Ruled - Or Principled? : LUSENET : TB2K spinoff uncensored : One Thread

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from Ruled-Or Principled?

RuledOr Principled?

by David Kelley

Reprinted from IOS Journal, Volume 6, Number 6, February, 1997.

Near the beginning of the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch Cassidy is challenged to a knife fight by another member of his Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. Stalling for time, Butch approaches him to discuss the rules. "Rules? In a knife fight?" the challenger asks incredulously-and while his guard is down Butch disables him with a kick below the belt.

This scene always struck me as an accurate assessment of the value of rules.

By "rules" I mean self-contained prescriptions about concrete actions or situations, telling you what to do or how to do it. Fasten your seat-belt. Don't smoke in elevators. Don't have sex on the first date. Don't drive over the speed limit. Don't hit below the belt. For many rules there is a rationale provided by some broader principle. But when rules take the place of principles, as is happening more and more often today, Butch Cassidy's response is the proper one: don't let them get in your way.

Rules-From Kiss to Consummation

By contrast with principles, rules are concrete and limited in scope, prescribing a particular type of action in a particular situation. "Don't smoke in elevators" is a rule. "To maintain good relations with others, it is necessary to treat them with courtesy" is a principle. Someone who followed this principle would not smoke in an elevator with others present-nor would he talk out loud at the movie theater, nor insult his host at a party, nor do any number of other things covered by the principle.

Large regions of social life that ought to be governed-and to a large extent used to be governed-by principles of courtesy, justice, and mutual respect have now been bureaucratized by rules. Movie theaters find it necessary to inform their patrons that talking during the movie is forbidden. Interactions between men and women in the workplace are now regulated by sexual harassment rules that attempt to replace the principle of respect and the exercise of judgment. At Antioch College several years ago, an official sexual-conduct code moved bureaucracy into the bedroom, requiring that "Verbal consent should be obtained with each new level of physical and/or sexual contact/conduct.... The request for consent must be specific to each act" from kiss to consummation. What is offensive about this code is not merely its presumptuous interference in the most intimate of personal affairs, but its idiotic attempt to break the delicate and varied pas de deux into steps suitable for rules.

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-- eve (, October 03, 2000


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What To Do After You Don't

Because they are so concrete, no set of rules could possibly cover every situation and action to which the corresponding principle applies. This defect is particularly serious in ethics, the field that provides the broadest and most fundamental level of guidance for human action. To appreciate the problem, consider the Ten Commandments. Leaving aside the first few, which deal with the worship of God, the list is not unreasonable as far as it goes. It's generally a good idea to honor your parents, and not to steal, kill, commit adultery, bear false witness against your neighbor, or covet his possessions. But these rules hardly cover the whole of life. After you have refrained from doing these "Don'ts," what then? What values will you seek in life? How will you deal with other people, beyond respecting their rights? Is self-interest or self-sacrifice the honorable course in life? On these and countless other questions, the code is silent.

The same problem applies to individual elements in the code. Bearing false witness, for example, is a specific form of lying, which is a specific form of dishonesty: trying to gain a value by faking reality. In my own case, not being given much to gossip, I doubt that I face the choice whether to state a falsehood about someone else's behavior as often as once a day. Even if we broaden the commandment into an injunction against all lying, as Christian moralists normally do, it is still a rule forbidding a specific type of action. There are many other forms of dishonesty, such as plagiarizing the work of others, pretense or phoniness in one's public persona, or self- deception, that are equally immoral but not mentioned in the code. By contrast, the principle that one should seek values by grasping and representing reality rather than by faking it gives us comprehensive guidance, across a vast number of circumstances that could not be covered by a long list of discrete rules.

Rules, Principles, and the Conceptual Level

The advantage of principles is the advantage of concepts: They unite an open-ended number of particular cases under a single abstraction. The concept "man" is a single mental unit that stands for all human beings; without this concept, we could not possibly hold in mind a list of every human being as an individual. In the same way, a principle is a single mental unit that covers a multitude of actions and occasions. The principle that one should drive under control, for example, applies to every type of road, road condition, level of traffic, etc., for which one could not possibly specify a comprehensive list of discrete rules.

Of course we pay a price for this advantage of principles. Because it is so abstract, one has to apply a principle to a particular case by the exercise of judgment, taking account of the specific facts about the context. In the case of honesty, for example, the amount of information one is obliged to convey to others depends on the exact nature of the relationship one has with them. But this points to a second defect of rules. Rules are formulated for specific contexts, but they never fully specify the nature or limitations of that context. As a result, rules invariably have exceptions and they often conflict with each other. Someone trying to follow the rules without the benefit of broader principles will have no way to determine when he is faced with an exception, or how to resolve a conflict.

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-- eve (, October 03, 2000.

