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The Problem of Arguing from Principles

September 20, 2013

When defending a position, it is always tempting to fall back on some bedrock principles.  It seems like a more academic, more mature way to argue things.  You support proposition P because of principle Q, not because of a self-interest or a gut reaction.  In American politics, there are all sorts of principles which can substitute for Q: federalism, majority rule, the thoughts of the Founders, etc.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with citing those principles.  But no one really cares about them.

This summer, several political observers have noted the ways people selectively use principles to support their positions.  For example, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones asked why the Supreme Court’s conservative wing supported a federalism-based ruling in Shelby County v. Holder but opposed one in United States v. Windsor:

Because no one actually cares about federalism.  It’s merely a convenient veneer when you prefer one outcome over another.  Yesterday state sovereignty was was of crucial concern when conservatives gutted the Voting Rights Act.  Today, they couldn’t care less about it.

Seth Masket had similar thoughts about majoritarianism over at The Mischiefs of Faction, and Scott Lemieux recently took on appeals to originalism for The American Prospect.  Whatever principle you like, you can find people arguing with it one second and conveniently ignoring it the next.

I think this speaks to the way that people form opinions.  We like to think that we’re reasoning ourselves into positions: we support a small federal government because it threatens liberty, we oppose the abortion because human life should be honored, whatever.  But then everybody has contradictory opinions: we make exceptions for a large military, or we have no problem with capital punishment.  It would seem that we’re not reasoning from first principles as much as engineering ad hoc justifications.

And even if we do reason consistently from first principles, we don’t always get satisfactory results.  If we applied Kant’s categorical imperative consistently, it would be wrong to lie to an ax-murderer about where your friend is.  Consistent, yes, but absurd.  And a utilitarian may countenance killing innocent people if it sufficiently deters crime.  Consistent, yes, but absurd.  I realize that I’m taking these systems to the extreme, but that’s point: arguments based purely on principles will either be extreme or a hodgepodge of exceptions.

I’m not saying, “Don’t argue from principles”; they provide good shorthand for what we as a society should value.  But we should realize how principles function in the real-world: shorthand at best, and special pleading at worst.  Perhaps if we are cognizant of that fact, we can start to have more productive arguments.  Oh, who am I kidding–we won’t.  But it’s a good start.


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