Being True to Your Principles?

Last week the Utah congressional delegation all affirmed that they would be true to their principles and oppose any tax increase for anyone, rich or poor. That got me to thinking, as such sweeping generalizations often do.  Over the years, there’s been a current of approval, in commentary and even in popular song, for people who have insisted on being true to their principles.  I have a problem with this.

In 1861, the leaders of the Confederacy decided to be true to their principles, those of states’ rights embodying the idea that states had the right to hold people of color in slavery and to buy and sell them as property. Following those principles, they led their states into secession.  Earlier, the Catholic Church held to the principle that torturing and killing people to “redeem their souls,” and then officials of the Anglican Church retaliated in various ways based on various principles. Then there was this fellow by the name of Adolf Hitler, whose principles included the idea that people who weren’t of Ayran genetic heritage were inferior, especially Semitic peoples, particularly the Jews, and that ethnic cleansing and mass extermination were principled.  He was certainly true to his principles to the end, even using railroads and troops to continue killing Jews when they could have been used to fight against the allies invading the lands he had earlier conquered.

I may just be an iconoclast, but I guess I just don’t see much virtue in being true to principles that are either suspect – or wrong.  Now… I know, “wrong” is a judgment on my part, but we do have to make judgments in life.  The problem, of course, is determining a moral basis for such judgments, and that gets into a detailed discussion that has consumed much time and effort, both on this blog and throughout human history.  Still, there are some areas of consensus, such as the fact that human slavery is wrong and that killing people solely because of their religious beliefs is as well… and there are certainly others. Likewise, there are the cases where valid moral values clash – which is what makes the abortion debate so thorny [if human life is sacred, and the mother will die without having an abortion, how does one choose without destroying one “sacred life”?].

In the pending “fiscal cliff” political situation, one side’s principles state that “rich” people should pay more – or at least they shouldn’t pay lower effective tax rates – than poor and middle class families because the society in which they live has allowed them to receive more.  The other side’s principles state that, in effect, that tax rates shouldn’t be increased on just those who make more.  Both sides are insisting on being true to their principles while the country faces a possible return of recession if the issue isn’t resolved and long-term financial crises if the overhanging issue of excessive deficit spending isn’t resolved.

Perhaps I’m just being a curmudgeon, but I don’t see much moral value in either side “being true to their principles,” particularly since both sets of principles being touted are flawed.

24 thoughts on “Being True to Your Principles?”

  1. cremes says:

    If the members of a political party do not remain true to the principles espoused by that party, then what is the point of defining them in the first place? Principles provide guidelines when the going gets tough.

    Also, I’d suggest that you set up a false dichotomy here. The disagreement between the parties is about spending. Neither one wants to lower it. Republicans want to continue borrowing $900 billion per year while Democrats want to continue borrowing about $1 trillion per year. Neither plan solves the problem.

  2. What’s the point in a party having principles that don’t work — except to garner votes to obtain power? Or is that the point to which our system has [d]evolved?

  3. cremes says:

    I reject your claim that you have stated any actual principles held by either party. So, you can’t say these are “principles that don’t work.” You have created these principles out of thin air.

    Let me use an absurd example to illustrate what I mean.

    The parties differ on the issue of abortion. We know that (in general) Republicans want it to be illegal while Democrats want it to be legal.

    From that generalization, I could claim that a Republican principle is that women aren’t smart enough to make an abortion decision. By applying this principle, they want abortion to be illegal.

    Further, I could claim that a Democrat principle is that women are our moral superiors and should have free rein to kill any fetus. Using this principle, abortion should be legal.

    I can claim that those are their principles but I would be wrong.

    1. I haven’t “created” any principles. I’ve cited the positions that each party has taken and called principles.

  4. Sorwen says:

    I can agree with your final statement:
    “Perhaps I’m just being a curmudgeon, but I don’t see much moral value in either side “being true to their principles,” particularly since both sets of principles being touted are flawed.”

    How you got there seems a bit extreme. However one thing I want to mention is about this comment.

    “Both sides are insisting on being true to their principles while the country faces a possible return of recession if the issue isn’t resolved and long-term financial crises if the overhanging issue of excessive deficit spending isn’t resolved.”

