David R. Henderson  

Can a Principled Person "Rise Above Principle?"

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In a recent critique of Richard Epstein's call for another U.S. military intervention in the Middle East, I wrote the following at the end of my piece:

One issue I did not address was the issue of whether President Obama has the constitutional power to go after ISIS without Congressional consent. He does not. Professor Epstein has always, to his credit, been a strong defender of the US Constitution. I assumed that he would want to defend it in this case also. But, although he has written a few times on this issue in September, he still has not written a word about this serious Constitutional issue. Professor Epstein badly wants the US government to make war on ISIS. He seems not to care about whether such a war would be unconstitutional.

A few days ago, Richard grappled with that issue. You can judge for yourself how well he did.

Right at the end of his grappling, Richard wrote:

My late father always said that in times of crisis "we have to learn to rise above principle." Sadly, this is one of those occasions.

Here's my question. Are these two statements coherent? There is no doubt in my mind that Richard Epstein has at least a few points of IQ on me. And he thinks deeply about many issues. That's why I don't ask my question rhetorically. I think his statements are not coherent, but maybe people with more a philosophical bent can tell me why they are or might be.

But if you do, you have to handle the following issue:

In which times of crisis do you need to "rise above principle?" What are the criteria for doing so? If you don't specify criteria, then I think you're saying that anything goes. If you do specify criteria, don't those criteria amount to a principle? In that latter case, are you really rising above principle?

If you care to answer, then please, as co-blogger Bryan Caplan would say, "show your work" or, as I would say, "explain."

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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy

COMMENTS (20 to date)
Daniel Klein writes:

If we allow calling a notion, even a sentiment, a "principle," even when such is quite loose and indeterminate, then I'd suggest the following perspective: There is a sort of hierarchy of principles, and there is no getting to a final, uppermost principle.

In a crisis, we may have to learn to rise above principle-i, perhaps by invoking some higher principles.

We might, however, be reluctant to use the word "principle" for notions, sentiments very loose and indeterminate. That doesn't mean we don't find them authorizing exceptions to a principle. After all, what authorizes the principles we do cherish? What warrant do those principles have? Why those principles and not others? Again, there is no final, uppermost level.

I don't mean to speak to ISIS or Congressional authorization. But I can assent to Epstein's father's statement.

Andrew_FL writes:

What is the difference between "setting aside principle" or "rising above principle," exactly?

I would say nothing, aside from a rhetorical flourish. It's merely a way to make pragmatism sound superior to adherence to principle. But if pragmatism were strictly superior to principle, one would have no reason to have principles.

On the other hand, one may have principles which one falls back on if they do not believe pragmatism is strictly superior-principles that apply when pragmatism fails. Similarly, one may be, for the most part, an adherent to principles but be occasionally willing to set them aside-so long as one has some principle by which to judge when this is appropriate.

But Epstein has phrased what he thinks should be done only in a way an unprincipled pragmatist would-or should, at any rate.

Sieben writes:

"rising above principle" is itself a principle.

Sorry. Of course, what Epstein means is that we have all these lofty ideals that we can stick by as long as the cost is minimal or even moderate. So I'd ask him is if he thinks there are two kinds of ethics: Luxury-ethics and Necessity-Ethics, or something similar.

Personally, I would steal if it was the only thing that could prevent me from dying. But in doing so, I would maintain that I was unethical and a thief.

I see no reason whatsoever that we should live in a universe where the path to survival is strictly ethical.

Just call a fig a fig man.

vikingvista writes:

It is coherent only if by "principle" he means "heuristics". But using language thus, we can never know when he is truly describing principles.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

So I think if you think that a single principle or set of principles is going to be sufficient to provide a best response in any number of unexpected situations we come across in life, then it is incoherent. I think it's probably more likely that what we call "principles" are good rules of thumb for getting along in the world with each other in a peaceful way and so doing right in the real world sometimes involves not following "principles".

If all that is meant by "principles" is "do what's best" then obviously it's incoherent but I don't get the impression that that's how it's meant here.

Now obviously part of the calculus here has to be around the precedent of breaking "principles" doesn't mean it's always wrong to break principles, but it's one more thing to consider.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I don't agree that if you can't specify criteria it is necessarily "anything goes". It's also likely, I think, that if you can't specify criteria it's because you only think this is appropriate in very hard to anticipate or articulate circumstances. After all, if criteria could be established you'd think it would be well incorporated in to your principles.

Blakeney writes:

No. His statement is rhetorically effective, but logically incoherent. If you act against a principle (and assuming you actually believe in that principle as a guide for your own actions, and not just as a convenient guide for the actions of others), then there are only two possibilities. Either you have given precedence to a different principle that you hold to be more important than the one broken, or you've just failed to live up to the original principle, period. Neither of these is "rising above principle".

