Long live general principles

The argument was dragging on, and Dr Johnson, never the most patient type, ended it with a cutting phrase: “Sir, we know our will is free, and there’s an end on it.”

Dr Johnson, my ally

That conversation-stopper wielded by a first-rate English mind was as correct as it was, dare I say it, un-English. For the English mind tends to be suspicious of any judgement reached without a painstaking analysis of every possible detail. The English regard general principles as too, well, general.

That’s often sensible: few things in life are so clearcut as to be either black or white. Even the fashionable context in which those adjectives are often used, race, leaves plenty of room for disagreement.

This isn’t my subject today, so I’ll limit myself to a fleeting observation: both racists and anti-racists seem to regard anyone with any African blood at all as black. (I am ignoring the insane insistence that even someone with no black ancestry is still free to identify as black if he so chooses. This sort of thing belongs in the loony bin or else a Guardian editorial meeting.)

They are free to hold that view, provided they realise that their standards are more stringent than even the Nuremberg Laws. There it took one Jewish grandparent to be classified as a Jew and hence slated for extinction. Today’s racists and anti-racists proceed from the principle associated with Jim Crow in the US: a drop of tar, all black.

This is an example of a wrong principle, and their name is legion. Apply any one of those to a situation at hand, and any conclusion reached thereby is bound to be wrong. Hence the English are right to be suspicious: it’s more reliable to analyse the specifics of every problem, rather than jumping to hasty conclusions.

Alas, such pragmatic reliance on empirical fact sometimes leads to intellectual and ultimately moral relativism based on contempt for principles as such, right or wrong. This is a widespread failing in England, with people likely to skip over any philosophical musings and ask the lapidary question: “What are we going to do about it?” If no satisfactory answer is forthcoming, they lose interest.

Yet I maintain that, when they are backed up by lifelong experience, study and ratiocination, general principles can take one to correct conclusions quickly and directly, bypassing all the superfluous – and potentially misleading – nit-picking.

Such principles are an indispensable cognitive tool, provided one leaves room for adjustments should contradicting facts come to light. Without such in-built flexibility, overreliance on general principles may lead to doctrinaire obscurantism, which is never especially clever.

On the other hand, proper general principles properly used are the structural framework of any thinking methodology. They provide a discipline without which any thought becomes amorphous – like wine escaping from the confines of the glass to form an unsightly puddle on the tablecloth.

A few illustrations from my own experience, if I may, and please don’t accuse me of boasting if I only cite examples casting me in a good light. If you expect me to list the numerous instances where I’ve been proved wrong, you place an exaggerated trust in human goodness.

I moved to Britain from the US some 35 years ago and soon thereafter made friends with an NHS doctor, a friendship that’s still going strong. Yet the beginning was hardly auspicious.

The dinner-table conversation veered towards the NHS, and I remarked casually that any problems it experienced were systemic. Any giant Leviathan instituted on socialist principles is a condemned structure soon to collapse, I added.

Defending his corporate honour, my friend for life to be almost snapped my head off. I knew nothing about the NHS, he fumed, and he was almost right. Am I aware that… – and a long litany of facts followed, most expressed numerically.

I wasn’t. I proceeded from general principles and lifelong observation, but they were correct principles and accurate observations, which is why they have been proved right. A couple of decades later, my friend admitted as much, if only tacitly.

Another self-serving example, taken right out of the Peter Hitchens book of self-aggrandisement, is that back in the late eighties, early nineties I instantly saw through all that Western triumphalism about the victory in the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and even, to mention the extreme inanity, the end of history.

In those pre-Internet days I didn’t follow the details of the unfolding transition, although I knew a fair amount about the key personalities involved. But however few details I possessed, they rested atop a vast mountain of knowledge and understanding – of Russia, communism and the symbiosis of the two in the national character.

Hence, proceeding from general principles, I instantly saw that all that putative triumph of virtue was in fact a transfer of power from the Party to a new elite formed by a fusion of the KGB and organised crime. This is a devil we don’t yet know, I was writing at the time, but rest assured it’s no less black than the one we are familiar with, and more dangerous for having a greater capacity for subterfuge.

It gives me no satisfaction to have been proved right, but proved right I demonstrably was. The same goes for China, a country about which I know much less than about Russia.

Here many Western observers go wrong not because they don’t know the facts but because they try to jam the square pegs of correct data into the round holes of general principles that happen to be false. One such is their unshakeable belief in the redemptive power of free enterprise.

At its heart, I suspect, lies the Calvinist dogma of wealth being God’s reward for virtue. Even though such people may be unaware of the historical motivation of their belief, it leads to the perdition of an incorrect syllogism. Thesis: Wealth generated by hard, free labour is a sign of goodness. Antithesis: China is wealthy. Synthesis: China has to be good, or at least not as bad as some doubting Thomases insist she is.

Being one such incredulous sort, I proceed from a different syllogism. Communism is evil, regardless of any economic window-dressing. China is communist. Ergo, China is evil and hence eminently dangerous.

Another example is economic. Whenever I am treated to endless ledger sheets of economic indicators, especially if they are accompanied by the ubiquitous word ‘paradigm’, my eyes glass over. Before long, I say, we’ll all be marching to soup kitchens, singing a version of the Depression song, “Brother, can you paradigm?”

To paraphrase Dr Johnson (without in any way comparing myself to the great man), I can say: “Sir, we know a state based on profligate public spending and exorbitant taxation is courting economic disaster from hell, and there’s an end on it.”

I lay no claims to any particular brilliance. Anyone can arrive at truth by riding the vehicle of a sound cognitive methodology based on correct general principles. Conversely, no recondite knowledge of endless arcane details will get even an intelligent person to the same destination if he proceeds from wrong premises.

And don’t even get me started on metaphysics. Suffice it to say now that the wrong general premise of atheism acts as a road barrier coming halfway down any intellectual route: thus far, but no further. That’s why an atheist philosopher is an oxymoron – even if an intelligent atheist isn’t.

This is the general principle I apply to judging such matters, and so far no one has proved me wrong. So long live general principles, provided they are correct.

2 thoughts on “Long live general principles”

  1. I think by “general principles” you mean the accumulated knowledge of dead (or aging) white men. That is enough to explain why the general populace are rigidly (tolerantly?) opposed to general principles; that is, on general principle.

  2. Great post Alexander! However, I thought you would have given a spiritual example… because we know Christianity is true it follows that governments somewhat based on that faith will less likely dissolve into anarchy than other systems based on other beliefs, (atheism being in essence a belief system). Despite wars and upheavals it will self-correct as long as major slabs of that foundation are still in place.

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