Monday, January 31, 2011

The Power of Principles (Not)

Discussing The Enclosure of the Commons with @umairh.

@umairh Here's some more stuff we can pimp--oh, sorry, I mean "privatize"--while we're at it. The atmosphere, the oceans, our grandkids. Oh, wait...

In response, I pointed to @owenbarder 's blog Enclosure of the Commons – 21st Century Edition.

@umairh Exactly. That's why fighting back with "open-source"/commons principles is so disruptive--and important.

But the history of enclosure doesn't suggest that it can be defeated by "principles". Wikipedia: Enclosure. Fighting back may be important and disruptive, but surely disruption needs more than principles? After all, people have often defended enclosure with another set of equally plausible principles - protecting the environment, increasing agricultural productivity, or whatever.

Here's a more general question - to what extent have "principles" ever contributed significantly to social or political change. Many key historical changes - examples might include the abolition of slavery in the USA, the enfranchisement of women, and the independence of India - were heralded by strong and principled campaigns. But why were these campaigns more successful than those against enclosure?

We might note that in each case of successful progressive change, there is an alternative explanation for the event, based on socioeconomic and geopolitical forces. For example, with the availability of cheap quinine (reducing the economic dependence on labour of West African origin), slavery ceased to be the cheapest form of labour in malaria-ridden plantations. Such socioeconomic explanations should caution us against regarding the forceful articulation of principles as the sole driver of social change.

In business and engineering, as well as politics, it is customary to appeal to "principles" to justify some business model, some technical solution, or some policy. But these principles are usually so vague that they provide very little concrete guidance. Profitability, productivity, efficiency, which can mean almost anything you want them to mean. And when principles interfere with what we really want to do, we simply come up with a new interpretation of the principle, or another overriding principle, which allows us to do exactly what we want while dressing up the justification in terms of "principles".

The BBC Moral Maze programme this week discussed a recent case of a Christian couple in the UK who refused bed-and-breakfast to a gay couple, thereby offending against recent anti-discrimination legislation. This case appears to involve two conflicting applications of the same principle - tolerance and human rights. Listening to the programme, I thought how easy it might have been for the Christian couple to turn away guests they regarded as undesirable by appealing instead to the principle of security, and how often "security" and "risk" is used as a reason for being unpleasant or unhelpful to other people. I also remembered FakeSteveJobs' recent rant against Christian intolerance, in which he offered the following interpretation of the Good Samaritan story. "Jesus, your big hero, was saying that if you have some rule or conventional wisdom that causes you to do harm to people, violate the goddamn rule." [FSJ December 2010]

So much for principles then.

I have previously written about the over-emphasis on principles within the discourse of enterprise architecture: What's Wrong With Principles, What's Wrong With Principles 2.


  1. Like most things in life, the power of a principle depends on timing. Everyone knows the aphorism attributed to Victor Hugo: "There is nothing so strong as an idea whose time has come." But no one seems to know the wag who coined: "There is nothing so weak as an idea whose time has not yet come (or has passed)." See eg .

    So a principle, like any idea, at the right place and time can galvanize and influence action. While at the wrong time, it is simply empty rhetoric. Unfortunately, we never seem able to predict such timing. We only observe it in hindsight.

  2. Victor Hugo's aphorism, as well as Carmen Medina's reversal of it, indicates that the force of an idea changes over time. The history of ideas also shows that the meaning of ideas changes over time. As Nick knows, Gartner has a very simple theory of the changing force and meaning of technological ideas over time, which it calls the Hype Cycle. (See my comments on the Technology Hype Curve.)

    But I think there is an important difference between principles and other kinds of idea. Victor Hugo, we might note, changed his principles during the course of his life, responding flexibly and intelligently to the prevailing events and ideas of the time. When has a principle ever had the effects you describe?

  3. I think the abolitionist principles that led to the end of slavery in the US are a great example of the power of "an idea whose time has come." I think the principles of the US Civil Rights Movement are another example. Darker examples might be Nazi ideology being "an idea whose time has come" in post WW I Germany; and the October Revolution in Russia, when the time came for the prinicples of Marx/Lenin.

    Of course, proving the causality of ideas in shaping history is something historians have debated at least as long as they have debated the hero in history. I count myself a member of the "history as narrative" school ( ), and since good narrative is a narrative of ideas as much as it is actions, ideas and principles play a leading role in history.

  4. I just noticed your contention that there is "an important difference between principles and other kinds of ideas." I don't really see a a clear distinction. I follow Rorty, who spoke mainly in terms of a "final vocabulary." ( )

    Could you elaborate on the difference between principles and other kinds of ideas?

