Principles are one of the most important things in your life; or, I want to persuade you, should be. There are many examples in history where individuals have risked their lives or died for their principles: principles are more important than the individual’s own life. I don’t want to suggest that you should believe this. But principles are exceptionally important.
If you don’t have strongly held principles, or don’t know what your principles are, how do you know how to behave in particular circumstances? How do you know what’s important to you? How do you know how to evaluate others’ behaviour; what your opinion is; which party to vote for; or what’s right or wrong?
You could borrow the principles of others. But how would you choose which others to borrow from? Maybe by their proximity to you in terms of class, race, religion. But are they more likely to be right just because they are similar to you in some respects? If you borrow your principles from others, what do you do if those principles do not serve you or your community well?
Robert Dilts, a pioneer in Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), relates the following story (which he found on the internet and may or may not be true).
The parable of the monkeys
In an experiment, a number of monkeys are contained in a cage. In the cage is a rope. At the top of the rope a bunch of bananas has been placed. The problem for the monkeys is that, when a monkey climbs up the rope to retrieve the bananas, the rest of the monkeys are drenched with water. Soon enough they learn their lesson and stop trying to climb the rope for the bananas.
Then one monkey is taken away from the cage, and a new monkey is introduced. The new monkey attempts to climb up the rope for the bananas, but the other monkeys prevent it from doing so, to protect them from the deluge. After a while, another monkey is taken away from the cage and a new monkey introduced. The same occurs: this monkey tries to retrieve the bananas, but is prevented from climbing the rope by the remaining monkeys. This monkey replacement programme continues until all the monkeys in the cage have been replaced and none of them have experienced being drenched by water.
The bunch of bananas remains untouched. The monkeys maintain their behaviour of preventing each other from climbing the rope, but have no reason for this, other than tradition. The imperative to not climb the rope has become divorced from the consequences of the behaviour. I think the word for ‘principles’ about behaviour that have become removed from the consequences of that behaviour is prejudice.
Morality and principle
I’m not keen on the word moral. It suggests an imperative for behaviour without specifying the reasons for the required behaviour. It also suggests (without being bold enough to state it, because to state it would immediately reveal the fallacy) that there is a universal morality, or a common set of moral standards. An act is often said to be moral or immoral without reference to the principle on which the judgement is based. But unless an act has negative consequences, how can it be condemned?
(I suspect that the church focuses so particularly on sexual morality because it allows it to be prescriptive about people’s behaviour in a way that won’t get it into conflict with the political powers.)
A principle, as opposed to a moral, sets out the the rationale for the prescribed or proscribed behaviour. Morals give the appearance of being self-evident, but a principle can be interrogated and defended. Unlike morals, principles are consciously avowed. A person takes responsibility for one’s principles; principles are not easily borrowed or inherited.
Integrity and self-deception
Of all the principles one might hold, integrity should be very near the top. Without integrity, what other values could possibly be important? If I can deceive or cheat for my own substantial advantage (constituting lack of integrity), and at the same time claim to believe in justice, freedom, democracy, women’s equality, racial equality, animal rights (or whatever), to what extent can I truly say that I believe in those things? If I’m willing to exploit my own interests at the expense of others by lying or cheating, I am demonstrating a set of beliefs that contradict the principles I espouse. How can I claim to believe in justice when I am subverting justice for my own benefit? How can I claim to be concerned about the rights of others when I am willing to trample on them for my own benefit?
If integrity is so important, does that mean I have to always tell the truth? Telling the truth is not synonymous with integrity. In Spielberg’s film, Lincoln, the United States President is trying to steer a bill through Congress that will abolish the slave trade. But members of Congress will not pass the bill if they think that the civil war will be ended through talks with the Confederate. There are rumours that a delegation from the Confederacy is on its way to Washington, and the President is asked if this is true. He denies knowledge of such a delegation and is admonished by someone from his inner circle for doing so. But for him the principle of ending slavery was more important than his duty to tell the truth. Was his integrity compromised? I don’t believe it was – I think Lincoln would have had a clear conscience about not telling the truth in this context.
But there’s always a danger of justifying dishonesty with the excuse that you are saving another from distress, when in fact you are saving your own skin. You will have heard on numerous occasions people making this excuse: I only said that (lie) to spare his feelings. This seems like a good excuse: I’m lying for the benefit of someone else, rather than myself. But it is rarely true. Self-deception is to be scrupulously guarded against, since it is an insidious corrupter of integrity, and integrity is the basis for all other principles. And without principles, what of value do you possess?
I’d like to suggest another fundamental principle, almost as important as integrity, which may well hold a subset of further principles: All human beings are of equal value as human beings. Of course, in terms of social status, professional roles and so on, human beings assume very different degrees of status (a president is much more important than a street cleaner); but as human beings, everybody is of equal value. Would you subscribe to this principle? If so, what does it mean in practice, and are there any principles that override it?
Here’s another principle I’d like to recommend: Your first duty is to yourself (more accurately in principle form: a person’s first duty is to himself or herself). Make it a priority to nurture yourself and develop your skills and capacities so that you are happy and fulfilled and a force for good in the world.
One’s principles are an essential aspect of who one is. Principles are also fundamental to one’s purpose (which, in turn, is fundamental to individual fulfilment): your purpose must cohere with and be supported by your principles. Clarity about your purpose depends on clear principles.
If you’ve resonated with what’s written , and would like to look at your own principles and purpose, please email me at [email protected] so we can set up a session or initial consultation.