Bryan Caplan  

The Under-Principled Life

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I just finished re-watching The Bridge on the River Kwai. If you've never seen it, it's all about Colonel Nicholson (played by Alec Guinness), a British officer with Principles. Nicholson refuses to try to escape from his POW camp, because he was ordered to surrender; an escape attempt, he avers, would be insubordination. Nicholson similarly refuses to allow his officers to serve as manual laborers for the Japanese, because the Geneva convention forbids it. He'd rather suffer in a hot box instead.

This movie put me in a reflective mood. When I was young, under heavy Randian influence, I was as convinced as Colonel Nicholson that you had to live under the daily guidance of Principles. But when I actually observe my life, I'm struck by how small the role of Principle actually is. Yes, there are many principles I live by; I don't lie, steal, adulter, murder, or knowingly accept beliefs on emotional grounds. But in all honesty, I have no need to refer to any of these principles on my typical day.

How is this possible? Here's the explanation that currently makes the most sense to me:

1. If you're dealing with reasonable people, Principle rarely comes up because reasonable people can amicably reach good outcomes on a case-by-case basis.

2. If you're dealing with unreasonable people, Principle is of little help, because unreasonable people (Colonel Nicholson is a case in point) usually stubbornly hew to their own bizarre principles. If you're stuck dealing with unreasonable people, the reasonable person's best option is to carefully craft the best approach that the unreasonable people will accept. It's sad but true.

Admittedly, it's possible that my experience is more a reflective of my timid, non-confrontational personality than the world. (Don't laugh; I'm only intellectually aggressive).

Any thoughts?


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Scott Scheule writes:
Yes, there are many principles I live by; I don't lie, steal, adulter, murder, or knowingly accept beliefs on emotional grounds. But in all honesty, I have no need to refer to any of these principles on my typical day.
I don't understand. You have the opportunities to do all these things everyday. Doesn't the fact that you don't mean you're hewing to principles?
If you're dealing with unreasonable people, Principle is of little help, because unreasonable people (Colonel Nicholson is a case in point) usually stubbornly hew to their own bizarre principles.

Ha! Bryan, do you have any idea what non-libertarians think of our principles?

The screenplay was written by two Communist sympathizers, Karl Foreman and Michael Wilson. Since they were blacklisted, it was credited to the novelist Pierre Boulle (who didn't even speak English).

Clearly it's a piece of anti-British Empire, anti-war (aka pro-Soviet) propaganda. Note the line delivered by the Brit medical officer at the end; "Madness, madness".

Well done though.

Blakeney writes:

I'd lean toward another (maybe too optimistic) explanation:

1. The principles you follow will become embodied in your habits after a time.
2. Even though different people have very different-seeming principles, the habits that these different principles translate into tend to be broadly similar, especially when it comes to interpersonal interactions. Things like not stealing, being polite, and refraining from killing your landlord are habits almost universally followed, even by people who believe things that you consider silly.
3. The habits you have, which mesh reasonably well with those of the people around you, are something you don't have to think about (they are habits, after all). However, just because you don't have to think about them, it doesn't mean that you're not following your principles. It means you're following them so well that you don't even know you're doing so.

So what I'm saying is that principles are very important, and that, like many other important things, your brain turns it from something you have to think about into something you don't have to think about. That's why every trip to the Kwik-E-Mart is not a huge moral dilemma.

Snark writes:
When I was young, under heavy Randian influence, I was as convinced as Colonel Nicholson that you had to live under the daily guidance of Principles. But when I actually observe my life, I'm struck by how small the role of Principle actually is.

So, in terms of the movie’s characters, you experienced a sort of emotional ecdysis, a casting off of the refined, principled Colonel Nicholson in order to become a pragmatic, self-assured Shears.

Sounds almost like a bridge too far.

Mike D writes:

Agreed with Blakeney on the role of 'good enough' habits. Principles come up when we have to deal with novel situations where experience and habit are no guide. Or where new evidence makes us reassess our habits.

A second issue is that many deep foundational principles (e.g. "Do not do unto others that which you would find abhorrent if done to you.") aren't very much use for most decision-making.

So they get elaborated into many 2nd order principles (Don't murder, steal, etc. Tell the truth. Do no harm.)

And those then get further diluted into general rules of thumb, especially when there's a conflict between 2nd order principles. (Compromise between truth and do-no-harm: Do not tell people "Yes, you do look fat in that.") This is where the issue of Prudence comes in.

liberty writes:

I also agree with Blackeney that you are adhering to the principles, you just don't have to think about it often. And you do have opportunities to do otherwise every day - if you did not by habit adhere to those principles you would often think "hm... I could steal that sandwich, since nobody is looking, and save $6..." or something like that.

