Policies and Principles

1996-11-22

It seems to me that principles and policies work together to achieve values over a relatively lengthy stretch of time. On an egoistic theory, this means that I have found certain principles and policies to be good for my well-being (broadly conceived) over time, so that I find it valuable to follow those principles and policies in all or almost all instances. Of course there are exceptions to my following the principle or policy -- sometimes I forget or I don't know that this situation is one to which the principle or policy applies, but most importantly there exist cases in which the hierarchy of my values comes into play and I must decide between following one principle or another.

For instance, one of my admittedly trivial policies is to always drive with my lights on -- I think it's safer, plus I've found that it reduces the chances of my getting speeding tickets (since the cops think I'm a safe driver). Now I say "always", but sometimes I forget to turn my lights on and I could think of instances in which I would not drive with my lights on -- say, someone is following me with criminal intent and I don't want to be seen. In such a case, my policy of driving with my lights on gets trumped by another policy, namely self-preservation. Ceteris paribus it's good to drive with my lights on, but in this case all things are not equal and it's better to not get run off the road (or whatever) than to drive with my lights on.

This is part of what it means to have a hierarchy of values -- it enables me to make judgments of "good", "better", and "best". These comparative terms are objective in a sense -- they are not imperative concepts of obligation, but objective concepts of good-for-me. How can I compare imperative concepts? I can think "well, I ought to drive with my lights on, but I also ought to avoid this person following me, so which obligation should I follow?" The only way to make the decision is for one obligation to be seen as more significant, weightier, or better than the other -- that is, by introducing a value other than obligation. There's no easy way to think about obligations qua obligations in terms of a hierarchy of values, in the way that there is for objective concepts of good-for-me (i.e., good, better, best).

Someone could argue that "if I knew the outcome of an action would fail to provide the sought value, I could avoid the action", but I'm not sure that's true. For example, I have a policy of keeping confidences. Let's say that my keeping a confidence of one friend were to cause me to lose the friendship of another friend, and that I know or suspect that ahead of time. Perhaps I would act on the policy despite the negative consequences, because losing the first friend would be a deeper loss than losing the second friend. Or I might follow a policy -- say the policy of speaking out against injustice -- even though this causes me to be thought of as a crank or to be harassed by the authorities. But as an egoist I would not follow this policy because it is an obligation -- I would follow it because I think it is good, right, in line with my nature, whatever you want to call it. I see that as having a different moral force than following an obligation.

Further, I don't see my argument for objective vs. imperative concepts as entailing a position on consequentialism vs. deontologism. Objective vs. imperative is different from consequentalist vs. deontological. I could say, as utilitarianism does, that consequences are the focus of moral value and still argue that one ought to act so as to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number. This is simply the moral ought of the great ethical traditions of post-Christian Western ethics, and is not the exclusive prerogative of deontologism. Interestingly, this conception of obligation is missing from ancient Greek ethics. For the Greeks, the operative ethical concept is not ought but good -- the classical thinkers do not focus on obligation (as most medieval and modern thinkers do), but on excellence and the good. I am trying to return to the classical conception of ethics and cleanse Objectivism of post-Christian concepts of moral obligation.

This is why I say that principles, policies, loyalty, integrity, and the good are important ethical concepts but that they do not require obligation or imperative notions as their justification -- we can ground these ideas just fine using objective concepts like good, better, and best (for the individual human being).


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