    I don’t agree we ever left it. All that happened was a bunch of magic tricks that made it look like we did. All the government did was offset when the greater part of the impact would be felt and increase the severity of it when it does.

  5. Daze says:

    These comments above seem to be proving something that occurred to me on the previous thread about the ‘political’ nature of the New Scientist. If beliefs always trump reality (and they do, for all sides of most debates), then asserting as a fact that humans split off from chimps around 7.5million years ago is ‘left-wing’, and so is asserting that there might just possibly be arguments in favour of some limited forms of government spending.

    {An aside: Anyone who really wants to live without any government (or law-enforcement or infrastructure) can always move to Somalia and live up to their principles properly. Take a lot of guns with you.}

    As an economist and mathematician, I find that how I see the facts tends to lead me toward ‘leftish’ answers to policy questions. As a scientist of sorts, the habit of mind of challenging beliefs and looking for evidence to back them seems to lead to ‘leftish’ answers as well. I’m probably trapped in the reality-based community for lack of faith.

  6. Thomas R. says:

    I tend to agree with Daze, in that faith seems to guide more politicans than reality does.We could use less faith, and more common sense in our govrnment, but I have little faith in this happening!

  7. Tim says:

    To Daze. Placing scientific articles to the right or left of center is always subjective. In the case of New Scientist for example, the articles which irritated me concerned global warming. It was not the facts as presented but how they were phrased which annoyed me. It was asserted as correct and there were no articles to balance these. Later I found that the scientific peer review system blocked the latter as unacceptable (or so I was told!). I took this to mean ‘right wing’. The global warming debate seemed at that time to turn into a self-asserting factory for more and more PhDs which had to deliver a ‘humans are bad’ result. If to challenge perceived wisdom and scientific prejudice is left wing, then I suppose I have apparently become very left wing indeed.

    Or did I misunderstand you?

    1. Joe says:

      Science is not political. It’s either correct (followed scientific methodology) or incorrect (did not follow scientific methodology). Nor is Science “fair and balanced”. No equal time is given to those that believe the earth is flat. Science is about reality, not opinions.

      The scientific peer review system is designed to reject articles that are incorrect. I know, I’ve been on both sides of that fence. Therefore if every paper representing your opinion is “blocked”, there are 2 possibilities:
      a. Your opinion is incorrect.
      b. All the scientists are biassed and not practicing science.

      A mild form of the latter option does occur — there are fads, where all the “cool” people are working on something or the other, funding is devoted to that and the rest of the field gets little attention.

      Nevertheless science is about falsification. If strong enough evidence is presented proving the current theory wrong it will prevail. In the worst case “Science advances one funeral at a time”. Usually it’s not that bad.

      The New Scientist should present our best current scientific understanding, i.e. the current scientific consensus. It is not a newspaper, it may be popular but it is a scientific publication nonetheless.

      “Bad humans” is a moral judgement. Science does not make moral judgements. Earthquakes kill people. Are they “bad”? It’s irrelevant, they kill people. Humans burn fossil fuels, causing CO2 emissions that raise the world temperature. Are they “bad”? It’s irrelevant, they are causing the oceans to acidify and the climate to change.

      1. Tim says:

        Joe. I really have to disagree with you. Some scientific articles do not see publication for either of your reasons. The third category you have omitted is that the article does not conform to the current views of the scientific establishment. Lyell’s uniformitarianism may be history but at the time that view held sway and woe betide a budding geologist if they proposed anything different. I gather things are not that much different nowadays when researching global warming. No I am not a “denialist” – just someone who has asked questions about the %impact of humanity on earth’s climate when compared to the odd volcano for example.

        New Scientist is a scientific magazine, as you state but it reflects the perceived wisdom as now accepted by academia. It may have changed since I threw the last one on my lounge fire several years ago.

        1. Daze says:

          New Scientist isn’t peer-reviewed, it is a science newspaper. But, as Joe says, science is only interested in whether papers have any evidence to back them up. Over the last thirty years every single one of the arguments against anthropomorphic climate change has proved to be unfounded. Anyone who managed to find real evidence on the other side that stood up to review by anyone who knows what they’re talking about would be on the road to fame and riches, and certainly would get major coverage in journals like New Scientist (and Nature and Scientific American etc etc). They’d be lionised (and super-funded) by the likes of Exxon. No-one has gained this position. This is a clue to the balance of belief and fact in Tim’s position.