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For example, honoring your parents is normally a matter of justice as well as affection: giving them what they are due for having given you life and nurture. But the fourth commandment has exceptions. Some parents treat their children with such cruelty or neglect that no honor is due them; quite the contrary. The commandment gives us no guidance on this point. The principle of justice does. The principle, to begin with, has no exceptions-you should always treat people as they deserve, in light of the virtues and vices they practice, the benefit or harm they have done you, and the legitimate expectations they have on the basis of your relationship. It is therefore safe to rely on the principle in every circumstance. Second, the principle tells us how to identify exceptions to the more concrete rule: parents should not be honored for their vices, any more than anyone else should; and they should not be honored for nurturing their children if they failed to do so.

The exercise of judgment cannot be eliminated from human life, and the attempt to do so by erecting a network of rules has destructive consequences in public as well as private affairs.

In hiring an employee, for example, the factors one considers are not limited to those one can quantify, or even those one can name. An experienced interviewer may notice subtle aspects of the way a person presents and conducts himself, and give them weight as signs of how he will perform on the job, relate to the other employees, etc. Employers seeking to avoid civil rights sanctions, however, know that they cannot appeal to such judgments if they are challenged in court by a member of a protected minority who has been turned down for a job. As a result, they have tended to rely more on checklists of external credentials, and some companies have even lobbied the government for explicit quotas as a way of protecting themselves legally. The result is not only the injustice of people getting jobs they don't deserve, but a general "dumbing down" of the whole selection process.

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-- eve (, October 03, 2000.

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There is a final defect that rules have in virtue of their concreteness. It is the most serious defect of all, and it is, once again, most pronounced in the realm of ethics. Unless rules are anchored in principles, they cannot be rationally justified. A moral code must be validated by reference to a fundamental value, an ultimate good to which all other goals of action are means. For Objectivism, that ultimate good is the individual's own life and happiness. Moral principles identify the requirements for living successfully, given man's basic needs and capacities: Production is a value because it provides for our needs. Conceptual knowledge is a value because it makes production possible. Rationality is a virtue because it is the only way to acquire and maintain a conceptual grasp of reality. Honesty and integrity are virtues because they are the only way of keeping one's actions tied to one's grasp of reality. And so on.

Detached from this context, rules have no rational warrant. They can be accepted only on faith or authority-i.e., as arbitrary edicts. This is the primary reason morality is seen by most people as a constraint imposed on them from the outside. In fact, as Ayn Rand often said, morality is a vital need, something to be used and valued as an instrument of happiness. To someone who values his mind, for example, and takes pride in exercising and acting on it, dishonesty has no appeal. Without that understanding, however, moral rules will be experienced as an external constraint, a tax on one's pursuit of happiness, as in the old joke about the Ten Commandments: Moses comes down from the mountain and says to the people, "The good news is that I bargained Him down to 10; the bad news is that adultery is still on the list."

Reason vs. Will

Properly formulated, a principle states the relationship between an action and a goal: "To maintain good relations with others, it is necessary to treat them with courtesy"; "To deal with other people rationally, it is necessary to give them what they are due"; etc. Principles are expressed in the declarative rather than the imperative mood. They are expressions of reason. Rules are imperatives: Do this, don't do that. Unless they are short-hand versions of some principle, backed by its rationale, they are merely commands, expressions of someone's will. Indeed, one of the chief reasons that a belief in God survives in a scientific age is the assumption that morality consists in commands, and that where there is a law there must be a Law-giver.

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-- eve (, October 03, 2000.

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In social contexts, rules laid down by an authority are sometimes necessary to prevent conflicts among people. It doesn't matter which side of the road we drive on-there is no rational ground for preferring the right-hand rule in America to the left-hand rule in England-but we do need to drive on the same side. Organizations need rules of various kinds to ensure consistency in practices and procedures. And the basic principle of individual rights means that an owner is free to lay down any rule he wishes for those who use his property-who visit his home, work in his factory, rent apartments in his building, patronize his bowling alley, or whatever.

But even in this context, rules have all the defects we discussed: they cannot cover every situation, they have exceptions, and if they are detached from rational principles they are an arbitrary expression of will. When rules are necessary, rule-makers have an obligation to make them intelligible. Rules that are arbitrary or issued chiefly as a means of asserting authority, invite rule- breaking by those independent enough to bridle at subjection to another's will.

The Need for Objectivity

Human beings cannot live successful lives by acting on the impulse of the moment. We need objective standards to guide our actions and to coordinate them with the actions of others. Conservative moralists today are trying to counter the rise of subjectivism and the decline of moral standards in our society by urging a return to stricter rules of conduct, especially in matters of marriage, sex, and family. But strictness is not objectivity; it is merely confining.

The more honest of these moralists are quite explicit about the connection between rules, conformity, and authority. William Bennett, author of The Book of Virtues, complains that our society places insufficient "value on social conformity, respectability, observing the rules." Another conservative activist was quoted recently as saying that "students should be told that stealing is wrong, 'according to an authority-either God or parents, it doesn't matter.'" In regard to morality, however, there are no authorities. An expression of will divorced from reason is arbitrary, with no valid claim on our compliance. It is just another form of subjectivism.

We do need objective standards. But objectivity requires principles, not rules. The choice is to be principled, acting on one's own understanding of reality, or to be ruled-by an explicit authority or by the cramped and encrusted dictates of tradition. For anyone who values his own life and his own autonomy, that's an easy choice.

