09 January 2008

The Problem with Principles

Principles: What are they? What do we do with them? How many of them are there? Where do they come from? How do we tell when they apply? How do know they are any good?

As soon as we start talking about principles ("conservative principles", "principled argument", etc.), we run into trouble. People talk like they exist out there somewhere and all we have to do is make use of them. Of course, this implies that we're dummies or somehow morally deficient if we don't. Or, it implies that we only have to analyze our own decisions and actions to divine which principles motivated our actions. It also implies that there are good principles and bad principles (ones we should use and ones we shouldn't).

As a start, let's say that there isn't really any one set of principles that cover all our life experiences. Some argue for the Torah, others for the teachings of Jesus, even others for the Koran. But there are also Analects, Vedas, Sayings, Teachings, Ways, Dialogues, etc. Setting aside for the moment that few if any of these are of truly "Western" origin (as we've titled our little blog), there is some wisdom in seeking principles in these sources not least because they have been adopted and implemented by Western societies for ages. But that is beside the point. There is simply no one 'Code' (as in the sense of a legal code) that incorporates all necessary principles for the conduct of life within it.

There are competing codes—many having similar and even identical principles—but no one comprehensive code that is complete and consistent in that it contains all and only those principles necessary for anyone to draw on in making any given decision.

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