Principled better than wishy-washy
Last updated 11/12/2019 at 3:44pm
A common criticism of libertarians is that we are wrapped up in principles; in absolutes. We are called “purists” as if this is a bad thing, yet the opposite of “pure” is “contaminated.”
Ethical principles function like a conscience. You won’t always do what your conscience tells you, but without it, you can’t know you’ve done wrong.
Another word for “principled” is “consistent.” People balk at principles and consistency when they want to do something they know isn’t right. Consistency doesn’t mean you’re automatically right — it’s entirely possible to be consistently wrong — but inconsistency is a sure sign a person is off-course.
This may explain why most people seem to prefer utilitarianism — using whatever approach seems useful and effective in the situation. They believe they can’t be principled because the real world isn’t perfect. Reality may not be perfect, but it is absolute.
By contrast, politics avoids principles like the plague. It’s said to be “nuanced” as if right and wrong don’t apply. Politics is utilitarian.
Politics can’t be absolute because it needs useful and effective flexibility so as to provide excuses to do wrong without being seen by the majority of its victims as the bad guys. Reality is what it is; politics is whatever you can get away with.
In the real world, you don’t have the option to use magic when you don’t like the way things are. In politics, you can say some special words and permit yourself to violate life, liberty, and property — usually without consequence.
If you want a car but can’t afford one, the political utilitarian might encourage you to steal one or steal the money with which to buy one — through taxation, perhaps. Theft can be both useful and effective. It can get you what you believe you can’t get otherwise. However, if you insist it’s wrong for someone to steal from you, how can you pretend the rules don’t apply when you’re the thief?
If you want to find a way to do wrong you can use the excuse that it’s a nuanced “gray area;” it’s useful and effective to violate others who stand in your way. Politics “works.”
Since principles and politics — opposite approaches — can each have utility, utilitarianism is meaningless.
Is being principled better than being conveniently wishy-washy? I believe it is, as long as your principles are worthwhile. But it all depends on how you define “better” and what you want to get away with.
Farwell’s Kent McManigal champions liberty. Contact him at: