George Bernard Shaw was more than a little ambivalent in his attitude to the English, and to principles. In The Man of Destiny
(1898) he writes: '...you will never find an Englishman in the wrong. He does everything on principle. He fights you on patriotic principles; he robs you on business principles; he enslaves you on imperial principles; he bullies you on manly principles...'. The PM in 1898 was Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, so it may have been Tories Shaw was aiming at rather than the English in general. I shall not comment on that issue.
My theme concerns the widespread belief in the importance of principles. For example, books on moral philosophy often have titles such The Principles of Ethics
and more specific subject-based books follow this trend with titles such as The Principles of Business Ethics
. A hugely influential American book called The Principles of Biomedical Ethics
by Tom Beauchamp and James Childress has dominated the teaching of medical ethics since the 1990s. It claims that all the myriad ethical problems of medicine can be, if not exactly solved, at least discussed in terms of just four principles. It is a strange claim, but I wish rather to question more broadly the emphasis which moral and religious educators place on 'principles'.
Principles are the major premises of moral arguments but often the moral problems arise over the minor premises. Let me explain. Aristotle, who introduced syllogisms as the outline form of argument, also suggested what he called the 'practical syllogism'. He is drawing our attention to a form of moral argument which goes like this:
Doing X is wrong (major premise, usually a moral principle);
This is a case of X (minor premise, purporting to be a fact);
Therefore you ought not to do X (conclusion, expressed as a moral judgement).
The first problem with this simple scheme is that the alleged 'facts' of the minor premise may be morally loaded. Here is an example of what I mean. I'm afraid it dates from that far-off time when people went into offices downtown.
A small boy is caught stealing pencils from the local stationers. A policeman lectures him and delivers him to his father. Father is very angry and says: 'Surely you know that it is wrong to steal. If you need pencils just tell me and I'll bring some home from the office'. We can express this as a practical syllogism:
Stealing is wrong (major premise – a moral principle)
Taking pencils without paying is a case of stealing (minor premise – alleged fact)
You ought not to take pencils without paying (conclusion – a moral judgement).
The father's moral failing was not lack of principle but a lack of moral understanding of the minor premise; he lacked moral insight into the particular case of what he was offering to do. More generally, moral failings are often failures to understand the nature of what specifically we are doing in this particular case; they are failures to understand the minor premise, rather than failures to grasp general principles. How can insight into the particularities of cases be cultivated?
When Sir Kenneth Calman was a medical professor at Glasgow University, I had the privilege of collaborating with him in teaching ethics to medical students. We found that the students responded better to detailed cases than to general principles. This led us to introduce short stories or plays as material for discussion. The stories faced them with the question: what would you have done? Discussions round that kind of question led to better moral insight into particularities. Good writers are better than ethicists at portraying real-life dilemmas; they move us from principles to the complexities of the minor premises of real-life problems.
Writers do not, of course, set out to be moral teachers but good writing cannot avoid the complexities of real-life problems. Literature almost always has a moral dimension to it and that dimension is concerned with particular cases rather than general principles. The minor premises, the alleged 'facts', can therefore be morally loaded.
There is, however, a second difficulty which can arise in moral arguments. It is that several moral principles can apply, and the problem concerns selection of the one which is salient. That selection also involves moral judgement.
Consider an example from Kant, who was very unbending in his approach to principles: 'Suppose, for instance, that someone is holding another's property in trust (a deposit) whose owner is dead, and that the owner's heirs do not know and can never know about it... and add that, through no fault of his, the trustee's fortunes are at their lowest ebb, that he sees a sad family around him, a wife and children disheartened by want. From all of this he would be instantly delivered by appropriating the deposit. Add further that the man is kind and charitable, while those heirs are rich, loveless, extremely extravagant spendthrifts, so that this addition to their wealth might as well be thrown into the sea. And then ask whether under these circumstances it might be deemed permissible to convert the deposit to one's own use. Without doubt, anyone asking the question will answer No!
– and in lieu of grounds he can merely say: It is wrong!, i.e. it conflicts with duty
Kant's argument can again be simplified with a practical syllogism:
It is wrong to steal;
Taking someone's deposit is a case of stealing;
Therefore one ought not to take the deposit.
But Kant is a bit too quick here. What were the conditions of the trust? What was the trustee's relationship with the owner (private or professional)? What was the relationship of the owner to the relatives? And so on. We might also want to line up cases of stealing, cases of saving from starvation, cases of the presumptions of friendship, etc. Morally sound judgements cannot usually be deduced from a single principle. Many principles may be involved and must be balanced before a judgement of what is right in the particular case can be reached.
A third difficulty with the 'just apply principles' approach to morality is that it can lead to an over-zealous rigidity. Down this route we can find various forms of fundamentalism – moral, religious and political. There is the story of the new minister in the Presbyterian Free Church of Inversmeddon. On his way to morning service he stops by the manse gate to pull up some weeds. A passing elder says: 'Working and this the Sabbath!' The minister replies: 'But the Lord Jesus worked on the Sabbath'. He is silenced by the elder: 'In Inversmeddon we dinna' think ony the mair o' the Lord Jesus for that'.
There is a characteristic of those who brandish principles. Shaw was teasing when he said they were English – but they do tend to be male. In contrast, some feminist writers argue that the principles of individualism, which is dominant in our culture, puts a premium on autonomous self-reliant individuals who exercise power to protect themselves from competitors in the pursuit of self-interest. Societies with such assumptions have dominant males with subordinate females. In contrast, some feminists are exploring the nature of communities which stress caring, reconciling and relationships of interdependence rather than 'principles'.
Carol Gilligan, for example, argues that men evaluate moral thinking with hard and fast principles impartially imposed. She wants to replace the abstract, impersonal principles approach to morality with one in which 'values of care and connection, salient in women's thinking, imply a view of the self and the other as interdependent and of relationships as networks created and sustained by attention and response'. Good luck with that in Holyrood or Westminster!
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow