Weinstein now fancies himself a political Wise Man and is responsible for the “Unity Party 2020,” which he thinks will have an effect on American politics. (He also is a member of the “Intellectual Dark Web,” about which I’m sure we’ve all heard more than enough.) [1]

I tried to engage with Christakis and wrote this as a first move:

I appreciate this sentiment, but I don’t share it. What my aging has impressed upon me is the emptiness of principles and abstractions; the self-deception involved in thinking one is living by them; and the messy, muddy, ultimately prudential character of most of what we do.

I then received the following from Christakis: “I understand what you say. But I find it too cynical to accept. And I see many people with integrity, who I’d just as soon resemble.” And though I replied several times more, in an effort to further explain my position, I received no additional response from him.

Christakis notwithstanding, the idea that a good person and a good life (the “life of integrity and honor”) are characterized by living and acting according to “principles” is quite common and worth commenting on. While Christakis never explains what these principles are – whether by characterization or enumeration – it seems safe to infer that he means general, abstract moral principles of the sort that one finds in religion and in philosophy: “Do no harm”; “Be honest in what you say and do”; “Respect the dignity of others”; that sort of thing.

The trouble is that it is difficult to identify any such principles that are actually true, without slipping into tautology. If by ‘honesty’ you mean ‘always rightfully telling the truth’, then, of course, “It is right always to rightfully tell the truth” is true, but only trivially and thus, uselessly. (What good is it to know it, if one doesn’t know what rightfully telling the truth consists of?) If by ‘honesty’ you mean ‘always telling the truth’, then “It is always right to tell the truth,” though substantive and potentially useful, is obviously false, as one easily can imagine any number of scenarios in which not only would it be wrong to tell the truth, but it would be obligatory not to. And if by ‘honesty’ you mean “telling the truth some of the time,” then it’s unclear whether one is acting on principle at all, as you’ll need to know which times, and that is going to depend.

It was no less than Aristotle who in the Nicomachean Ethics demonstrated why we shouldn’t put much stock in principles. For him, virtue is associated with moderateness of temperament and action, so as far as principles go, we may be able to say truthfully that one should never act excessively or deficiently, but rather to the right extent or degree. Yet, what counts as any of these can only be determined by a judgment that is entirely dependent on the circumstances, as the very same action may represent excess on one occasion, deficiency on another, and “the right amount” on yet a third. This is why virtue requires practical wisdom, which would not be the case if the good life could be achieved through fidelity to a set of principles that one simply memorized and followed.

To suggest, then, as Christakis does, that virtues like “honesty” or “integrity” are the result of following principles depends on a significant misunderstanding. Principles can never tell us how we should act on any particular occasion, because it will depend on the situation, the actors, and any number of other variables. Virtue is not “top down,” but rather, “bottom up.” It involves not fidelity to principles, but a well-developed sensitivity to what circumstances require of us, which can only be born of substantial experience, perceptiveness, and sound judgment.

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What struck me the most upon reading Christakis’s remarks was that they are supposed to reflect his thinking as he has gotten older. Well into late middle age myself, I have been noticing more and more the impact of aging on my own thinking (something that I have written about quite a bit), and it is very much the opposite of what Christakis describes. If I was to try and summarize the essential elements of this thinking, they would include:

–The realization that few if any of my aspirational narratives are going to play out as I had hoped.

–An understanding that one can do all the right things (and follow all the “best principles”) and things can go horribly wrong, nonetheless.

–The related understanding that on many occasions, all of the possible choices one has will be bad.

–The acknowledgment that neither I nor most anybody else is nearly as good (or, for that matter, as bad) as we would like to think and never will become so.

–The recognition that in light of all this (and more), happiness and fulfilment are best sought in the small, ephemeral joys that arise in the course of an ordinary day in the ordinary life of an ordinary person, rather than in the fulfilment of grand plans regarding the world or – and this is important, in light of what we are talking about – oneself.

These realizations have been slow and hard coming and are, to a great degree, unwelcome, as is the aging from which they follow and which involves, prominently: the decline and eventual death of one’s parents; the departure of one’s grown children from the home, as they embark upon their adult lives; one’s own physical and mental deterioration and that of one’s spouse; and the accumulation of a lifetime’s worth of compromises, disappointments, betrayals, failures and losses.

