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Our current culture appears to revolve more around "dos and don'ts," which is to suggest that society appears more focused on rules of what you are and aren't allowed to do. With that premise, perhaps we're not focusing enough on the values that we should pursue or the principles that provide us the best opportunities for achieving those values. Unlike rules, principles (e.g., the principle of justice) are at a fundamental conceptual level and, therefore, really don't have exceptions. Rules are more like commands based on someone's will. Should morality be based on commands of conduct by a "law-giver" (e.g., God, parents, government) or principles based on one's own understanding of reality?


By contrast with principles, rules are concrete and limited in scope, prescribing a particular type of action in a particular situation. "Don't smoke in elevators" is a rule. "To maintain good relations with others, it is necessary to treat them with courtesy" is a principle. Someone who followed this principle would not smoke in an elevator with others present - nor would he talk out loud at the movie theater, nor insult his host at a party, nor do any number of other things covered by the principle.

Large regions of social life that ought to be governed - and to a large extent used to be governed - by principles of courtesy, justice, and mutual respect have now been bureaucratized by rules...

Because they are so concrete, no set of rules could possibly cover every situation and action to which the corresponding principle applies. This defect is particularly serious in ethics, the field that provides the broadest and most fundamental level of guidance for human action...

After you have refrained from doing these "Don'ts," what then? What values will you seek in life? How will you deal with other people, beyond respecting their rights? Is self-interest or self-sacrifice the honorable course in life? On these and countless other questions, the code is silent...

The advantage of principles is the advantage of concepts: They unite an open-ended number of particular cases under a single abstraction. The concept "man" is a single mental unit that stands for all human beings; without this concept, we could not possibly hold in mind a list of every human being as an individual. In the same way, a principle is a single mental unit that covers a multitude of actions and occasions. The principle that one should drive under control, for example, applies to every type of road, road condition, level of traffic, etc., for which one could not possibly specify a comprehensive list of discrete rules...

Rules are formulated for specific contexts, but they never fully specify the nature or limitations of that context. As a result, rules invariably have exceptions and they often conflict with each other. Someone trying to follow the rules without the benefit of broader principles will have no way to determine when he is faced with an exception, or how to resolve a conflict...

It is therefore safe to rely on the principle in every circumstance. Second, the principle tells us how to identify exceptions to the more concrete rule...

Unless rules are anchored in principles, they cannot be rationally justified. A moral code must be validated by reference to a fundamental value, an ultimate good to which all other goals of action are means... Moral principles identify the requirements for living successfully, given man's basic needs and capacities: Production is a value because it provides for our needs. Conceptual knowledge is a value because it makes production possible. Rationality is a virtue because it is the only way to acquire and maintain a conceptual grasp of reality. Honesty and integrity are virtues because they are the only way of keeping one's actions tied to one's grasp of reality. And so on...

Properly formulated, a principle states the relationship between an action and a goal.

A Short Course in Rule-Breaking


Original posting by Braincrave Second Life staff on Jan 23, 2011 at http://www.braincrave.com/viewblog.php?id=444

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