Also, I slightly disagree with the statement that "If you're dealing with reasonable people, Principle rarely comes up because reasonable people can amicably reach good outcomes on a case-by-case basis."

First, those "reasonable people" are only reasonable because they too have formed habits based on the same principles, and the amicable outcome is actually an agreement to adhere to those principles.

Second, there are still times when you must confront them when they diverge from those principles. You can come up with examples ranging from the more common (when someone you know wants to tell a useful lie, and you must amicably convince them otherwise) to the less common (when Ghandi stuck to principles* and it worked because he was dealing with Brits instead of nearly any other government). The latter is obviously not something you encounter on a daily basis, but the former may be more common that we often realize.

* Those his principles were questionable at best.

michael gordon writes:

This is odd, your commentary. It presupposes that there is a shared cultural --- inherited beliefs and values, learned by early and later socialization processes and reinforced considerably in childhood and adolescence --- that lead to some matching, even roughly so, of the ways in which two or more individuals see and understand the world and show some common mental ground when negotiating or just interacting.

Take politics, regarded as dirty, self-serving, and predatory by libertarians as omnipresent everywhere. Is there no variation on these scores in terms of transparency, accountability, and the ability of a society to get rid of corrupt or incompetent or brutal politicians? Is there no difference across democratic countries, which in principle reflect these limiting powers on political behavior, on these same scores? Why, of the first 14 or so countries in the world found in cross-cultural studies of corruption are all of them democratic and virtually all Protestant in heritage with the exception of Singapore: the small north European countries (plus Austria and Ireland), the smaller English-speaking countries (Canada, New Zealand, Australia), and . . . well, that's it.

Enter the larger populated countries: almost always Britain and the US tied at 15 or 16 (English and Protestant and common-law heritages), with Germany close by. France is further down the list. Italy hard to find except in the top 20's. Only Chile among developing countries shows up in the first 20.

Somehow, though, Libertarians --- I am a moderate Democratic, moving toward an independent status --- don't grasp these distinctions.

.....

And it's worse when you get to international life and conflicts. Somehow, according to Libertarians, exchange and shared absolute benefits (positive-sum games) lead automatically to large international flows of imports and exports of goods, services, investments, technologies, and people. Oh, sure! That's why, between 1919 and 1939, international trade was exactly 1% higher at the start of WWII than in the first year of peace after WWI.

If there is an open, rule-based system of international trade, it is because there are either imperial powers (like Rome) or liberal hegemonial powers (the US the only one in world history that hasn't been,unlike Britain in the 19th century, simultaneously an imperial colonial power ruling by force). I have discussed these matters at length in the last three months at my web-site, http://www.thebuggyprofessor.org

....

That's in trade and global economic matters generally. When it comes to security matters where there are serious disputes, are we really supposed to assume that Hitler and Chamberlain (and Daladier, the French Premier) weren't principled men at Munich and before?

The British and French heads of government --- ruling giant empires, their countries rich and at the end of their expansion (status-quo countries, in short) --- hated war, feared it would be like WWI only worse, and believed Hitler shared their world-outlook: that is, their beliefs and values.

Hitler was a principled man. He believed Social Darwinian views were right: either the Aryan peoples defeated their foes, exterminated the "vermin" who threatened Aryan purity, and ruled Europe and later the world, or they would perish. A very principled guy, old Adolf. Just a different sort of princples.

How come, a la Coasian bargaining, these principled gentlemen didn't stop war from occurring in 1939? Or were these just problems of information and transaction costs?

....

I add that the current no. 2 at the Interior Dept., a former Ph.D. student of mine and a friend --- also the former book editor of Reason --- once asked me to write an article for the journal unmasking these simpleminded libertarian views. My reply: what's the point?

--- Michael Gordon, aka, the buggy professor

dearieme writes:

"the US the only one in world history that hasn't been..an imperial colonial power ruling by force": except The Phillipines and the Canal Zone?

Robin Hanson writes:

Yup, principles matter little most days. Thus economics is usually much more useful than moral philosophy.

Kurbla writes:

That is because you modify your principles to suit your life, not vice versa. It is easy, and it is by far the most frequent choice.

Scott Scheule writes:

Robin, that's ridiculous. Economics presumes a certain set of moral principles--some sort of controversial utilitarian framework.

I truly do not understand such comments from you. They strike me as defiantly naive.

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