It is only in one’s later years, when one’s life is sufficiently rich in these sorts of experiences, that the full complexity and radical contingency of things comes into clear focus and can serve as a foundation for wisdom. That wisdom is a matter of having outgrown black-and-white thinking; idolization and the heroification of people; breezy, blanket condemnations of those whom one does not know and of whose lives one is ignorant; and simplistic and self-important proclamations regarding one’s virtue, whether current or as part of some “life-plan.”

Let me say something about such “life-plans,” in light of Christakis’s stated desire to “live a life of integrity and honor.” I find it a strange ambition. If someone asked me what I would like for my life, my answer would include: satisfying relationships, successful endeavors, and memorable experiences. If you’d asked me when I was young how I thought I would do, my answer would have been that I would succeed across the board and superlatively so. If you ask me now how I’ve done, my answer is “so, so.” And if you ask me what I think is the best anyone can do, my answer is also “so, so.”

Perhaps we should take these kinds of appeals to a “life of honor and integrity” as part of an effort to console oneself in the face of disappointment, failure, and sadness. After all, “But, I was a good person” and “At least I stuck to my principles” are the sorts of things one says to oneself in the wake of a broken marriage, an unsuccessful business venture, or an unsatisfying experience. Alas, in my own life, I  have found little consolation along these lines. For one thing, as mentioned earlier, neither I nor anyone else is nearly as good as we’d like to think, nor will we ever be, and for another, having “done the right thing” provides no solace for any significant failure or loss, unless one is deceiving oneself. As I recounted in an essay written during my elderly father’s extensive and terrifying hospitalization, I made all the right decisions and followed all the “best principles,” and what wound up happening was horrific, not in spite of my choices but because of them. The thought that I had acted throughout with “integrity and honor” or that “I am a good person” provided no comfort whatsoever, as I watched my father rant and rave and thrash and struggle week after interminable week, nor do I think should it have.

The consolatory conception of the life of virtue seems to involve what I would argue is an essentially juvenile refusal not just to acknowledge, but to digest and finally, accept the tragic dimension of life. Existential wisdom lies not in feeling good in the face of disappointment, failure, and loss, because their significance is trumped by one’s own virtue, but in the ability to think well of one’s life and feel good for all the little successes and joys one manages to accomplish in between. What is striking about the view articulated by Christakis isn’t that someone thinks that way, but rather that an older and supposedly wiser person does. We should become less certain as we age, not more; disinclined to criticize and condemn, rather than inclined (I’m still working on that one); realistic and practical, rather than utopian; more hesitant, rather than less; and retiring, rather than brazen. Why? Because if we don’t, it means we haven’t learned a damned thing from our lives. We have essentially remained children.

Notes

[1] Since the writing of this essay, Unity 2020 has closed up shop.

26 comments

  1. From Bertrand Russell, Power, page 245, Routledge.
    “This brings us to a source of trouble to many democrats, namely what is called “principle”. Most talk about principle,
    self-sacrifice, heroic devotion to a cause and so on, should be scanned somewhat sceptically. A little psycho-analysis will often show that what goes on by these fine names is really something quite different, such as pride, or hatred, or desire for revenge, that has become idealised and collectivised and personified as a noble form of idealism”.

    Russell, a man who went to jail for his pacifist principles during World War 1, cannot be accused of being a cynical opportunist in his own life.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The trouble is that it is difficult to identify any such principles that are actually true, without slipping into tautology.

    Why should we expect principles to be true? To me, that does not make sense. And, for that matter, I don’t think it makes sense to suggest that principles could be tautological.

    In mathematical/cartesian terms (I’m thinking of cartesian coordinate here), it seems to me that the truth/falsity axis should be orthogonal to the principled/unprincipled axis.

    Yet, what counts as any of these can only be determined by a judgment that is entirely dependent on the circumstances, as the very same action may represent excess on one occasion, deficiency on another, and “the right amount” on yet a third.

    Strange.

    You seem to be assuming that principles must be propositional or expressible in natural language statements. By contrast, I see principles as behavioral. How I go about judging the circumstances is itself part of what I would consider to be my principles. I do not expect to be able to give explicit statements of principles. Life is far richer than what can be expressed propositionally.

