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.
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.