Wednesday, November 15, 2006

principles or consequences

Most of our opinions (on politics at least) are informed by a combination of principle and consequences. In different circumstances, we give different weights to both. A lot of people would argue that if a government allowed torture, the long term consequences would offset any short term gains made by, for example, preventing a terrorist attack. However, even if overall welfare was demonstrably increased over time by a torture policy those same people wouldn't suddenly become torture enthusiasts. That's because torture is wrong no matter what the consequences. When it comes to torture, most people would agree (I think!) that principle trumps consequences.

I feel the same way about free speech. I believe we?re all better off for having it, but even if we weren?t I don?t think anybody has the right to deny us that right.

In other cases, consequences trump principles. I doubt most people care about the principle involved in how the government controls the money supply; they are more likely to be concerned about the effects of any decisions on unemployment or inequality or something.

I think there is a huge temptation to try and merge principles and consequences when intellectual honesty requires that we do our very best to keep them separate.

Say for example Joe has a deeply held conviction that gays should be allowed to adopt children and a study comes out showing a negative impact on children raised by same sex parents. Joe immediately argues that the methodology is flawed and questions the motives of the authors, possibly before he has read the paper. Joe is confusing principle and consequences; there is no formula for weighing one against the other and Joe could still be in the right even if there are negative effects on children.

I read some fancy article explaining that it is impossible to untangle the two concerns. That doesn't mean that we can't try.


cristi said...

funny, south park last night was an episode on gay marriage and adoption. it was kak funny!

mr garrison (now mrs garrison after sex change) wanted to get back together with mr slave, but mr slave was now engaged to big gay al. mrs garrison was outraged and said that same sex marriage was wrong (although he/she's just saying that because he/she's jelous) and tald mr slave that he should marry her because he's a woman now, so it's moral.

mrs garrison tries to prevent the legalisation of same sex marriage by proving that gay couples can't raise children. the kids were doing that project that americans always do with raising an egg and mrs garrison made some of the partners in the class same sex. he tried to get stan/kyle's egg smashed so that they would prove that gay couples cant raise kids. he even hired a russian hit man to kill the egg. his plan failed

man, you have to watch it

Tracy Leigh said...

I would agree that our decisions are motivated by both principles and practical consequences. And that's good! The consequences of acting on a certain principle gives us an opportunity to reflect on that principle and it's validity.

Sometimes sticking to one's principles can be extremely annoying though. It makes me think of men who would not (or will) do something based on some principle (and most probably pride) even if it means getting killed, having one's family starve to death, etc., whereas women are much more likely to forgo principles that are not practical, e.g. the choice between being a virtuous poor maiden with starving kids, or becoming a prostitute to feed kids. (I'm basing this on stereotypes in the movies and books).

But in the end, when weighing up the consequences it's still a matter of choosing which desired outcome is better (e.g. torturing someone to get terrorist evidence, or not torturing them and letting a lot of people die), which essentially means a judgement on which principles and values outweigh others.

I think that in general it's very difficult to determine a principle hierarchy that always stands in every circumstance. And I suppose it is in the extreme cases that conflicting principles and values are tested.

stuart said...

"e.g. torturing someone to get terrorist evidence, or not torturing them and letting a lot of people die"

i dont think this is an issue of competing principles. i assume that in this case the consequences are worse if the bomb goes off.

i think consequences should guide what are principles are, and then we should stick to the principles because we usually dont have knowledge of what the consequences of our actions will be. the more info we have and the more uniquely personal the situation the more justified parting from the priciples.

that's why 24 is interesting. i usually think they are justified in using torture, but not always, and of course they sometimes torture innocent people.