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      1. I think you may have misunderstood Neil somewhat (and Peter Smith certainly has). Of course Neil can simply say I’m projecting here; but I understand his comment as resting on an idea much akin to an old Pragmatist maxim – If you want to know what people believe, pay attention to what they do, not what they say. Behavior is a better gauge of what ‘principles’ – what guidance of behavior – people accept and follow, than their expressed principles in the propositional form. “Lying is an absolute wrong,” says the man who has complimented his wife on what, when she’s not looking, he cringes at as an ugly dress. But if he then takes her out to dinner, her wearing that dress in public beside him, that tells us something about what guides his response to his wife, to his marriage, perhaps to marriage in general. Is it ‘principles’ he follows? or are such principles we can form as propositions simply adducible from his behavior? Can we not see this, or must we speak it? But spoken or not, surely we will behave accordingly.

        If this is near correct, then such guidance of behavior can never be ‘true or false’ – it is simply what we do.

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        1. I have no problem with the idea of a “principle” that is a post-hoc characterization of one’s behavior. This is exactly what I meant in the essay by virtue being “bottom up.” However, this is not the view under consideration. That view is quite clearly top-down, as there is no point of talking about “following” principles or being “guided by” principles, if what one means is simply a post-hoc generalization regarding one’s behavior. The view under consideration clearly treats principles that someone *follows* in order *to become* virtuous.

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  3. Really interesting essay. My only hesitation, perhaps from not having enough background, is that I’m not sure that what prompted all these very interesting thoughts (Christakis’s comment) was all that deep or even in contradiction to what you’ve said. I’m just not sure either way. In my experience, people with little exposure to philosophy, even highly educated and intelligent people, either use the word “principle” differently than me or at least don’t know of the concept’s pitfalls, and might just mean strong guidelines relative to having none at all.

    In any case, again, I found this interesting and it makes me wonder if your thinking here overlaps with Wittgenstein’s insights on how we can’t really nail down what a “game” is in abstract terms.

    If so, my further curiosity is if something like strong form judicial review (like what we have in the U.S.) is possible given the constraint that the reasoning be general enough to provide guidance in future cases and isn’t just prudent policy making. People often talk about the subjective aspect of individual judges re their biases or the unreliability of human beings, but even aside from that, if Wittgenstein is right, the whole assumption behind appellate practice is impossible, not necessarily or not only because of human foibles, but because the content (idk, language, rules, principles, etc.) is utterly resistant to it.

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    1. That’s why I said “Christakis notwithstanding.” I think the thought expressed, which he might have amended or elaborated upon had he engaged with me further, is nonetheless very common and worth exploring.

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  4. in light of Christakis’s stated desire to “live a life of integrity and honor.” I find it a strange ambition.

    As Neil, said – Strange

    The only reason I can think that integrity and honor are undesirable would be if they impeded one’s appetites. I remember that in two separate posts you defended the accaptability of repugnant thoughts and that you never answered my rebuttals.

    If someone asked me what I would like for my life, my answer would include: satisfying relationships, successful endeavors, and memorable experiences.

    I agree that these are good goals but I would say that “satisfying relationships“, “successful endeavors” and “memorable experiences” are far better for being pursued with honor and integrity. These virtues are not in opposition to your goals. On the contrary they infuse your goals with nobility. Honor and integrity don’t describe the particular goals but they describe the manner in which we pursue these goals. Your failure to make this distinction demonstrates the confused nature of your thinking.

    Try to imagine what it is like to pursue a “satisfying relationship” without honor and integrity. Some do, and for the most part we despise them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I explained in quite a bit of detail what the problem with principles is. I am happy to discuss, of course, but there would need to be some actual engagement with the arguments, rather than just the suggestion that the view is “strange.” Obviously, it is not strange to me, or I wouldn’t have written it.

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  5. Michael Sandel’s very recent book, The Tyranny of Merit – What’s Become of the Common Good? is particluarly apt in this discussion. He says in the conclusion

    Focusing only, or mainly, on rising[through merit] does little to cultivate the social bonds and civic attachments that democracy requires.

    The evil twin of merit is rampant individualism of the kind we see when people talk only of their own satisfaction in the context of their goals. The necessary corrective when setting life goals is a sense of individual and civic virtue that places one’s own goals in the larger body of the common good. The virtues are the means by which we orient our lives and goals productively in the context of the common good.