-- eve (, October 03, 2000.

This is an excellent summary of idiotic attempts to regulate "proper" thinking and behavior via "Political Correctness". Another example would be so-called "hate crimes", whereby crimes such as murder, which are already heinous and illegal, are somehow made "more" heinous and "more" illegal when committed against some citizens for one particular reason rather than another.

Common sense goes a long way over unrealistic rules, their only purpose being to reflect what is fashionably correct at the time that they are enacted. "Politically correct" rules weaken principled behavior, because they attempt to codify rather than humanize.

-- King of Spain (madrid@aol.cum), October 03, 2000.

My rule is to ALWAYS have sex on the first date. Trouble is, not everyone understands the rule.

-- (, October 03, 2000.

Oh how sweet, your highness...apparently we both get outraged by the same things.

And a curtsy and a gift just for you, m'Lord...

Hate Crimes Law Not Answer to Gay, Racial Killings

Hate Crimes Law Would Undermine Protection of Rights by Using Criminal Law to Enforce Ideological Orthodoxy

Robert W. Tracinski (Click here to download an image of this author for print publication.)

Tuesday the Senate passed legislation for a federal hate crimes bill. A hate crimes law would make crimes motivated by enmity toward blacks, gays or other protected groups into a special federal offense. The ostensible purpose of such a law is to protect minorities from persecution. The result, however, would be the exact opposite. Targeting those with politically incorrect motives undermines the principle of objective law which undergirds our legal system's protection of rights.

Criminal law exists to prohibit certain actions  to safeguard individuals against force or fraud. For this purpose, there is no shortage of existing statutes. For instance, the killer of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student from Wyoming, was charged with a state crime.

What, then, will a hate crimes law add? Despite its name, it is not hatred as such that the proposed law targets. After all, which crimes arent motivated by hatred? Are assaults and murders usually committed out of benevolence toward the victim? The real target is the criminals ideas. The proposed law declares that criminals motivated by a government-designated set of intolerable ideas  racism, sexism, religious sectarianism, anti-homosexuality  deserve special prosecution and additional punishment.

But to subject someone to trial and punishment on the basis of his ideas  regardless of how despicable those ideas might be  constitutes a politicization of criminal law. Why, for example, should a racist be prosecuted for the special crime of targeting blacks, while the Unabomber is not subject to special prosecution for his hatred of scientists and business executives? The only answer is that the Unabombers ideas are considered more politically correct than the racists.

A hate crimes law would expand the laws concern from criminal action to criminal thought. It would institute the premise that the purpose of our legal system is not to defend the rights of the victim, but to punish socially unacceptable ideas. This is a premise that should be abhorrent to a free society.

In addition, if committing a crime based on bad ideas warrants greater punishment, then committing a crime based on politically correct ideas should warrant lesser punishment. The judicial process would have to focus on the criminals ideology, rather than on the objective violation of his victims rights.

The beginnings of this politicization of crime are already in place. When anti-Vietnam War protesters, for example, forcibly occupied buildings and bombed laboratories in the 60s and 70s, they were heralded as political dissenters, deserving of special leniency  while today, those who commit similar crimes in the name of racism are considered deserving of special penalties.

Similarly, in recent years the left has (properly) campaigned for laws to prevent anti-abortion protesters from harassing doctors and halting access to abortion clinics. Yet its own protesters routinely use force  such as the occupation of timberland to prevent logging  with no fear of special government prosecution.

Nor is the attempt to politicize the criminal law limited to the left. Several years ago, a conservative judge suspended the sentences of two priests  arrested for physically blocking entry to an abortion clinic  because they were motivated by sincere religious beliefs.

Under such a system, anything goes. The entire criminal justice apparatus can be used as a political tool by whatever faction happens to be in power. Crimes can be whitewashed if done for the correct political motives, while extra punishment can be meted out to those with incorrect motives.

Where will this end? If a man convicted of an actual criminal act can be sentenced to additional years in prison simply for his ideas  then, in logic, why cant someone be punished solely for his ideas? Even if he has not committed a single action against another person, why cant he be tried simply for being a purveyor of hate? Indeed, this development is already foreshadowed by campus speech codes, which bar statements deemed offensive to protected groups.

The first official step on this deadly path  the creation of a special category of hate crimes  should be resoundingly rejected. It is an attempt to import into Americas legal system a class of crimes formerly reserved only to dictatorships: political crimes. Instead, we should insist on the one principle that forms the foundation for the protection of all rights, i.e., that the purpose of law is to punish criminals for initiating force against others  not for holding bad ideas.


Just incorporate it into the more abstract, and general, principle of your need to increase your well-being. "You know, I'd just love to um...enhance my well-being tonight, my sweets." Yeah...that's right...that's the ticket -- enhance my well being."

As revealed by raised eyebrows, open expression and inviting curiosity, your partner has become momentarily immobile; very gently and subtly make your advance.

Good luck.

-- eve (, October 03, 2000.

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