On Principles And Values

Principles and values are concepts that have often troubled me. I struggle to understand their meanings and the interplay between them. This essay articulates some of my thoughts in the area.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary provides the following definitions:

principle: a rule of conduct

value: something intrinsically desirable

An example of a principle would be “A country should not attack another country” whereas a value would be “peace”. Another example of a principle would be “One must help their neighbor in times of need” and an associated example of a value would be “happy cohesive communities”.

A few observations follow from these examples.

  1. A value is a desirable state of being. It is a quality that we wish was present in the world around us. An individual may uphold a value for a variety of reasons. For example, “peace” may economically benefit an individual, it may give them inner happiness, it may appeal to their religious beliefs or it may improve the odds of survival of the people they love.
  2. A principle is a rule that we adopt, with the goal of realizing some value. A principle that is not anchored in some underlying value is mere dogma.
  3. Principles can be both prohibitive (in that they disallow some conduct) or prescriptive (in that they encourage some conduct).
  4. Adopting a principle is a predictive action. We believe that adhering to a principle will lead to the value we desire. That should be the sole reason we adopt a principle. Often, our principles are motivated or derived from the cumulative collection of human experiences.

A principle seems somewhat of a mental shortcut. One can deduce the correct course of action, given one’s values and the specific details of the present situation, without having any principles at all. Such a person would constantly evaluate all courses of action open to them, and choose the one that ensures maximal realization of the values they care about. Such an exercise is of course quite onerous and therefore, our brains start learning patterns that occur frequently and we call them principles. To borrow an analogy from mathematics, values are the axioms that we hold and principles are theorems that are derived from those axioms.

This framework of principles and values appeals to me. But many people object to principles being cast as mere shortcuts! To them their principles represent something more sacred. They are inviolable holy rules.

My argument against such a characterization is that, given any principle I am confident that I can construct a hypothetical situation where the follower of the said principle would be unwilling to adhere to it. For example, many people hold the principle, “Abortion should be disallowed”. Such a stance is typically borne out of the value they place on “life”. However, one can easily imagine situations where abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother. Everyone except the staunchest of abortion-opponents agree that abortion is an agreeable course of action in such a context.

What about those that do not condone abortion even in such an extreme scenario? I conclude that either they dogmatically stick to their principle without knowing the underlying value they desire; or the value that motivates their opposition to abortion is not “life” but something else – most likely strong Biblical beliefs or other related positions.

This example serves to illustrate an important point. The reason for all moral debates is conflicting values. In the abortion case for example, the conflicting values in question are: “personal freedom of the mother”, “life” and “Biblical values”. How does one balance the relative merit of one value vs others?

All of us answer this question in our own unique ways. Some people evaluate the options from a solely personal perspective: which value appeals the most to me? Others take a more societal view and discuss the issue in terms of impact to society at large. Yet others tread a fine path where they balance societal benefit with personal appeal and opt for a combination of the two. Still more people invoke divine scripture to answer these questions. Is there any one method which is right?

I do not claim to have an answer to this question. But I do claim that this question is irrelevant. This is because the real world has its own way of resolving such conundrums arising from conflicting values. When a society chooses to uphold some value, it derives utility (either negative or positive) from adhering to that value. For example, “equality and freedom for all” is a widely-held American value and it makes America an attractive destination for talented immigrants.

This observation leads to a strange Darwinian landscape where countless moral beliefs, ideas, values are competing to be adopted by a society. And over time, societies adopt those ideas that bestow the greatest strength upon them. Or phrased slightly differently, if a society makes a sub-optimal choice and sticks to a value that makes it weaker, it ends up being dominated by another society’s value system that made a smarter choice. The claim is that over the long term, a more efficient system will win out over a less efficient one; the moral appeal of the values and principles notwithstanding.

I do not claim to have any concrete evidence for my theory of Darwinian evolution of ideas and societies. However, let me provide some examples which will hopefully persuade you that there is a kernel of truth behind the idea.

Consider the issue of equal treatment for women. Tremendous advances have been made in the past few decades at bridging the gap between men and women. Today, things are much better in the developed world, while a lot of work is underway everywhere else. Let us ask a hypothetical question: Could such progress have been achieved five hundred years ago? Or two hundred years ago? Hundred years ago?

My answer to these questions is no. Such progress was simply impossible in the past. And the reason doesn’t lie in some moral awakening that we have had in the past few decades. Somewhat surprisingly, the reason lies in industrialization. Industrialization has helped the cause of women in two distinct ways.

Firstly, the modern world places greater emphasis on the mental abilities as opposed to raw physical strength. Industrialization and the onset of machines reduced the utility of personal physical strength and that proved to be a big equalizer between men and women.

Secondly, modern technology has freed up a lot of time that women used to invest in doing household chores. The biggest economic innovation ever made was the idea of division of labor. If a single person was required to cook food, stitch clothes, maintain cleanliness, cultivate food, earn money, defend against attacks, cure diseases etc, then nothing would ever get done. A society where people are responsible for all aspects of their lives would be hopelessly unproductive. So we invented roles. Farmers cultivate food, doctors cure diseases etc. This allows people to invest their energies into becoming better at their jobs and the society as a whole reaps super-linear benefits. This same division of labor principle is applicable to a medieval family as well. Men were naturally, biologically suited to go out to earn a living because a lot of jobs required physical strength.Consequently women were left to tend to the other jobs like stitching clothes, cooking food. cleaning the house etc. A society which organized itself the other way around would simply have been less productive and would not be able to compete with other societies around it.

So what has changed now? Modern technology has sped up household chores and women have a lot more time on their hands now. In such an environment, a society that gainfully employs half its population stands to be more productive than one that keeps its women imprisoned inside the household.

I find this absolutely fascinating. “Equality for women” seems to have gone from being a net productivity negative to a productivity positive. And lo and behold, the movements for women’s equality gained steam right around the time these conditions became ripe. This leads me to believe that our recent advances in women’s equality have less to do with the abstract moral force behind those ideals and more to do with the hard underlying economic realities.

A similar argument can be made with respect to slavery or the more general case of bonded labor. Machines which were cheaper and more effective than humans, made the idea of bonded labor obsolete. And a society that clung to obsolete notions of bonded labor and failed to embrace modern technology would lose out over the long term.

As the quote goes, “One cannot resist an idea whose time has come”. The converse of course is, no amount of advocacy can prop up an idea who time hasn’t come.

So where does this leave us? If we feel passionately about a cause, should we take a passive approach and wait for the right thing to happen at the right time? No. The above discussion does not attempt to devalue the role played by an agent of change. The only claim made is that even though agents of change are frequently driven by moral considerations, the success of their efforts has little correlation with the moral superiority of their ideas. However, since we can never predict whether the time is right, perhaps the best thing to do is to assume the right time is here and now and to keep fighting for the causes that we care about.