When Principles Collide

One of the things about growing up with a sheltered life is that you rarely ever have to stand up for your principles. This could be due to several reasons: maybe they’re not really your principles, but your parents’; maybe you’re just not placed into situations where conflicts occur; maybe your principles themselves seek to avoid confrontation. I recall so many times when I was younger that I had some well thought-out idea for something but then instead went along with someone else’s idea without question, in the interest of avoiding conflict. I’m not saying that you should always insist what you’re doing is correct, but I think on the spectrum I was too far on the side of passivity.

Throughout college (and perhaps starting senior year of high school), I found myself more often at points where I needed to disagree. It wasn’t really conflict for the sake of conflict, but rather to get to the truth or to make a situation better, by challenging faulty ideas or plans. I think this change is evident on my blog: in the past, most of the topics I wrote about were very non-controversial, but recently, they have been more questioning of commonly held ideas. Granted, my online persona (including on Facebook) and my real life character are still quite different—in real life I don’t go around seeking to criticize peoples’ religious beliefs, an activity that is reserved for the internet. That’s another topic.

Contradictory Principles

For a really simple example, consider the principles “be honest” and “don’t be a jerk.” Everyone follows these principles, and most of the time they support each other. You’d be quite a jerk if you lied to your friends about so many things to the point where nothing you say has any credibility. However, when you find minor fault in something someone did, you could be honest and tell them, but most of the time it’s better to be silent about it. Of course, the best choice depends all on the situation.

contradiction-signs
I respect both ownership rights and aesthetic cleanliness—do I pollute whitespace by citing the image source, especially if the image isn’t all that special?

Perhaps a more pertinent contradiction is that between tolerance of others and… tolerance of others. For example, most of my audience probably tolerates the LGBT community. Yet, there are many people in America who do not. This leads to a tolerance paradox (that I think many of us don’t think about): Is is possible to simultaneously be tolerant of LGBT individuals and tolerant of people who are intolerant of them? Is a hypothetical all-tolerant person also tolerant of intolerance?

This depends somewhat on how you define tolerance, but it points to a deeper issue, that simply using the principle “tolerate others” is insufficient in these fringe cases. There must be some overriding principle that tells you what to be tolerant of and what not to be tolerant of. I think that being intolerant of intolerance is still tolerant.

In chess, one of the most important principles, among the first to be taught to new players, is to never lose their queen unless they can get the opponent’s queen as well. While this is a great principle 99.9% of the time, there are cases where losing your queen (for no pieces or just a pawn in return) is the best move, and there are even cases where it is the only non-losing move. It’s because the principle of “win the game” overrides the principle of “don’t lose your queen.”

Interestingly enough, even meta-principles can contradict one another. For me, “stand up for your principles” is a good principle, and so is “be open-minded about your principles.” Often blindly standing up for principles is a very bad idea (in the typical novel/movie, the antagonist may have good intentions but focuses on one idea or principle to the exclusion of all others, thus causing more overall harm than good; on the other hand, this principle seems required to become a politician).

Throughout my first two years of college, I wanted to go into academia, and I naively shunned finance because I thought people went into it just for money. Of course, once you start thinking about what to do after college and the need for money comes closer, you realize that you need money to live(!) and that despite the negative outside perception, the industry is not all evil people trying to figure out how to suck away all your money. Of course, on the “stand up for your principles” front, this change fails pretty hard, but it follows “being open-minded about your principles,” which I consider to override the first in this case. After all (to add one more layer of contradiction), it is standing up for the principle of being open-minded.

One thought on “When Principles Collide

  1. 1. I’m sure you’ve seen Margin Call, but if you haven’t, here’s my favourite quote from it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2f2kGHcdJYU

    2. Coming from a math background, I’m sure you’re familiar with rigorous and logical modes of thought; I suggest you apply these in your moral and ethical thinking.
    In particular, consider rigorously defining what a principle is. What is a “principle”? An axiom, maybe? But they’re certainly not axioms when exceptions are easily found or they’re so overly superceded.
    I believe what you’ll find is what principles really are, are simply guidelines, watered-down generalizations that society and humanity have come up with in order to guide people to good outcomes. “Be honest” is just a one-liner that will lead people to the better outcome in the prevailing majority of situations. It helps when people are unable to reason the correct decisions from their personal axioms themselves, such as when they’re too emotionally biased or invested, or when the situation is too complex, or when they don’t have enough time.
    The principle of “honesty” itself actually has no moral or ethical authority whatsoever, and thus it’s quite logically meaningless to discuss what principles are “better” or “worse” or which principles supersede others. I think a major flaw with humanity and society in general is that we have a habit of taking things as axioms when they are only societal constructs – virtues, principles, standards, whatever the case may be. Of course, this isn’t exactly a “problem” because having to actively question and reason out every decision we make would be extremely time consuming – humans aren’t designed to live like that. But I think it’s valuable to recognize that humans as a species are not rational in nature, and you can always get blindsided no matter how carefully you try to think.

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