          1. Tim says:

            To Daze. Thanks for the correction that New Scientist does not operate a peer review system like more acaedemic periodicals such as Science. No surprise really given the quality and (my perceived) bias of some of the articles. It also counters what people told me, but I suspect their motives now. However, it makes the situation a bit worse as it comes down to editorial bias.

            Re: the rejection of articles challenging anthropomorphic influence, I will agree that some of these appear to be a knee jerk reaction with emotive supporting evidence and so should not be published. However, what I have sought is the articles providing a view on the % human influence on the natural cycle of the Earth which includes tectonic activity and such. A URL would help assuming you could find one. Meanwhile I have to remain sceptical. What worrie sme is that friends from Greenpeace cannot find one either, and you would think this is something they would have in their armory.

            The “Al Gore polar bear on the ice floe ” fiasco did not help either.

          2. Daze says:

            On Tim’s specific question on human vs tectonic activity the most useful summary is here: , where the USGS estimates total volcanic activity (including undersea) at 200MTpa of carbon vs human contribution at 26.9GTpa – ie net human activity is more than 100 times as large as volcanic. That human activity figure was 2003, and is now nearer to 30GTpa.

            There are many many reports on the balance of natural carbon cycle activity: useful summary here: , particularly figure 7.3 [Important NB, the red flux figures for human activity are to and from the stock, thus the big gross -244GT figure on fossil fuels is taken from the stock and put into the atmosphere – ie burned]

        2. Joe says:

          “the article does not conform to the current views of the scientific establishment” is the second case: b.

          Science is not a belief system, and the “scientific establishment” does not define that belief the way a church does. Science’s strength is that it is tested independently.

          Many “sciences” in the sense of “knowledge” are not Science. Physics is a Science. Chemistry (Alchemy) and Biology certainly weren’t at the time of Newton, and biology still has warts such as dubious statistical tests, but both are improving. Economics is a modern example of a discipline pretending to be a science, but it isn’t. Economists claims are not falsifiable.

          Popper defined the scientific methodology very clearly, and it is worth reading: That method defines what is and isn’t Science.

          Personally, I believe the processing of information should be principled, not the desired outcome. This whole discussion reminds me of Churchill’s famous quip: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

          1. Joe says:

            For the record: of the 13950 articles published in peer reviewed scientific literature about climate change between 1991 and 2012, only 24 disputed climate change. Furthermore, these 24 papers are hardly cited, which means few scientists find their conclusions worth mentioning. Interestingly 18 different journals accepted these 24 articles indicating that at least 18 different sets of peer reviewers accepted them, falsifying the small censuring establishment hypothesis.


  8. CAenergy says:

    I think the problem is more a misunderstanding of what one might call natural or universal law. Natural law might best be summed as “Do no harm; respect all with oppression towards none”. Principals derived from this core principal could not then be used to justify harm.

    The principles in your examples all violated natural law, which should have been a huge clue that their beliefs were flawed. In your example, the people who claimed states should have individual rights separate from the whole. While holding to the natural law that it is oppressive to have rule from without vs rule from within, that states should have self governing rights (within the law) they violated the natural law of personhood (very bad). If they held true to the natural principal that oppression is harm,inherent in that principal is the idea that they could not oppress others, no matter the race, gender or species. If the Catholic church held to the principal that one should treat one’s neighbor as thyself, and thou shalt not kill, they absolutely could not do those behaviors without violating the natural, universal directive.

    I think those who are resisting the taxes do have claim to injustice if one set of people are treated differently than others, no matter the differing aspect. Two wrongs don’t make a right. However, it would be appropriate to continue that discussion to include justice for all. Justice here would be enacting of laws which result in honoring of all and oppression of none.

    Freedom is such an important aspect here that we cannot ignore anything which impinges upon it. For example, one might not care for the greedy rich guys or the Larry Flynts of the world, but the natural law remains true nonetheless.

    I know many people smarter than me have debated this without resolve,but I also know that oppression cannot be the answer.

  9. CAenergy says:

    Sorry, just realized I wrote principal instead of principle several times, apologies for the spelling error.

