09 January 2008
Principles and Allegiances
As a corollary of the previous entry, can we say that principles necessarily have allegiances? That is to say, if someone says you should act in accordance with such-and-such a principle (for example, "don't covet your neighbors's wife or ass"), that person is suggesting your acts be 'controlled' or 'guided' by one of the competing Codes we talked about (i.e., the Ten Commandments) because that principle has an allegiance or connection with that Code.
Allegiances to divergent Codes—a/k/a acting in accordance with a specific set of principles—is a source of conflict, especially where the Codes are mutually exclusive by definition. For example, Christians, at base, assert there is no other means of salvation than through the saving work of God through his Son, Jesus the Incarnate Christ, as set forth in, variously, the Gospels, the tradition, the authority of the Church, etc. Muslims, similarly, assert that there can be no salvation short of the inculcation of Sharia law—its own set of principles. There's not a lot of overlap there; in fact, there is none I can see.
Then, there's the principle near and dear to the Ron Paul faithful: 'that government which governs least, governs best.' Of course, the conflict between this principle and the principle that government should even up the playing field of opportunity by helping those who are least able to help themselves, helped fuel the extreme ideological warfare of the 20th Century.
Thus, when push comes to shove, as a result of principled action (taken to extremes, radicalized, enforced, etc.) there must be wars. Conflict spills over, radicalizes, erupts.
What does this do for Kant's categorical imperative? It says: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." I will only act in a principled way (in accordance with my deeply held principles). What's more, it should become a universal law that everybody should act in accordance with his/her deeply held principles. Inevitable conflict results. And war. I'm not sure that's what Kant wanted or intended. (Set aside arguments about normative vs. meta-languages for a moment.)
So, are principles bad things as a general rule?