  5. On the difference between principles and other kinds of ideas

    A principle is expected to be fairly constant and universal. I could wake up one day with the idea that I'd like pancakes for breakfast, but it only becomes a principle when I think that everyone ought to have pancakes for breakfast every day. Or when my wife challenges me to say why I want pancakes and I come up with some retrospective rationalization based on some random principle or other.

    In my mind, ideas are more powerful (and interesting) than principles. A lot of history has been influenced by false beliefs - for example that the Jews or the Iraqis were responsible for something or other, or that some group is superior/inferior. I think a lot of progress comes not from the force of some abstract principle but from correcting false beliefs and weakening the forces of prejudice and intolerance. People only really accept the principle of equality AFTER they have abandoned a set of ideas and practices that stand in the way of equality.

    So I have a strong sense that a principle is a dead idea - an idea that has come to the end of its useful life. History-as-narrative works perfectly okay with concrete and living ideas, and doesn't need dead abstract ideas.

  6. Richard, Maybe it's a British vs. American thing. :) American's believe that there is an important effect in writing down an idea and enshrining it in a written constitution as a principle. The Bill of Rights is a great example of a set of principles that IMO are still "living" today.

    Perhaps the British feel comfortable with a set of principles that are not enshrined in a written constitution. So maybe they're more like what you characterize as ideas.

    In any case, while I agree with your suggestion that principles are typically old (you don't say this directly, but you do say "constant" and "an idea that has come to the end of it's useful life"), I don't agree that all principles are dead ideas.

    There are some very old principles that are still alive and kicking today. For example, the Golden Rule is ancient and universal across religions. There are also some very young and still controversial principles, such as the equality of men and women or animal rights.

    But perhaps the essence of the issue is the degree to which words have force to change behavior. You say in passing "I think a lot of progress comes not from the force of some abstract principle..." I completely agree that words alone don't DO anything; only people acting on those words. This is in line with the old adage (or is it a principle? :) "Actions speak louder than words."

    But I believe (as a principle) that actions _inspired by words_ speak louder than mere actions. IMO, words DO have force. A manifesto, a pamphlet, a set of theses nailed to a door, can act as a catalyst to actions that sweep the world much faster than "see it, do it" can.

    I agree that principles can grow old, lose their potentcy, become a barrier to change instead of an enabler, but nonetheless at some point the principle was young, powerful, and a catalyst for change. Look at the Four Freedoms of Richard Stallman, which are the principles that catalyzed the informal practices of code sharing into a full fledged movement.

    Now perhaps you are merely defining "principle" to mean old, dead, idea that is an impediment to change. And you define "idea" to mean the opposite. But then your arguments against principles are merely tautologies. That's fine, I'll just have to translate from your definitions into mine when we debate such matters.

  7. Nick, I agree that words and ideas have force; I just think that people are spurred into action by manifest injustice rather than by abstract principles of justice. I agree that Luther's 95 theses were world-changing; but they took the form of a series of protests and rhetorical challenges against the Pope and his followers, not a set of abstract principles.

    For example, "Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of Saint Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?"

    That's a powerful juxtaposition of ideas, but it's not what I'd call a principle. Of course you may be able to infer some general principle from Luther's outrage, but I cannot believe that the document would have had anything like the same historical force if it had been expressed as a dry commandment or constitutional proposal.

    In my opinion, the historical significance of Buddha and Jesus and Mohammed comes from their singularity. People take the words of Buddha and Jesus and Mohammed, and try to infer general principles of action from their reported acts of wisdom and kindness, or from ambiguous stories. But if these general principles had real force, surely their followers would have found it possible to follow them more consistently and with less argument? General principles result from acts of interpretation, and those who have disputed these interpretations have often been persecuted as heretics or enemies of the state. This is one of the many reasons why many Europeans (and perhaps many Americans) are suspicious of ideological principles.

    Of course we may sometimes see a lot of positive energy clustered around a set of principles. The principles may be vigorously espoused by some stakeholders, but that doesn't mean that the principles caused the energy. I should be more inclined to believe that some other ideas caused the energy, and that the principles are not the original inspiration for action, merely an indirect reflection of it.

    The American Constitition seems to perform a similar role. People seem to use it mostly to construct arguments for things that they already believe in, rather than to help them form their beliefs in the first place. The text is dead, but the rival interpretations grow like rainforest.

  8. "I should be more inclined to believe that some other ideas caused the energy, and that the principles are not the original inspiration for action, merely an _indirect reflection_ of it."

    We agree that principles are not the cause of anything, but IMO they are more than post hoc _reflections_ of actions. In my response, I very consciously characterized principles as "catalysts": they don't cause the reaction, but they impact it's threshold and rate. Catalysts are very "powerful" despite the fact that they are never the _cause_ of a reaction.