  10. Wine Guy says:

    Despite a recitation of facts, people will interpret those fact in different ways because of their inborn biases. It remains inevitable for 99% of the population (probably more than that, actually) since it is a rare person who is able to rise above their biases – no matter how smart or how dull they are.

    If we insert the word ‘principles’ for ‘biases’, we will still come to the same conclusions. For what is a principle except a bias through which to interpret the world?

    The problem with a bias or a principle is that the underpinnings for either may not apply to a specific situation – or the situation changes in some way to cause the need for the bias to morph as well. If this were 4500 years ago in Egypt, I’d be spending my money trying to create the best sepulchre for myself and my family as possible. Today, I choose to put that money towards my kids’ eduation. Underlying biases about what goes on after age 40 have changed… because the world has changed.

    The Republicans need to get over their thing about taxes.
    The Democrats need to stop pretending that only increasing taxes will prevent financial collapse and they have to rein in their spending. The facts are we spend more than we take in. There are two ways to fix this and both of them together are more powerful than just one of them alone. Raise taxes a bit and cut spending a bit. Anyone who BELIEVES otherwise is a fool and I have a pyramid to sell to them.

  11. Wine Guy says:

    And not that I hold up a New Yorker essay as any sort of definitive treatise on anything, the link points to an essay from Jonah Lehrer that explains what I’m trying to say in a more elegant and dignified way:

    1. It’s a very good article.

  12. Brian says:

    Does the name Giordano Bruno (1548 – February 17, 1600) ring a bell? Born Filippo Bruno, he was an Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer. In general, Giordano Bruno paved the way for the cosmology of our time. His cosmological theories went beyond the Copernican model in proposing that the Sun was essentially a star. To his lasting credit, the most recent empirical discoveries in astronomy and rational speculations in cosmology (including the emerging science of exobiology) support many of his brilliant insights and fascinating intuitions. This is an appropriate legacy from a daring and profound thinker, who presented an inspiring vision which still remains relevant and significant for our modern scientific and philosophical framework.

    What was Bruno’s peer review? After the Roman Inquisition found him guilty of heresy, at Rome on February 17, 1600, at the age of 52, Giordano Bruno was bound, gagged and publicly burned alive at the stake in the center of the Campo dei Fiori, not far from the Vatican, while priests chanted their litanies.

    In 1600, this type of ‘peer review’ maintained the “…current scientific consensus…” Dismissing out of hand any contrary evidence that does not conform to the “…current scientific consensus…”, the OGW high priests chant their litanies, too. When the high priests of consensus control the process of peer review, the ‘heretics’ get ‘burned’.

  13. Tim says:

    Thanks Daze. I will read the articles on carbon emissions and compare them against the other stuff I have. Occasionally the scientific press allows pro and counter arguments to be presented in the same or consecutive issues. I wish this practice was more commonplace as it saves a lot of groundwork for those of us who want to see both sides of an argument before committing our support. Tim

  14. Brian says:

    Richard Parncutt, Professor of Systematic Musicology, University of Graz, Austria:

    “I have always been opposed to the death penalty in all cases…Even mass murderers [like Breivik] should not be executed, in my opinion.”

    “GW deniers fall into a completely different category from Behring Breivik.”


    If a jury of suitably qualified scientists estimated that a given GW denier had already, with high probability (say 95%), caused the deaths of over one million future people, then s/he would be sentenced to death. The sentence would then be commuted to life imprisonment if the accused admitted their mistake, demonstrated genuine regret, AND participated significantly and positively over a long period in programs to reduce the effects of GW (from jail) – using much the same means that were previously used to spread the message of denial. At the end of that process, some GW deniers would never admit their mistake and as a result they would be executed. Perhaps that would be the only way to stop the rest of them. The death penalty would have been justified in terms of the enormous numbers of saved future lives.”

    Torches and pitchforks for the faithful….while the High Priests chant their litanies….

  15. Brian says:

    “…Although they’ve botched the short-term projections completely, they are likely still right about the long term projections of warming. Now take five minutes to get your laughing under control. … If the models failed for the first 15 years, then they are no good! Period! They’re crap, and you cannot rely on them for projecting the long-term. They belong in one place only: the dustbin! How long must we wait before climate scientists return to science?”

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