I started this a while back and never finished it - one of the main refrains of my life. Now I am using the word principles in another blog posting I am working on (on the relationship between Democracy and the Multistakeholder Governance model) and figured I should finish this first. My problem was I got stuck trying to be rigorous. Now enough time has passed and I am already embarrassed at not having an answer to such a simple question. And I no longer feel the compulsion to be rigorous. That can can wait for a another day.
Most of us talk about principles, and some of of even claim to have them. Many of us even say we are governed by them. But what do we mean by principles One of my friends, who I haven’t’ spoken to since I started working on this blog-piece months ago, considers them so much Bla Bla. Put another way, I think she sees them in a (neo)positivist manner, and interprets the statement ‘it is a principle’ to signify the same thing as some form of the statement ‘I like it better that way’.
This friend challenged me, and any of a number of other friends to define principles in some way stronger then that.
First I tried a philosophical approach. And try as I might, I found it difficult to come up with any argument that convinced me that it would convince someone with the positivist bend of mind, that something other than ‘that is what feels right’. Certainly no appeal to truth or authority or history or … would be worth the pixels needed to display the argument. Of course, I was not clever enough to just know this and spent months trying to find some way around the problem of convincing someone that having principles meant more than ‘well my mammy always used to say …’ or ‘God told us so’.
So I gave up.
At least for a while.
I never give up for longer than a while.
Though the while can get quite long.
Then I started another project I may or may not finish. Based on a lecture I give in which I try to explain how the Internet came to be the way it is based on design and operational principles, I started writing an online book (that is what I may or may not finish depending on whether my normal behavior patterns prevail) on the subject of “How did design and operational principles direct the Internet’s ontogeny.”
Of course this brought me back to the nagging problem of defining the word principles. But I found the task easier this time because of the modifiers, design and operational. I was no longer trying to define Principles with the big P, but was trying to define design and operational principles, two types of engineering principles. This seemed easier, as the notion of an engineering principle was not rooted in Truth, as we all know that in engineering there are any number of correct ways to do things as there will always be trade-offs involved in making decisions. And the notion was not not rooted in pure preference, because in engineering, something had to actually work, simple preference did not matter. Engineering principles needed to be linked to a notion of something that worked.
Already I felt myself on safer ground, but the answer wasn’t quite satisfying, and certainly did not seem to seem to extend to a general notion of Principles. There was, however, something else that I found in the definition of design principles that appealed to me. A design principle had an implicit component of intentionality. We use design principles because we intend to build something and need a way to help guide our decisions. Over time, we adjust our set of design principles if they fail us and if the things we build fail, but the idea is always that we have an intention for these principles. And once we finished building something we could look a what we had built and decide whether our principles had served us well or not. Design and other engineering principles have an intention, a use and get feedback.
This brought me back to a general notion of Principles. Sure we may just pick the principles we have because we like them, and we may like them because they are all we have ever known or for any number of other possible reasons. What matters about principles is not how we pick them, but that we have an intention to use them. If we are talking about ethical principles, we chose them not just to have them (though I guess some people do merely use them as sleeve ornaments) but because we intend to use them and to live by them; i.e. we use them to build the story of our life. And in fact in the process of using these principles we sometimes do change them we find the don’t quite work - though we are notoriously bad at making appraisals about what does and does not work in building our lives.
but to talk about that would be to digress into psychology.
So I think I have an answer for my friend, a statement of principles may not be semantically different from a statement of liking or not liking something, but what makes it special is that it is the blueprint for actions and provides a metric against which actions can be measured. In a sense it does not matter where a principle comes from, as long as it is used and modified when warranted.
This may not be enough of an answer for my friend. And it is certainly not a sufficient answer for the philosopher wannabe in me.
In fact having gotten to where I have gotten it seems a bit obvious and maybe even a little trite - so be it.
But it works for the time being and hopefully will allow me to get back to the blog I really wanted to write today.
I bet I come back and edit this later. And I should note that I have said nothing about whether principles are right or wrong, only that they are and that they have a use and that this is what I find most significant at this point in time.