"Principles" Considered Harmful

I think one of the major errors of modern Western thought is the idea that there are dogmatic principles that can apply to every circumstance.

  • "Women should always be in the kitchen"

  • "Race mixing is always wrong"

  • "We should ignore stereotypes in our decisions"

  • "All economic activity should always be mutually consensual"

  • "Violence is never justified"

Etcetera. The problem with these is not that they are just the wrong answer, but that the world is extremely complex, and you just should not expect there to be many universals like that. If the principle is correct, context specific judgement should be able to reach the same conclusion. If it is wrong in some circumstance, which it almost always is, context specific judgement will tweak the reasoning and get the right answer. So you might as well not bother looking for dogmatic principles, and just use common sense.

This doesn't mean just winging everything and figuring it out as you go. You still do most of your learning and thinking in advance of specific circumstances, collecting knowledge of the world and a toolbox of solution templates and hueristics, you just reserve ultimate judgement for the fully contextualized problem.

For example, my ideas about how to conduct a marriage are very traditional. Generally, husband leads, provides, and husbands. The wife cooks, cleans, submits, raises the kids. But does this mean I would irrationally stick to my guns if it wasn't working out? No. I want to do things that way because I believe it to be the right way, for actual reasons that may vary in context. If reality comes in contradicts my reasons or shows the result to be wrong, there should be no trouble updating, tweaking things a bit, and getting on with life. This is not just winging it, it's backed by understanding of game theory, the social functions of marriage, sexual psychology, etc, which produce the result, but which would produce a tweaked result for tweaked circumstance.

It seems obvious that you should always use common sense and that there are no universal answers, but I still run into people who espouse such things, and others who interpret any statement of preference or judgement as universal dogma. This seems to happen especially in the realm of politics and culture. I'm not sure why.

And to go a bit meta "always use contextualized common sense judgement; principles aren't the right way to do it" is itself approaching incorrectly universalized dogma. Some situations require the predictability and game-theoretic properties of dogma. But you get the idea.

To summarize, be suspicious of any idea that seeks to replace judgement. The world is a complex place, and if simple formulae were enough to navigate it, we wouldn't need brains.