Wednesday, December 19, 2012

There is no coherent distinction between 'Principled' and 'Practical' arguments.

Allegedly 'practical' arguments assert that we should enact the policy in question because it will have some consequence.  For instance, one 'practical' argument in favour of using extraordinary rendition holds that it will increase public safety by enabling us to catch more terrorists.  But that means nothing unless we accept a prior principle that the consequence in question is desirable, i.e. that we should enact it.

Calling such an argument 'practical' is mostly a way of shirking the burden of defending such a principle.  It is a rhetorical sleight of hand - a way of saying, "Look, this principle is just so obvious that I shouldn't have to explain it, or weigh it up against the principles that the other side has advanced."

The hidden principle could be weak or strong.  If it is weak, e.g. "Other things being equal, we should do that which enables us to catch more terrorists.", then it's not clear that the premises of the argument entail its conclusion.  The whole point of the other side's case is that other things are not equal; for instance, that extraordinary rendition is brutal, inhumane, and damages the autonomy of ordinary innocent people.  If the hidden principle is strong, e.g. "We should always so act as to maximise the number of terrorists captured.", then it's not clear that the principle is so obvious as to require no defence.

Even utilitarian principles such as, "We should always so act as to maximise human welfare." are not so obvious as to require no defence.  (Is that true even if doing so involves using rape as a tool of war?  Is the only error of a well-intentioned but brutal genocidaire that he has incorrectly weighed the costs and benefits?)  That a policy will make people happier (overall) seems one ethical concern to be weighed among others.  It's not obvious to me that it outweighs, for instance, the concern that it involves punishing innocent people, or that it makes a mockery of human dignity.

It's also not clear where concerns like freedom or moral autonomy fit into the 'principle'/'practical' schema.  Frequently, people shelve autonomy into the 'principled' box, contrasting it with, for instance, concerns such as safety or good health.  But for centuries, small collections of reasonable people have decided that political freedom was more important than their own lives; and it's not obvious that they were wrong.  Here is an approximate description of the way debaters distinguish between 'practical' and 'principled' concerns: 'practical' concerns are those that human beings share with monkeys.  'Principled' concerns are those unique to human beings.  (Though perhaps even that is unfair to monkeys.)

In conclusion, if ever you wish to argue for a policy on the grounds that it will cause some desirable consequence, explain why it will cause that consequence, and (possibly) defend the principle that such a consequence is sufficiently desirable as to outweigh competing considerations.  Calling such an argument 'practical' is just sloppy thinking.

If you're interested in reading more, it's worth finding a copy of Kant's On the Old Saw: That May be Right in Theory But It Won't Work in Practice.


  1. I think you've clarified the similarities between principled and practical arguments more efficiently than anyone I've read.

    Trolley dilemma aside, I've found that many problems boil down to considerations of positive vs. negative liberty. Either side would claim that their arguments are both principled and practical in guaranteeing the liberty of the individual, the former through limiting interference from others and the latter through enabling the individual to realise fundamental purposes.

    One idea I've been playing around with is that positive liberty is so much more popular because rhetorically speaking, it seems both practical and principled. People get to do something, and there are what seem to be immediate short term benefits. The positive principles of liberty are upheld in ways that are plain to see.

    Compare that with the bulk of arguments for negative liberty, with its minimalistic insistence on sticking to guaranteeing rights and not meddling around any more than that. The masses were baying for governments everywhere to do something about the financial crisis. Leaders who bail out banks or increase public spending could be seen as being men of action. A laissez-faire position would have been perceived as lazy or cowardly. The long-term benefits of such Austrian stoicism were easily maligned as being impractical and illusory.

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