By Mike Cronin
“If you want to be ruled, follow the rules. If you want to be principled, follow principles.” I don’t know who said those words, but they are profound. An admired man or woman is often said to be “of principle.” If you think about heroes, famous statesmen, positive historical figures, leading thinkers, or other notable people, you will seldom, if ever, find that such figures are admired for following the rules. So what is the difference, and why is one better than the other?
A rule dictates from external authority; a principle guides from reason. Rules demand: You must (or must not) take such and such an action, or possess some item, or allow some condition. The primary consideration of the rule-follower is for first-order effects only: to avoid suffering the imposed consequences for disobedience. Rules often fail to allow for context or circumstances. Indeed, governments often thoughtlessly pile up so many rules that it becomes impossible to know or follow them all. It’s even likely that as rules multiply, we will be simultaneously obligated and prohibited from doing some action!
Principles consider second- and third–order effects: “If I do ___, then someone else’s rights might be violated. If I allow some condition, someone else might be harmed. I don’t want my own rights violated or to be harmed by poor conditions, so I will not perpetuate those things myself.” The deeper consideration of the principled person is for the maintenance of civilized society and the consequences to his or her own integrity and character for a given act or omission. Principles can be adapted to circumstances, and they are not produced by dictators, monarchs, presidents, or legislatures.
By no means does this suggest one should disobey rules on a whim. Some rules exist for a legitimate purpose – indeed, they are based on constructive principles. For example: laws that prohibit the initiation of force against others generally derive from a just principle, and ought to be obeyed, whereas laws that demand the initiation of force against others are probably unjust.
Obeying rules set by others doesn’t take any thought. Deriving your own principles or incorporating principles learned from others into your life requires some deeper consideration for the consequences of your actions (or lack of same). Adhering to principles require the exercise of judgement. Adhering to principles sometimes means proudly accepting the consequences of breaking the rules – Dr. Martin Luther King exemplified this during his civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Consider this: Some Germans who followed the rules obeyed their masters and slaughtered six million Jews during the Nazi reign. Some British colonists who followed principles disobeyed the rules, rebelled against their ruler, and gave birth to the United States.
Do you want to give up your heritage as a human being and revert to animal status? Be an obedient, unthinking rule follower. If you want to perpetuate civilization, think for yourself – especially about the ramifications of your actions (or omissions). Adopt or derive the best principles you can, then live by them!