"Learning to rise above principle" sounds very much like the rhetoric of someone who doesn't want his actions constrained by some inconvenient principle, but who really, really wants everyone else to keep thinking that he is principled.

Grant Gould writes:

Pragmatism is a principle, of a sort. And if one has a hierarchy of principles, there's no reason that pragmatism mightn't be at the top of that hierarchy.

Mind you, I'm not sure that any principles ranked below pragmatism count for much. Your second-tier principle might be "paint all cows purple" for all that it matters: Pragmatism is never silent, and would always trump anything else in the end.

Tom West writes:

So I think if you think that a single principle or set of principles is going to be sufficient to provide a best response in any number of unexpected situations we come across in life, then it is incoherent.

It's why I occasionally shock friends by saying "I have no principles."

In essence, I only have guidelines, but when those guidelines fail, as in various corner cases, etc., I'm willing to abandon them. Life is too complex for any set of principles to give me an optimum outcome.

Of course, when you're talking organizations rather than individuals, it's rather more tricky. Principles and rules are needed, along with penalties for their violation.

On the other hand, I don't think the principle is the ultimate good. However, rather than twisting our rules and principles to allow every bizarre corner case (example: torture and the "ticking bomb"), we're far better to acknowledge that in exceptional circumstances rules may need to be broken, and the substantial risk of penalties will fall upon people doing the right thing (which will keep them from breaking those rules arbitrarily).

I expect to see “principle” or another symbol with similar meaning develop among certain populations, in a model of life which I describe in a paper and blog.

For a compact description: I suppose that larger life, which includes all species which we can recognize, is an “anything goes” environment. Larger life allows survival for either an organism — or a coordinated group of organisms — which both feeds and defends itself.

Many organisms discover, sometimes through a process of spontaneous order, that they survive better if they cooperate with other organisms. The cooperation could accomplish either mutual defense or mutual harvesting, often entailing other outside-the-group organisms. In any case, the anything-goes environment of larger life rewards some sets of organisms that discover modes of cooperation, i.e. principles.

Larger life (Darwin or God, I don’t know) therefore wisely infused us with a tendency to value principles. We don’t know and will never know all the harsh rules which larger life may enforce upon us, but our limited tendency to organize ourselves, by giving civility, brotherly love, or justice, to some others of “us” gives us as a species an edge in larger, harsh reality. This is how I propose to make conscious sense of my subconscious tendency to feel moral impulses, to embrace principles.

Now to answer David's question more directly:

I would say the two statements are not coherent from the viewpoint of a specific set of people who have believed (reasonably enough for the short term) they could codify their organization's principles in the US Constitution.

But the two statements are coherent from the viewpoint of Larger Life which requires surviving organizations to flex their principles to enable exploitation of the resource patterns in the physical universe.

In my previous comment I failed to enter the links correctly. Trying again, here are the paper and the blog.

Mark V Anderson writes:

His comment certainly isn't coherent as it is stated. It only makes sense if one assumes more logic in the background. A very annoying way to state one's point of view.

As Daniel says, most of us have a hierarchy of principles. Apparently Epstein has a principle that the US Constitution should be followed, but he has principles that rise above that. I think he is saying that the need to make war on ISIS over-rides the principle in favor of the Constitution. The rest of his essay isn't coherent enough to understand exactly what this over-riding principle is, but clearly there is one.

By the way, I am shocked at how many otherwise intelligent people treat beheadings as somehow more evil than other types of killings. The intent of the beheadings is to create an emotional response, and it has had great success in that regard. I guess I expected that pundits with national journalistic reach would not let emotion overcome their reason, but that doesn't seem to be the case. I don't think I've read even one pundit say that shooting a hostage is as evil as beheading one, but I've heard many that imply the opposite. I guess I should never be surprised at the low level of discourse on political matters.

It is a matter of law, not principle.

As I understood it, the President is granted great power, under the supervision and will of Congress. Congress and the President are supposed to be restricted by the Constitution. There is a long legal process run by the Supreme Court which decides conformance to the Constitution.

How many divisions of armed forces does the Supreme Court have under its command? None. It relies on the President and Congress to comply with its rulings. Ultimately, it is only a learned advisory body speaking to the public and the better natures of politicians. Congress also has no direct power and relies on the President to follow the law.

The principle of fast, direct presidential action without approval by Congress applies only when there is too little time for Congress to act, or if there is no Congress to act. All other matters are subject to law passed by Congress.

Why this restriction? Because the immense power of the US armed forces and federal agencies is supposed to be under the control of more than one man as President, and require the agreement of at least a few hundred wo/men of experience.

