Blog 50. Principles and hubris

We all live by principles—at least, most of us think we do.  Principles are not necessarily lofty.  An operator in organized crime might, as a matter of principle, rub out a member of the opposing gang.  At one time, it was a matter of principle for Christians to rub out Jews and/or Arabs.  At one time, it was a matter of principle for European immigrants to rub out Native Americans.  And maybe vice-versa.  However, most of us consider principles as moral guides for living and also as directives by which our elected officials should govern—which they obviously don’t.  Maybe they can’t.  Governance is a complex system of regulation, so if reality is to correspond to ideals, those ideals must be built into the written and unwritten rules by which the society actually operates, not just written into politicians’ speeches.

Social ideals?

Reality is here and now; why be bothered comparing it to a bunch of ideals?  Well, as historian Crane Brinton said, the strength of a society is not measured by either its reality or its ideals; rather, the weakness is measured by the gap between the two.

So should we act on our principles?

In a sermon, the Reverend John said operating by principle does not necessarily indicate you’re doing things right  You may be operating on hubris, that is, arrogance, presumption of righteousness.  RevJohn argued that you need humility as much as high ideals.  If you intend to help someone, ask them what they need.  If you help according to your own values and principles, that’s hubris.  Sending warm underwear to a typhoid epidemic makes the sender feel good.

So what’s this humility RevJohn talked about?  It’s taking care to learn what the other needs.  Your values are not an interpersonal action plan.  To help someone in need, he said, you must operate with recognition that you are unaware of what you don’t know.

What’s this about unawareness?

The possibility for accomplishing a significant change always occurs in that realm where you are unaware that you don’t know.  You may be aware that you don’t know the codified law as a lawyer does, but (unless you happen to relish prior posts on this blog) you might be unaware of what you don’t know about society as a complex system.  Awareness comes before knowledge.


While RevJohn was talking about interpersonal things, I was thinking about national and international things.  If your organization (or your government) attempts to help an impoverished or devastated country, ask what its people need rather than imposing your own form of aid, your own form of governance, your own social rules.  Imposition won’t work, it’s just hubris—or perhaps a means to the selfish ends of persons-in-charge.  Consider Iraq, where the American invasion replaced organized, cruel, stable, oppressive governance with chaotic, enduring sectarian violence.  Our leaders were unaware of what they didn’t know…and they didn’t ask.

Values and principles are not a national action plan.  Certainly, we want a government with the integrity to abide by the adopted principles.  Or at least some of us want that.  But often we  misapply the principles in our collective actions.  Does “equal opportunity” as a principle mean opportunity to gain at the expense of others?  Does “freedom” mean the freedom to destroy?  Does “urban renewal” mean displacing the poor to make classy places for successful folks?  Does “economic development” mean favoring the governor’s campaign contributors while everyone else pays the taxes?  Whose economy is being developed?  Have we asked them?

Speaking more than the truth.

Did you ever wonder why pundits and TV commentators find it necessary to interpret a political speech?  I suggest it’s because the speech may be loaded with principles, values, and feel-good sound bytes, but absent the underlying action plan.  There’s that hubris again.  Hubris in the speaker, hubris in the agenda of the cheering audience, and maybe hubris in the commentators if they fail to ask for the action plan.


Our treasured values and principles—the democracy, freedom, opportunity, economy, education, equality—are things to be promoted, but the promotion must be steered by critical questions.  In democracy does money vote?  Is freedom a freedom from something bad or a freedom for something else?  Is education learning or is it testing?  Who needs it AND wants it?  Is equality an equal start at age 18?  Is equality a vote to choose from a slate of purchased candidates?  Is freedom of speech or religion cited as an excuse to control politics, control behavior, or impose selected religious practices?  Hard questions.

To repeat: the possibility for doing great things occurs in the realm where you are unaware of what you don’t know.  Therefore, as the bumper sticker said, we shouldn’t start vast projects with half-vast questions.