    The idea of the common good has increasingly fallen out of favour as we feverishly race down the aisles of hedonism and narcissism, throwing off the restraints of virtue. But the paradox is that the aisles of hedonism and narcissism are only made possible by working for the common good. And the common good requires a common understanding of virtue.

    Every social interaction you undertake has an implicit understanding, that both parties will honour their commitments with integrity. Our hugely complex, interacting society is based on this understanding.

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    1. I share Daniel’s allergy to general, abstract principles as a guide to specific life choices.And “work for the common good” strikes me as one of these abstract principles. I understand what it might mean to “work for the common good” when I show up to a small social gathering, gauge how much food is on a common table, and then put some limits on how much I eat whichever dishes seem to be most popular. That’s a useful “common good” approach.

      But anything larger, any reference to a national common good or a “common good of humanity” principle seems hopeless as a guide to behavior. I’d have to be able to trust some institution or set of institutions to give me adequate, constantly updated guidance, and I don’t see any reason for having this trust.

      One to one interactions and social interactions in which I can gauge pretty well how my actions might affect others in tangible ways — in these circumstances something like what Daniel calls “practical wisdom” seems possible. I don’t think it’s possible to “live for the common good” if “common good” refers to anything larger than social groups I can actually interact with, see how my actions benefit or harm members of the group, adjust to benefit more and harm less, etc. Definitely not the size of a city, state, nation.

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  6. There’s a lot to think about here, but I have two questions:

    First, what if we treated principles as virtue ethicists treated virtues? For instance, practical judgment is needed for you to be properly courageous, but unless you had perfect practical judgment, you would sometimes err by being foolhardy or cowardly. “Courage” is a both a guideline and a goal, but because life is so complex, and because the virtues may be such that they can conflict, it follows that you can never be courageous in just the right amount, and always and only when you need to be.

    If we did that with principles — say, Ross’s seven principles — then we could perhaps have more flexible principles that still amounted to principles.

    Second, you ended your essay with this passage: “We should become less certain as we age, not more; disinclined to criticize and condemn, rather than inclined (I’m still working on that one); realistic and practical, rather than utopian; more hesitant, rather than less; and retiring, rather than brazen. Why? Because if we don’t, it means we haven’t learned a damned thing from our lives. We have essentially remained children.”

    This suggests, at least to my ears, that you think someone who becomes, say, more utopian, less hesitant, and more brazen as he ages hasn’t learned from his life. In other words, it suggests that you think you have achieved some wisdom about how to live. Leaving aside whether you can formulate your words of wisdom into principles (e.g.,: “don’t be utopian”), it strikes me that a number of important philosophers didn’t reach the same conclusions as you. I’m thinking here of Bentham, Mill, Aquinas, Kant, and Plato (and anyone who believed in the unity of the virtues thesis), just for a start.

    Now, it seems to ME that you could go at least three ways by response to my second point. First, you could argue that I’ve misunderstood some or all of the philosophers I’ve listed, and that they agree with you, and not with the view that we ought to live by principles. Second, you could admit that at least some of those philosophers disagree with you, but that that simply shows that they weren’t wise. Third, you could hold that even the wisdom you’ve amassed is relevant to a particular time and place; perhaps before the fall of the ancien regime, utopian theorizing was, indeed, a wise thing to engage in. But after the 20th century, it no longer was. So, maybe you could say that those philosophers and you are all wise — it’s just that what’s wise in one time isn’t wise in another.

    But the likeliest thing is that I’ve completely misunderstood you, and none of what I’ve said in this comment is relevant.

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    1. If we should become less certain as we age, wouldn’t it follow that we should thus become less certain that we should become less certain?

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    2. Wouldn’t how to age well also depend on where you started in life?

      It might make sense of someone who was an adolescent full of certainties to become less certain as they aged, but it might also make sense for someone who was very skeptical and doubting as an adolescent to learn some certainties as they aged.

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      1. That’s funny, I was making that point to Dan just last night. I’m someone who has never been full of certainties, always hesitant, always wary of saying what I believe for fear of offending someone, and, as I’ve gotten older, I feel as though I’ve wasted much of my life.

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        1. You’re always so hard on yourself.

          No one controls where they start in life. You’re the product of your genes, your parents, your education, your social milieu, etc.