Congress has been able to pass a new law in a day or two when there has been broad agreement. So, any government action which can wait a week certainly must come under the review of Congress.


It is a frightening development to see that this structure has become a fantasy. Obviously, we now have a President who can do almost anything without Congress, and with the consent of even Richard Epstein. The public has forgotten why the Constitution is there. Political parties are happy to take any power they can and apply it as they can. The Supreme Court is a political institution, not dedicated to an understandable body of law. The law and the Constitution can be anything it says it is.

The President and government agencies obviously lie to Congress and destroy evidence without effective restraint. Obama has been an amazing political entrepreneur. He has discovered that a modern Congress and nation will not restrain a populist President. He and his party will be richly rewarded for taking all power.

When Epstein says that action must rise above principle, he is declaring his evaluation of our political system. That is, Congress is irrelevent. The President will do what he wants, what is politically expedient in a populist sense. So, Epstein is making his appeal directly to the President.

That is logical. We now live in a tyrrany. I don't see what is going to stop our politicians from consolidating and continuing this tyrrany.

marc writes:

I sounds like he's saying that its not clear how to intervene without doing more harm than good, that the power dynamics are not well understood, and the any future threat is difficult to quantify.
Nonetheless, since dire consequences can be postulated, it's reasonable to disregard the constitution -- and his Dad would agree with him.

Nathan W writes:

"Pragmatism" is often a dirty word used to justify terrible things that people know are wrong. Instead of looking for alternative means, they say "I'm being pragmatic".

That's not principled.

Nathan W writes:

You can't exactly call them principles if you will sell them out the moment they become inconvenient.

Unless you're an "in principle _______, but ... " sort of person.

"Times of crisis" is not a complete argument. There needs to be complete argumentation as to why one set of principles or the facts of a specific circumstance outweight the other. Very few principles can serve as maxims across all situations. Kant's categorical imperative(s) is(are) one of the few that many will hold to (whether they know it or not), although in times of crisis, sometimes people over-react or start thinking with their monkey brains instead of reason and do things that are completely contrary to the value systems that they have willingly and even heartedly ascribed to.

Consider the argument: "Adhere to the constitution at all times, except for whenever I feel it's inconvenient".

More likely, strong adherents of the US constitution have almost always found themselves able to bend its words to their views, and also see much inherent value in it. But the willingness to ignore it when convenient shows that it does not offer all principles for all times, or alternatively that certain people will sell out.

Consider the directive "love your neighbour", but then under no situation of threat, many Christians will set aside this directive if the neighbour is atheist, black, Muslim, or all manner of people. Jesus never said "love your neighbour, but only if he/she is WASP", for example.

Rick Hull writes:

I think principles (in this context at least) are all about justification. On what principle may I defend my (questionable) action as just? For example, violence is justifiable under the well-known principle of self defense. When one is facing an existential threat, norms and principles which guide one's behavior in more peaceful and harmonious times may be abandoned. Kill or be killed is a bedrock law of existence where civilization has failed.

I haven't read Epstein's piece yet, but I'm imagining his justification rests, perhaps implicitly, on existential threat.

Jake Witmer writes:

Clearly, principles are hierarchically ordered, including principles that may not be sacrificed, which then generate valuable heuristics that may be sacrificed in some scenarios. This essay is about moral hierarchies of importance:

Also, such valuable heuristics must exist as "rules" for those who lack hierarchical thinking, and are hence closer to animals. Hierarchical thinking is not a factor of race, it's a factor of environment: those in Milgram's study who had not examined their own ethics to the degree where they would reject violating their own morality lacked a valid moral/intellectual hierarchy.

Epstein rejects the unlimited slaughter of innocents by a pre-civilization "might makes right" loose-theocracy. In this case, he's willing to jettison the heuristics that keep America safe from becoming an Empire (a battle that's already lost, BTW) in order to save lives in the short term.

It's a simple matter of prioritizing strategies against multiple evils.

The fact that I understand where Epstein is coming from doesn't mean I agree with him. My own solution to the problem is a technology solution, similar to Harry Browne's. I think we should offer FULLY AUTOMATED letters of marque and reprisal, payable to anyone.

In fact, I think that such letters, once offered, set the world on a path to retaliating against all empowered sociopaths. Combined with robotics and some strategy borrowed from the novel "Unintended Consequences", we're looking at the fast path to a free trade future.

John Hawkins writes:

There are always exceptional circumstances which principles and rules are unable to address.

This is why governments fail so often.

Hazel Meade writes:

IMO, in times of crisis it is all the more important to stick to principles.

Crises are when our principles get tested. If you find that in a crisis you can't stick to your principles, then either your principles were wrong in the first place, or you were never as committed to them as you claimed to be.

There is no "rising above" principles, only abadoning principles, or adopting different principles.

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