Sunday, September 28, 2014

People vs. Principles

This will be a bit of a departure from my normal subject matter, but with the world in the shape it’s currently in, I know I’m ready to talk about something other than current events—hopefully, you are, too, whomever you happen to be. I’d like to address what I consider a pretty troubling, but sort of fascinating phenomenon: loyalty to people trumping loyalty to principles.

First, let me explain why this is a bad thing. After all, it doesn’t sound so bad—people are actually right here and now, and can suffer, be happy, flourish, languish, etc., so loyalty to people seems like a good thing, and to a point, it is. Principles, on the other hand, are abstractions, just ideas in our minds (unless you’re a Platonist, I guess, but I’m not). So it seems like being loyal to principles instead of to people is damaging and dangerous, and to an extent, that’s also true. Principles should be formulated at least partly based on their impact on other people, and if principles prove damaging to oneself or others, it’s often a good idea to rethink them. But what I’m talking about in terms of loyalty toward people is not some sort of devotion to the welfare of humanity itself, but loyalty toward specific people, or specific groups of people.

 The reason this is so dangerous is because it ultimately means that if a person you’re loyal to tells you to abandon what you believe in, you go along with it. In the abstract, virtually everyone agrees that doing something like that is terrible and indefensible, but that doesn’t keep them from doing it. For instance, the NSA programs under George W. Bush were highly unpopular among Democrats, with a 2006 Pew poll showing that 61% were opposed, and 37% were in support. In a poll from 2013, under Obama, polling showed an almost exact reversal from the Democrats—with 64% supporting it, and only 34% opposed. That’s a swing of 27%; granted, some people who were too young to be counted in polls like this came of age between 2006 and 2013, and some people certainly died in that timespan, meaning the pool of Democrats had altered—but younger voters were the least likely to be friendly to the NSA programs, and older voters were the most likely. So out of the people who were Democrats at the time of both polls, the percentage who changed their views is probably greater, not less, than 27%.

Of course, the Republicans were hardly any better—they supported NSA programs by a three-to-one margin in the 2006 poll, and were almost evenly split on the issue by 2013. What we’re witnessing here, in both cases, is like some twisted game of Follow the Leader, and this issue is just one example of a general rule. In fact, a recent-ish study showed that ultimately, liberals and conservatives have basically the same view regarding authority: when it agrees with their side, it deserves to be obeyed; otherwise, no. That sort of explains why liberals are all right with Obama doing things they would have shrieked about if Bush had (extrajudicial assassination of an American citizen, for one) while conservatives who approved of all sorts of expensive programs under Bush scream about how Obama will bankrupt the country. It’s okay for our guy, but we’ll be damned if the other side gets away with it.

I think it should be pretty self-evident why this is both reprehensible and dangerous, but in case it’s not, let me explain it briefly: when approval of policies is based on liking the person doing them, approval for any given policy can be obtained by finding a likable enough person. In case you can’t see where this is going, I’ll spell it out: have you ever watched a speech by Adolf Hitler? I don’t speak a bit of German, but there’s absolutely no doubting that his charisma was unbelievably compelling. And, sure enough, plenty of people who probably harbored plenty of doubts about his vicious, genocidal policies went along with them because they had a convincing enough spokesman.

I think the instinct to abandon principles in order to be in agreement with people you like exists for pretty much everyone, myself included. The trick is just to teach yourself to overcome it, and realize that liking someone doesn’t mean agreeing with everything they do or believe. I like to think I’ve achieved that—if someone I respect says something I disagree with, I’m certainly interested to hear their argument, and I might end up changing my view if I find it convincing, but I don’t immediately begin rethinking the stance I’ve taken. The people who I’ve generally seen most successfully stay true to their principles rather than follow leaders tend to have a good deal in common—a sort of apathy toward what others think of them, a tendency to form close relationships with a small number of people, and a great passion for what they believe in. I suppose this makes sense—for those who are less likely to feel some close bond with another person, there’s less temptation to abandon their principles because there are fewer people whose opinions really matter to them; and, often, those they truly admire they can continue to admire in spite of disagreements.

There’s not really any big conclusion or solution to this post. Ultimately, the only thing I can do is to warn whoever might read this against allowing yourself to follow people instead of principles. If someone you like or admire gives their opinion on an issue, don’t just decide you agree with it because it’s easier than doing the research and coming up with your own opinion. That sounds like obvious advice, but I can only assume a lot of people aren’t following it—and I know I’ve been guilty of following the people I like instead of really thinking out my own positions, as just about everyone probably has. But, although it can be an easy mistake to make, it’s not always an easy one to fix.

No comments:

Post a Comment