          So you spent your life getting to where you are now. If you’ve gotten to where you are now, why would anyone say that you wasted your life? I’ve listened to your dialogues in Meaning of Life TV with Dan and with others, and you’re a proficient philosopher, with an open mind and a good communicator. That’s nothing to feel ashamed about unless you expected to be Plato or Wittgenstein.

          So I’d say take a realistic look at where you started in life and about the road you’ve travelled. I don’t imagine that your parents were bad people, but they sure did not invest much time in helping your develop a normal self-esteem.

          I have a high opinion of your intellectual honesty and of your potential as a thinker.

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          1. Thanks! Didn’t notice this until just now.

            Yes, I’m pretty hard on myself. The main thing I think of w/r/t having wasted my life is not so much my non-professional life, as my professional life. I went down a lot of wrong paths, mainly to please other people. I still do a lot of people-pleasing. It’s my biggest vice.

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          2. Professor Gressis,

            I hope I’m not being too invasive. By “people-pleasing” I assume that you mean that you don’t express your real opinions, rather you say or write what will please the other.

            First of all, do you really believe that the most fanatic woke militant who attacks you isn’t a people-pleaser? He or she isn’t trying to please you, obviously, but is consciously or unconsciously trying to please his or her tribe.

            On the other hand, the person with strong set opinions or beliefs does not try to please you, but often he or she is pleasing, generally unconsciously, their parents or their high school peer group. Most people go their life
            searching for justifications or rationalizations of beliefs that they learned from their parents or their youthful peer groups.

            You’re not like either group described above, you’re open to new ideas and that means that you’re not as set in your beliefs as the woke militants or the people who spend their lives defending what they learned before age 18.

            By the way, often apparently sophisticated philosophical discourse is, from what I can see, an intellectual rationalization of what the person who says or writes it learned in their youth, from their parents or peer-groups.

            So you’re open to learning and you’re aware of the fact that you people-please. That seems one step “forward” from both being a member of a woke mob or unconsciously rationalizing what you learned as a youth. Your consciousness of being a people-pleaser is a positive sign, not a vice as you claim.

            Little by little you’re working your way out of the cave. Plato was wrong: we never get out of the cave or maybe when we get out of cave one, we find ourselves in cave two, but it’s being on the way out that counts, I believe.

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  7. ” … and … aging … which involves … the accumulation of a lifetime’s worth of compromises, disappointments, betrayals, failures and losses.”

    Facile optimism this is not!

    Seriously, you have nailed some crucial points in this piece. It is extremely important (as you suggest) to see the tragic dimension of life… And the pathos.

    As others have noted, however, your talk about principles is open to challenge. There are other ways of interpreting principles. Honesty, honor and integrity, for example, are not meaningless concepts and can be understood as principles or as virtues. As principles, they need not be understood in terms of explicit prescriptive rules which must be slavishly followed. As you say, judgment is always required. But my point is that this fact does not render meaningless or misguided some applications of the notion of principled action.

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    1. Mark, of course I do not deny your point re: virtues. The fact that acts of judgment are required need not undermine them. But I do wonder if those who talk about living according to principles mean the exercise of judgment in each case. And if such judgment *is* required case, by case, then what sense of “living according to principles” do we mean?

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      1. “But I do wonder if those who talk about living according to principles mean the exercise of judgment in each case.”

        My point is simply that you *can* coherently speak of principles without giving up on the need for judgment in applying them.

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  8. This seems more like philosophy in the everyday usage, a la right way to live, and every permutation has been run through. As I’ve commented before, coming from a RC upbringing, the idea of the best way to act being objectively that, admirable, and a bit too much work for me in particular, is perfectly understandable. There are lots of things I am not particularly good at!

    Re principles – the phronimos is supposed to have the virtues of equitable judgment, sagacity and good deliberation: “both correct reasoning and reasoning with a view to a good end” and “concerned with universals and particulars”. Famously, we recognize the Golden Mean by how your average phronimos thinks and acts, and the phronimos by how often his decisions cleave to the Golden Mean. I understand that Aristotle thinks it’s actually pretty hard to recognize the Golden Mean. In our current society, we’ll recognize the phronimos by how successfully his actions and judgments fit in with our conceptions of right behaviour and how he explains his judgments, which I’ll contend are now bound up with ideas of rights and principles, and success at the practicalities of “household management and form of government” (which are now both forcefully egalitarian and democratic – our current universals, but now extended to women, slaves, the poor, and barbarians).

