Principles

I am sure you have heard it many times: “It’s a matter of principle.” It’s what we say to justify a course of action that may run counter to the courses others would have us run. Often (very often?) it’s a phrase that thinly disguises the rationalization we make to support a position we take simply because we want to take it.

Consider the following:

You are the coach of a NCAA Division I football team and your conference has decided to postpone the football season because of the Carona Virus out of a concern for the players’ health. You are a coach and you make a living coaching collegiate (semi-professional) football players — many of whom want to make the pros at some point. So you tell the press that you have met with the president of the university and you and your players feel “it is a matter of principle” that your team be allowed to play the games. What you really mean is that you and your players want to play the games. But you say it is a matter of principle because it sounds more impressive. Or something.

A principle is a moral precept that we evoke to help us support difficult decisions that we are called upon to make from time to time. For example, the principle may be something like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “harming another living being is wrong.”  These can be said to be out duties, morally speaking. Usually, but not always, the word “wrong” or “right” appears in the principle somewhere. If, for example, I insist that I tell the secret police that the supposed criminal is hiding in my closet because “it is wrong to lie” I am evoking a moral precept. In this case it may conflict with another precept, “it is wrong to harm another person” — given that we know the secret police will not treat the supposed criminal kindly.  But there is a principle (often more than one) involved. In fact, conflicting principles are what make ethics such a confounding arena of thought.

In the case of the football team there is no moral precept whatever. Unless we maintain that is is wrong to deny the players an opportunity to play football — which is doubtful since they are presumably students at a university where education is what matters most (right!).  Thus when the coach says it is a matter or principle that the players be allowed to play he is fabricating things. What he means, of course, is that he and his players want to play and they are being denied that opportunity by the conference they play in.

Rationalization is commonplace. We conjure up a bogus argument — or a “moral precept” which we may even make up — and use that to shore up a weak argument to persuade others that what we want to do is the right thing to do.

But, as George Eliot has reminded us, duties are not chosen. They choose us. And the right thing to do is almost always a matter of duty and as such frequently (always?) conflicts with what we want to do — unless we are saints. So, in this case, the supposed moral precept that it is wrong to deny football players the opportunity to play the game they love is a weak attempt to persuade others (and ourselves, perhaps?) that what we want to do is the right thing to do. It is our duty.

Fiddlesticks! It is simply what we want to do and that’s the end to it. It is certainly not a matter or principle.