People engage in behavior for all kinds of reasons. Life is a system of relational dynamics, where the repercussions of what we do ripple out, often in ways we would not have thought possible. We are not autonomous agents interacting with others only when desired. If the effects of our actions could be selectively chosen by those we are connected with, there’d be no impetus to determine whether some reasons for engaging in behavior are more legitimate than others. So we start with principles.
Starting with Principles
As Leonard Peikoff in his book “Understanding Objectivism” notes,
Life (which is our standard of value) requires certain specific actions, and those are not automatically built into it; therefore, we have to figure out what they are; we have to decide before we act…” (pg. 92)
As many faced with the morning ritual of breakfast, the most seemingly basic of choices is multifaceted, with no inherently right or wrong selection. Contrary to the absolutist who relegates context to a quaint consideration, the ‘right’ choice in many situations involves any number of potential behaviors.
Principles are not here equated with Values, nor are they dogmatic statements based on authority, whether religious or some secular social institution. Principles are basic premises that provide the grid through which values and social context manifest in a particular behavior. Principles provide the fundamental mental framework by which a person interacts with life.
Again from Peikoff:
“The first point in order to understand the issue of principles is that man has to act long-range. What do we mean by “long-range”? A person has to take account of the consequences of his action against the whole span of his life, as opposed to mere immediate satisfaction.” (pg. 91)
Values do not offer enough long-term structure, they do not tell us either how we view the world or determine the manner in which we interact with it.
Principles work by selecting the importance of information within social context to help determine which Values will be supported through behavior. We may talk of being in different social circles as putting on different hats. At other times particular behavior may be labeled as not being the ‘real’ me. This comes from confusing Values with Principles.
Values manifest in many different behaviors. Principles are bedrock beliefs about how the world is constructed. The crisis of identity found in not ‘being real’ concerns the Principle of ‘ego’ or ‘self.’ The person dealing with claims of hypocrisy or inconsistency has a view of self as singular and non-contextual, as some kind of soul-based transcendent being. If instead the person viewed ego as a point of reference within social context, or as a set of blinders allowing us to see only parts of reality, behavior becomes less about consistency and more about how each context calls for a different focus on Values. While the person can still decide later whether certain behaviors would have been better, the behavior is never ‘other’ than who they are.
Supporting Your Choices
A principle is the only thing that can decide what to do when you have a choice. The whole point of principles is to enable us to make choices, to enable us to judge which is more important. (pg. 107)
These principles are not often conscious and as a consequence not given the consideration they deserve. We can no more remove principles from our lives as we can remove our capacity to live relationally. What can be done is to bring into the light precisely what principles we are holding. Doing so helps us see how our behavior manifests our Values within the particular social context we find ourselves in. By doing so we can find a greater degree of integration, not only within ourselves but in the interactions we have with others.