The Hardest Master
I once wrote, as an introduction to a short story, that "Principles can
be a hard master." I must admit to having understated the case.
Of course, it helps to be able to distinguish a principle from other
sorts of abstraction. These days, most people are incapable of doing so,
which I consider a primary determinant of our contemporary politics.
I recall, way back in the Nineties, an exchange between New Jersey
Governor Jim Florio and some interviewer, in which Florio was holding
forth about abortion, which, as a good left-liberal, Florio called "a
woman's right to choose." One thing he said was so striking that I
remember it word for word:
"Most issues we deal with in government don't rise to the level of
principle. For me, a woman's right to choose is a matter of principle."
Ponder that pair of sentences for a few moments before you continue
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A definition must have two components:
1. A genus, which tells us to what category the thing being defined
2. A differentia, which specifies how such a thing differs from all the
other things in its genus.
A principle is a rule (genus). But how does a principle differ from any
other sort of rule (differentia)?
Etymology suggests that a principle is a **primary** rule: a rule which
is founded only in the laws of Nature. Other rules may be derived from
it by implication, but the principle itself arises strictly from the
metaphysically given properties of the universe and the things in it. In
mathematical terms, it's an axiom rather than a theorem: it cannot be
(For those interested in the evolution of words: "Principle" and
"precept" are synonymous. The etymology tells us so. They differ mainly
in their usual contexts of application: "precept" is more often used
when speaking of a religious doctrine promulgated by a widely
A principle may be qualified as to context. That is, it might have a
domain of application outside which it lacks force. However, within the
specified context, either it applies absolutely, or it is not a
principle but a guideline that can be set aside according to
considerations of preference. Thus, a principle may also be described as
**a statement about right and wrong.**
Jim Florio's first statement cited in the segment above implies that
government in the United States has become amoral. His second statement
demands a violation of the principle we call the right to life. Yet
those statements have enormous import for two subjects: the principles
that ought to apply to government (even if they're ignored more often
than not); and how one decides whether a proposed rule qualifies as a
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Consider as a test case the following proposition:
"We must not punish the innocent for the deeds of the guilty."
This is a basic axiom of American justice. It has moral rather than
utilitarian weight. It does not concern itself with what particular
deeds are under discussion, nor with how loud or prolonged have been the
cries for justice; nor with what consequences might flow from not
convicting someone, anyone, for some hateful crime. Its context is
simply the cleavage between guilt -- the responsibility for having
performed some heinous action -- and innocence -- the lack of such
responsibility. It appears to be a principle by the definition in the
Do we violate that principle from time to time? Of course. No scheme of
human justice can guarantee against error. No amount of evidence or
eyewitness testimony can indicate the criminal with absolute
reliability. But the principle remains as it is. So we do the best we
can, and when we discover that we've violated it, we do our best to
correct our errors and make restitution for them. Were we to fail to do
so, the legal system itself would be criminal.
All the arguments over the death penalty ultimately come down to this:
it renders a violation of the principle impossible to correct. Is that
unacceptable in a society that insists on the closest approach to
perfect justice Man can achieve?
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Principles cannot conflict. The natural law contains no contradictions;
therefore, primary rules that arise from them cannot contradict one
another. Herein lies the most important test for whether a rule
qualifies as a principle.
If I have a right to my life, you cannot kill me (self-defense and
felony actions excepted). Raised to abstractions, the principle of the
right of a human being to life defies any claim that killing an innocent
can be justified by some "higher motive." There is nothing higher than a
If I have a right to my liberty, it follows that you cannot legitimately
coerce me away from what I want to do, or toward doing something I
don't. Raised to abstractions, a right to liberty defeats any claim that
a majority can impose its will on innocent persons of other mind. The
majority, whether acting directly or through a government, cannot
morally conscript, nor tax for purposes not Constitutionally agreed upon
beforehand, nor prohibit any other innocent course of action.
If I have a right to my property, it stands absolutely against your
claim of a right to seize it or use it against my will. Raised to
abstractions, the principle of property rights, if accepted, defeats all
claims that some may expropriate others for any reason.
Just as this test functions to winnow out pseudo-principles, it gives
true coloration to the desires of some to exploit their power over
others. It reveals any pretense of high-mindedness as nothing but
posturing -- posturing at others' expense, at that.
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Principles do not concern themselves with outcomes. Many outcomes the
majority would find highly desirable are practically achievable only by
embracing grotesque violations of principles. For example: How could we
achieve a society in which minor children are never exposed to
pornography? Only one method would have even a chance of working: the
prohibition of privacy regardless of setting. Video cameras everywhere,
continuously manned to ensure that not one single human action ever goes
unwitnessed. Watchers to watch the watchers, since no one can be allowed
to go unobserved. Made stringent enough, and enforced brutally enough,
that might bring about a porn-free society.
Clearly, that would have outcomes other than the suppression of porn,
some of them very unpleasant. Also, it wouldn't be compatible with a
principle that says that an adult has a right to go unobserved in his
own home. But which is the principle? "Thou shalt not expose kids to
porn," or "The right of the people to be secure in their persons,
houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,
shall not be violated" -- ?
The counter-argument, of course, is that we learn principles (to the
extent we do learn them) from observing the outcomes that flow from
violating them. There is some justice in this view. However, a principle
is built into "the moral order of the universe" (Clarence Carson); the
consequences of its violation flow from natural law rather than our
preferences for this outcome over that one, just as the breaking of a
dropped egg flows from the laws of physics, rather than any preference
we might have about having to clean up after ourselves.
* * * * * * * * * *
There's far more to be said about principles, but let the disquisition
above be enough for the moment.
I titled this piece as I did specifically because so much of government
-- nearly all of it, today -- is concerned with achieving particular
outcomes rather than with hewing to principles, including universally
acknowledged principles. Everyone has his dreams; everyone has some
vision of the perfect society; everyone fantasizes about how his Utopia
might be brought about. The aggregate of those dreams, visions, and
fantasy conceptions characterizes us as a people. When translated into
political decisions, they give our power structures their broadest
Today, principle is just about never at the forefront of anyone's
Americans were once justly hailed as exemplars of principled behavior.
I'd say we've ceased to deserve such an evaluation as a nation. There
are (of course) some highly principled persons among us; just don't look
for them in public office.
Governments ignore principles, as far as possible. They impede the
attainment of the desires of those who rule us: for power, profit,
prestige, advancement to higher posts, and security of status as a
master rather than a subject. Given that individual humans are
self-seeking, and that those who seek power over others are highly
unlikely to regard rights and moral absolutes with complete respect,
this might well be inevitable.
But the worst of it is this: The great majority of Americans has grown
comfortable with the idea that government is an instrument for "getting
what we want," even if using that instrument to acquire "what we want"
requires the violation of others' rights, the use of force to bend them
to majority will, and ultimately, the use of government power against us
when persons whose desires are antithetical to ours gain control of the
State. For there is this about power: like human desire, it knows no
natural limits. They who hold the political structures of a society, if
they are neither self-inhibited by principles nor restrained by still
greater power than what they wield, will run roughshod over the rest of
us. History is lousy with examples.
For the observance of the principles we claim to hold, the demotion of
our desires, and the outcomes we fantasize about, to a lesser position
is a prerequisite. Given our natures, that is the hardest of all lessons
to be learned -- and principles, like experience, give the test first
and the lesson afterward.
Food for thought.