Time Heals All Wounds.. And Then Kills the Patient
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Fri Dec 30 15:08:54 2011
Being Principled

A bit of other stuff first:

I've been pondering what it means to be principled, and wondering whether it's a good thing.

A long time ago, when I was a libertarian, I had a lot of conversations with my first girlfriend on ethics. She self-identified as pragmatic and considered me principled, and made a case for pragmatism; that for any principle there is probably a situation where it should probably be ignored. My philosophy has changed a lot since then; I no longer try to build my worldview out of relatively formal axiomatic logic, although it is not entirely astructural. Since that time, there are two major developments:

  • I developed my metaphilosophical value-theory (whereby I divide values into moral values, ethical values, pragma values, and preference values, and then construct frameworks for each set of values). Each framework can fall back to its corrisponding set of raw values for situations not already covered. This provides some of the flexibility she has/had with her pragmatism without losing all structure
  • I have replaced my absolute faith in logic and dialogue with a pragmatic one. I no longer believe in mathematical or logical truth and no longer believe the best argument is necessarily a path to truth. Instead, I see logic and maths and all other thought as human inventions, adopted pragmatically, adapted pragmatically, and potentially best-of-breed and provider of good betting-odds on any factual claims, but never potentially more.
My initial intuition is that these do not disqualify me from being principled, except for some conceptualisations of what it means to be principled. Like many things in philosophy, the definitional border varies as per the person with a perspective.

Other matters for another angle:

  • I occasionally see people arguing 「Batman Ethics」 online; given vigilantism, they see Batman's refusal to kill as respectworthy. I cannot condemn this enough; given how often villains in that set of stories escape and continue to kill, I think Batman is performing unethically by continuing to return them alive to the justice system (and often Arkham Asylum) for the nth time. It is inappropriate (and even vile) to show mercy in some circumstances. Granted, none of these circumstances show up in the daily lives of most people in real life (certainly never has happened for me)
  • I believe in both Machiavellian virtú and something like classical virtue. What I mean by that is that for those who have or seek power, it is acceptable for them to create a separate set of moral values that are aimed at a more consequentialist moral framework for politics/nations, provided these are in the service of the public good. This alternate moral framework must never be selfish, and it still will restrain some actions, but it will be aimed squarely at what is good for the people and the state, not what is acceptable as the morals of most people. This is the same kind of morals we might imagine someone with a time machine exercising; given such a tool, we might reasonably discard day-to-day morality given what we know of history and kill a child to save millions.
  • I've attached the notion of the latter as imposing a status on someone as a "state actor of an unrecognised nation"; when someone takes that kind of political/world-shaping stage, they accept a vulnerability. People with traditional morality will not understand (and might not even accept the notion of virtú as independent from virtue), and there must not be a way of judging their acts, if failed/discovered, as anything but criminal. Just as the American founding fathers, or Kemal Ataturk, or many others took history's reigns in their hands, they likely would've been executed had they failed.
One of the things about calling someone principled is that it says nothing about the principles they hold. Presumably, it says that they have thought about their values, they've crafted them into some kind of system, and they'll tell you about that system if you ask. I suppose there's also another meaning of the term for those living in a society with considerable value-hegemony; by that meaning, being principled would mean accepting the dominant values and holding them against narrow self-interest. Practically speaking, they're significantly similar in that presumably self-interest won't be sought over some notion of the public good, they just differ in what conception of the public good is in play.