First Principles, Part One

T. Greg Doucette, who is both witty and articulate, has a podcast that’s worth listening to, if you happen to be that type. His most recent episode (at the time of this writing) involved an explanation, of sorts, of why he considered himself a conservative (for what it’s worth, many of his arguments parallel what I wrote about here). I’m not going to talk about that today–instead, I’d like to address a point he made that really inspired me. It’s something he mentions, almost offhand, about the necessity of writing down your principles, an established list of What You Believe, which you can consult as needed while you careen from birth to death. I’m sympathetic to that impulse–I like lists.

In thinking about it, I realized that I had never formally attempted any kind of Declaration of First Principles (beyond a kind of implied marriage of classical liberalism with social justice politics). It occurs to me that it might be useful (and fun, in a lexicographical kind of way) to adopt some sort of general moral or philosophical platform, something that goes from the broad to the narrow, something descriptive rather than prescriptive; not a new set of obligations, but rather an exploration, a discovery of what it is I’ve believed this whole time. At the very least, it’ll kill a few minutes while I write it.

Rule #0: The Priority of Liberty

This is named after something that Rawls writes about, and that’s not an accident; regular readers might have noticed that I’m a fan. It refers to an idea John Rawls introduces in A Theory of Justice, where he writes that the first principle of Justice is that “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others.” For Rawls, compromising liberties in exchange for an improved economic position, for example, is not permitted; liberty has the priority. There’s definitely more to unpack with that, but I think for my purposes it’s more than sufficient. Rule #0, the basic bedrock principle, rests on the assertion that we are all entitled to the maximum scheme of liberty compatible with everyone else’s liberty.

Rule #1: Our Actions Affect Others

Look, we live in a connected world. In 1967, Dr. King wrote that “all inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors.” Even if we ignore the instant connectivity of social media platforms that allow instant communication to all corners of the globe, it is impossible to deny that our actions have an impact on the lives of others. Whether it’s the products we buy, the cars we drive, how we vote, or whether we pay our taxes, we are not alone. In this world, it’s impossible to swing your hand without hitting someone’s face, and that’s not just because of overpopulation–we’re all in this together.

Rule #1a: Cooperation>Isolation

The corollary to Rule #1 is that by cooperating with others, we can achieve better outcomes than if we attempted to live in isolation.

Rule #2: The Fairness Doctrine

If we accept Rule #1 as true, then Rule #2 can be read as “Given that all of our actions affect others, we should take care that our actions do not violate the Fairness Doctrine,” which I define here as “you shall not take any action that affects another person in such a way that, were your positions reversed, you would not have that action affect you.” Maybe this is all starting to come together; Everybody has a right to be free (Rule #0), but given that none of us lives in perfect isolation, our actions affect others (Rule #1), so we must treat others fairly (Rule #2). If you wanted, you could summarize this as just “The Golden Rule.”

Rule #2a: The Fair Social Contract

Given that our society observes better outcomes when we work together (Rule #1a), it is necessary to regulate the compromises that are required for cooperation. The social contract is a regulation of interactions between individuals and between individuals and the State. The Fair Social Contract–the law, if you want–must be both universal and responsible; that is, it has to apply to everyone equally, and there has to be a mechanism in place to hold those in charge of enforcing the contract accountable.

Rule #3: Justice Applied

Rule #3 says that, to the extent our interactions with others are not fair–that there exist, right now, in a very concrete and non-hypothetical sense, unfair power arrangements between individuals and other individuals and the State–in effect, that there exist violations of Rule #2a–we must enforce, preserve, and promote Justice. Justice, as I wrote here, is redistributive. Justice is the process by which those who have been denied their liberties have them restored.

That’s not a bad start–a set of easy to remember, easy to apply principles, that, going forward, might serve as a structure on which I could build a more robust platform. Tomorrow, I’m going to address one of the contradictions I notice in this Declaration, and hopefully I’ll get to an uncomfortable conclusion I came to in the process of writing this.


Categories: Dispatch

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