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  9. Your point about the contingency of principles and their being ‘bottom up’ rather than ‘top down’ seems like the best way of describing the situation. General principles of the sort Christakis appears to be promoting are always a self deception to the degree we take them as necessarily justified in some outward sense. What sort of thing would a principle be that we admitted had no universal external justification? Demoted to ‘rules of thumb’? Optional? And why would adhering to it through thick and thin make any rational sense?

    Folks who crave absolute certainty find the actual messiness of the world and our lives somehow unconscionable. But as Wittgenstein points out in On Certainty, what we take as certain are simply the things we no longer question, not that they are not sometimes worth questioning or could be questioned in different circumstances. We accept some things as holding fast so that we navigate the rest in their light. The hinge about which the rest moves. This should be a source of humility. It should put human life at the center of investigation rather than importing causes from dreamed up inhuman realms.

    Broad axiomatic human scale life principles don’t come to us from nature, the spheres, or any other independent source. At most, any general principles are manifest as a part of human life. They are not given to us except by contingency and history. If they are broad enough then, as you argued, they are empty of practical purpose. Diverse human forms of life always set things up with their own unique concerns. The ‘higher’ the authority the less useful, it often seems. Instead, what we take to be universally guiding principles are always manufactured by humans for specific circumstances and then applied in more ways than were ever intended. We invent principles and then push them out into the world. When we misapply them to questions and circumstances that don’t fit, the meeting of principle and world is infelicitous. Like trying to use a hammer to wash dishes, a toothbrush to cut wood. We simply imagine the world from a tiny point of view and then run rampant in all directions with what little made sense in only particular cases. Turning the wisdom of a single decision into an absolute way of life is always self deception.

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  10. I know nothing of Christakis, other than the quote, but perhaps he is reflecting the times. We have a generalized toxic cynicism about politics that predates Trump, but has turned dangerous by engendering a sense of mistrust that’s become more and more widespread. Part of this sense of cynicism leads to viewing both sides of the political spectrum as equally corrupt. This makes it easier to believe in conspiracy theories, and once you believe in one, easier to believe in others. Plus it makes it easier to follow and support a charlatan like Trump, because he, unlike the others, is authentic – he doesn’t pretend to be honest, etc. To have principles is a kind of loose way of saying that you believe in something, that life means more than simply having fun and amassing stuff and gaining status. When you look at the Republican party, and how it’s representatives have simply caved in the face of Trump’s abuse of power, how they didn’t lift a finger to stop him or check his power, it does seem to me to be a case of missing principles and bad consequences following from their absence. Then you take the forty percent of Americans who actively support Trump in the face of his incompetence and malevolence, and again the question of principles comes up. Are we worse off because Trump and his supporters have abandoned principles of honesty, tolerance, and civility? I would say so. One could hold the principle that a President and a political party should have the public interest at heart, not just their own financial interests. The public interest or public good is a necessarily vague concept, because it means different things in different scenarios, but the basic principle is to support and facilitate things that benefit everyone such as public education, social security, transportation and communication infrastructure and universal healthcare and avoid things that lead to harm such as racist attitudes, extreme inequality, and easy access to military automatic weapons. These public goods can be loosely summarized in the form of principles and they do indeed eventually boil down to basic beliefs and commitments. They are worth having and living by, even if most of us are not always consistant in holding them.

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  11. In the last year or so I have been collecting “principles” and “moral maxims” — the sorts of things people actually say when a moral issue comes up. It started with “live and let live” and “two wrongs don’t make a right”. There are now 274 in the list. I notice that they fall into broad categories: self-interest (“if you’ve got it, flaunt it”), wisdom (“the perfect is enemy of the good”), prudence (“let sleeping dogs lie”), moderation (“things are never as good, or as bad, as they seem”), justice (“no rights without responsibilities”), truthfulness (“actions speak louder than words”), toleration (“there’s nowt so queer as folk”), charity (“there but for the grace of God go I”), and courage (“feel the fear, and do it anyway”).

    As the saying puts it, “a man’s got to have a hobby”.

    Alan

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