I
HOW TO DO THINGS WITH PRINCIPLES

WHAT are principles for? Why do we hold principles, why do we put them forth, why do we adhere to them? We could instead simply act on whim or the passion of the moment, or we could maximize our own self-interest and recommend that others do the same. Are principles then a constraint upon whim and selfinterest, or is adherence to principles a way of advancing self-interest? What functions do principles serve?

Principles of action group actions, placing them under general rubrics; linked actions are then to be viewed or treated in the same way. This generality can serve different functions: intellectual, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and personal. I start with the intellectual.


Intellectual Functions

Consider judicial decisionmaking. In one imaginable system, a judge simply decides a case so as to yield what she thinks is the best or preferable result in that particular case. Another system of judicial decision involves principled decision: a common law judge is to formulate a principle to fit (most or almost all) precedents and a range of hypothetical cases, and then use this principle to decide the current case.* The attempt to formulate an acceptable general principle is a test of your judgment about the particular case: is there some adequate general principle—a principle that gives the right result in all established cases and obvious hypothetical ones—that also yields the result you want in this case? If you cannot find such a principle, reconsider what result you do want in this case.

Such a procedure is a test of a particular judgment on the assumption that any correct judgment is yielded by some true acceptable gen

____________________
*
My aim here is to highlight some general features that principles have outside of the legal realm by analogy to some aspects of judicial decision, not to present a complete picture of the functioning of legal institutions. What is illuminating is the analogy between how a current judicial decision is to be yielded by a principle that fits past precedents and how (outside the law) a principle is to yield correct judgments. That within the legal system stare decisis is itself a (higher-order) principle of the law that may sometimes conflict or compete with other principles need not concern us now.

-3-

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