Thinking in Terms of Principles
by Thomas M. Miovas, Jr.
[After showing this essay to a co-worker, I discovered that I hadn’t been as clear as I thought I was, though I was able to clear up the issues in a brief conversation with him. Consequently, I have decided to re-write this essay; keeping the same examples, but making the point more explicit, which is that people do think in terms of principles, they just don’t realize that is what it is called.]
I’ve come across some students of Objectivism who are confusing thinking in terms of principles with rationalism, and I think this is an incorrect way of understanding what each term means. Rationalism is thinking in terms of definitions – of not taking into consideration all the relevant facts about an object that is not included in the definition. For example, let’s say the definition of a dog is a four legged animal that wags its tail and barks. In an argument about dogs, a rationalist will not include in his thinking the fact that a dog has a digestive system, and therefore if you own a dog you don’t have to worry about feeding it. Sounds ridiculous, and yet that is the way the rationalist thinks about dogs. The definition does not include the eating habits and necessity of good nutrition for a dog, so he doesn’t take that into consideration. Obviously, this ignoring of crucial facts will lead to a dog that is malnourished and even dead, if followed through consistently for the rationalist dog owner. The rationalist, as understood in Objectivism, does not think in terms of fact-based principles, which is why his method of thought is rejected.
Thinking in terms of principles is different, for it means organizing the facts mentally into a hierarchy and according to cause an effect, with the fundamental or basic fact as the organizing agent of the consideration. Rather than ignoring facts, as the rationalist does, the principled man has his facts organized in such a way as to clearly identify what something is in reality, and to act accordingly with regard to it. In this specific example, realizing that a dog is a living being and has certain needs that must be met if the dog is to remain alive and healthy. And, as a wider principle, that any pet one has needs to be cared for, if one expects it to remain alive and healthy; whether it be a bird, a cat, or a monkey.
Similarly, a good automobile mechanic uses proper principles to diagnose problems with one’s car by going over the relevant facts in his own mind in reference to the problem cited by the car owner, using the fact that a car is a machine with parts that wear out as his organizing principle. By doing this, he is able to diagnose car problems in a very efficient manner – for example, realizing that a loss of power can be due to a bad oxygen sensor. And as a wider principle, any machine one has needs to be serviced if one expects it to operate correctly; whether it be a computer, a lawn mower, or a bicycle.
By contrast, a die-hard rationalist would not take the relevant facts into account, but would have some sort of ideal conception in his mind, like a car is a vehicle one drives, and not be worried about the facts that it has parts that can wear out; and when it is no longer drivable, is frustrated that reality doesn’t match his conception of a car (a car with no mechanical parts, so to speak).
These two examples of principles – that a dog (and any other pet) is a living being that needs to be taken care of, and that a car (and any other device) is a machine that needs to be serviced when broken – can be further organized into a broader principle: That one ought to take care of one’s values, if one expects them to continue to be of value.
In conclusion, principles are both fundamental to what something is in reality, and include all the relevant facts “under the hood” so to speak as one considers those aspects of reality that interest oneself.
I learned to think in terms of principles by coming to understand the philosophy created by Ayn Rand, called Objectivism, most exemplified in her two best known novels: “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead.” In both novels, she shows her heroes as following rational principles, and taking all the relevant facts into account as they live their lives and gain success.