    It almost seems that you're arguing against ALL forms of abstraction:
    * "progress comes not from the force of some abstract principle"
    * "History-as-narrative works perfectly okay with concrete and living ideas, and doesn't need dead abstract ideas."
    * "I just think that people are spurred into action by manifest injustice rather than by abstract principles of justice."

    If you're not opposed to abstraction across the board (which would be astonishing for someone who promotes EA :), could you please shed some light on what distinguishes abstractions that are dead or unnecessary (eg principles IYO) from abstractions that are living and useful? And what do you call the latter kind of abstractions, since you don't seem to want to call them principles. :)

    PS I think you cherry picked a thesis from the 95.:) Most of them are indeed a set of abstract principles. Here are a few:

    16. Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ as do despair, almost-despair, and the assurance of safety.
    17. With souls in purgatory it seems necessary that horror should grow less and love increase.
    18. It seems unproved, either by reason or Scripture, that they are outside the state of merit, that is to say, of increasing love.
    19. No one is sure that his own contrition is sincere; much less that he has attained full remission.
    37. Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.

  9. I'm not opposed to principles altogether, I'm just putting them in their place. As I see it, principles belong to the Discourse of the University, being consistent but inauthentic. (See Lacan's Four Discourses.) They may be true as far as they go, but they lack motive force.

    I confess I did not read all of Luther's theses, but quoted the one picked out by the Wikipedia as the most notable. I agree that some of the other ones look more like principles, but I think it's interesting that the one that gets quoted is the one that isn't much like a principle at all. I can't imagine that the ones you've quoted would have launched a Reformation.

  10. Let's go back to my starting question. The fight against enclosure was based on as strong a set of principles as the fight against slavery, but one failed where the other succeeded. If strong principles are neither necessary nor sufficient to produce or explain social or business change, then maybe principles don't need to play such an important role in our historical narratives.

    But ideas DO play an important role. Martin Luther's rhetorical attack on the Pope changed history, and we can also remember Martin Luther King's famous speech, because they are authentic and passionate and visionary statements rather than dry abstractions. (Yes, the dream speech could easily be translated into a set of principles, but it wouldn't have had the same effect, would it?)

  11. Richard, The failure of the commons principles to defend against enclosure demonstrates that principles are not sufficient. But you'll have to come up with successful non-principled movements to demonstrate they are not necessary.

    I also agree with you that ideas, including principles, can be dry or they can be passionate. And I'm just as against dry principles as you.

    I just reread King's speech and to me it is FULL of abstract, yet passionate principles:

    * This note was a promise that all men -- yes, black men as well as white men -- would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    * In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds

    * We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.

    * Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

    * I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

    * This will be the day, this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my father's died, land of the Pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!"

    If principles were so dry and abstract, why would King bother to reference the principles in the Declaration of Independence? For that matter, why did the American patriots bother to write it in the first place? :)

  12. Richard,


    I think it is wonderfully ironic that you invoke a set of Lacanian ("constant and universal") principles (and IMO dry and abstract ones at that) in your argument AGAINST the force/power of principles!

    If Lacan's principles of discourse "lack motive force", why do you invoke them? Why not stick only to "concrete and living ideas" as you suggest above? :)

    If anything is a Discourse of the University, it is Lacan's writings!

  13. As someone once remarked, philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it. On this criterion, Lacan ranks as a philosopher, and I am using his framework to better understand the nature of principles, and to explore the extent to which they might carry the power to change anything. But this discussion does not rest on our evaluation of Lacan's writings.

    Nick's appeal to Martin Luther and his namesake Dr King represents a more serious challenge to my position. Clearly, the Reformation and American Civil Rights movement are significant historical events. Luther and Dr King were undoubtedly signifiant historical personalities, and their rhetoric helped to shape events. Nick attributes their influence to their deployment of abstract principles, but they use a number of other rhetorical devices as well, and it is hard to prove whether it was the principles or something else that produced the observed outcomes.

    In any case, we might regard such interventions as maieutic - bringing something to birth whose time was already come. History is full of failed campaigns, led by people just as passionate and eloquent as Dr King. I cannot see that it is the principles that make the difference between a successful campaign and an unsuccessful one.


  14. Learned a few interesting things about Martin Luther from a PBS documentary I watched last night. Luther's ideas ("principles") served as a spark not only for religious reformation but also for sociopolitical uprising. Luther himself was horrified that his ideas had been taken out of context, and called for brutal repression of the uprising. Luther's rhetoric certainly helped to shape events, but not in the way he intended.