A Spirited Defense of Principles

Postmodernism is boring and bad and we should probably not embrace it

I recommend you read last week’s post prior to this one.


Last week, I acknowledged what I believe to be significant moral shortcomings that I have committed in the past, particularly surrounding the topic of eating meat. While I think this is my biggest moral failure, there are others. These are more subtle, and abundant in both my life and the lives of people around me. Let me explain.

Generally, it feels good to do good things and for other people to like you, so people typically try to be pleasant to each other. But many people also shout insults around, demonize each other online, fail to tip their servers at restaurants, drive while intoxicated, and so on. I have friends who have done each of these, as I suspect most of my readers do too, and when confronted, often they don’t see anything wrong with what they did.

Some of it is rationalization: “I only had one drink.” But often that is a lie, and even if it wasn’t a lie, perhaps it’s still obvious to an observer that driving that day wasn’t a good idea. There is a barrier to how much you can break through this defensiveness with most people; often you just run into the barrier and can’t say anything that your interlocutor will accept. This applies even if it’s patently obvious that the other person committed a wrongdoing.

Take a subtler example that most employed people can relate to: I know zero people, myself included, who can say they’ve never lied about not feeling well in order to get an unplanned day off work. It’s been a while now, but I did it all the time when I worked my retail and restaurant jobs before and during college. It was standard and expected. But it was still dishonest, and our culture accepts this: there isn’t really a principled cultural opposition to casually lying.

There are a few people I know who I can ask for moral judgments, and who sometimes volunteer them to me. I trust these people not to just tell me what I want to hear. Even most of these people are okay with lying in many circumstances where either (a) no harm will be done to anybody as a result, or (b) it is expedient for them. This includes my religious friends, some of whom take the precepts of their religion very seriously. But people still lie all the time in ways they consider harmless, despite God’s blanket ban on the practice.

There are, of course, cultural nods to this sometimes. Take for instance The Invention of Lying, a movie which suggests that a world without lying is a dysfunctional world indeed. That may be true, or it may not; it’s so far from reality that it’s hard to say.

Surely you can tell that this is building up to a conclusion that lying is wrong. I do think lying is wrong, but at the present time I don’t think white lies are that big a deal. So I want to add a bit of nuance. It’s not that lying is so bad that I need to write an entire post about it. What I struggle with is the idea that most modern people, by which I mean most people I’ve ever met, tend to tell the truth when it’s convenient for them, which is most of the time, and lie when it’s convenient for them as well. There is no principled opposition to the practice of lying.

In fact it feels that there are no principles governing society at all! Or, at least, the principles at play are considered much less important than whatever is expedient at the time. But this is another way of saying the principles don’t exist: always doing what is expedient may often result in moral behavior, but merely by coincidence: it happens to be that lying is often a bad idea for practical reasons, being that it’s hard to remember one’s own lies over time and being discovered as a liar increases proportionally to the number of lies told. But being opposed to lying for this reason is an argument from expedience: “I will benefit if I generally don’t lie.” There is no moral character to this line of reasoning.

I feel this way when I examine modern political discourse: many people on the left have no regard for the principle of free speech and are focusing on what they perceive to be harm reduction: silencing speech that is objectionable to them. Many people on the right (right now) have no regard for the principles governing the democratic process: “let’s throw out ballots that voted for Biden!”1

So now let’s add an underlying principle: “Lying is generally wrong, but in this case it’s convenient for me, so I will.” In this case, the subject does have some sense of moral character, but is not acting on it. Therefore it may as well be that the principle doesn’t exist. I think most people are in this sort of situation, actually.

I must confess that I have acted like this for most of my life thus far. I don’t think I’ve lied compulsively, but I’ve certainly lied out of expedience, for many years and in many different situations. The practice has naturally lessened over time and I’ve become a rather blunt person, much more willing to state uncomfortable truths than I used to be. But there has still not been much moral character within my greater concern for honesty, and this is because I haven’t thought that much about my principles.

The journey I’m on these days is to determine what principles I want to assume for myself. The most prominent, as discussed last week, is a newfound principled opposition to eating meat. To me, ethically, that one is a no-brainer. But past that point, the road is more challenging.

I used to assume I needed to adopt a religion in order to meaningfully assume a set of principles. In this sense I wanted to find a pre-existing set of beliefs that would guide my moral judgments. But this is fallacious: religions contain moral codes, but following a religion’s moral code doesn’t mean you are moral according to another code. This matters because life is full of so many unique situations that, in order for a moral code to matter, it must be something you choose for yourself. And, most importantly, as any hypocrite will show you, following a religion doesn’t mean you adhere to that religion’s moral code!

Lately I’ve turned to the study of ethics and moral philosophy in an effort to find principles that I agree with. I started from a pretty neutral place, having had no formal training in school about the differences between various schools of thought.

In the modern day, most people are consequentialists—the ends justify the means. Most people are rather hedonistic—they do what benefits them, makes them happy in particular, etc. Most people are relatively libertarian (in a philosophical, not political, sense)—they don’t feel they have any obligations to people outside their immediate orbit, unless they enter into a contract or otherwise agree to the obligation. These three positions together form the postmodern ethos: adopting and dropping principles as they are expedient; in other words, having no principles in particular and being content with that.

Sadly for me, I’m not content with that and so I have to put a lot of work into figuring it out. I suspect I’m more receptive to Immanuel Kant than I am to any of the above positions, but I’m not ready to write about that yet. I have several books on order that I intend to read. I’m excited to write soon about my journey of determining whether I am these things or not, or what my own philosophy will become.

Perhaps my intended takeaway in this post got murky, but here it is: I want to break away from the postmodern ethos of doing mostly what is expedient and not having any principles in particular. Many people may be fine with that, and that’s fine, but it’s not sufficient for me personally because I believe that having a set of principles to inform my decisions—principles that I’ve thought a lot about and know I agree with—will ease a lot of decision-making I need to make in the future, make me feel good about my own moral character, and guide me toward being a more positive influence in the world.

Feel free to email me on this matter. I’m curious to hear what you think of my thoughts here, and also curious if anyone else is going or has gone down a rabbit hole similar to this one.

1

Don’t @ me. I know there are arguments floating around that attest that nobody looked into allegations of election fraud. These are all false, the 2020 election outcome was not fraudulent, and if you disagree, please don’t bother to contest this point with me because it’s a waste of your time.