One of the guiding principles of my life is consistency. Rules, laws, ethics and morals, in my eyes, should apply to the largest group possible. If the sauce is good for the goose, then the gander should find it just fine, too. No exceptions. Or, realistically, few exceptions, and then only for practical or material reasons.
I have no problem admitting I’m wrong on matters of fact. Ask my friends. I do it all the time, and I hold in very high esteem those who can do the same (which is one criteria I use for choosing my friends, as well as my intellectual heroes).
But I hate admitting an error on matters of principle.
Doesn’t that seem like a contradiction?
Facts are not open to debate. That’s what makes them facts. Facts are directly observable, empirically documented, events about which there is no question. They’re measurable, precise. Maybe I’m not challenging myself by sticking to the facts? I mean, that’s kind of easy, right? Fact: diamonds are hard. Water is wet. Horses have four legs. Duh. Easy-peasy.
Principles… are personal, more often than not. Even when groups of people all agree to abide by certain principles, there can be honest disagreement about the principles involved, and their priority, and how they’re interpreted and applied to actual people, places and events. Even in the most extreme cases, principles are… messy. Complicated. They’re not black-and-white – they have shades of gray. Charcoal gray.
Like – murder. Murder is wrong, almost everyone can agree with that statement. But there are times when murder is… less wrong. There are many who believe that killing someone can actually be a righteous event. There’s disagreement on when killing someone is actually to be called “murder” in the first place. I’m just touching on many of the complex issues surrounding the whole idea of murder, but hopefully you can see my point. A simple, binary declaration of “murder is wrong” may be nice in theory but it’s a map that doesn’t even begin to cover the actual landscape. In fact, it’s nearly useless as a map except in the broadest sense: I’m going to try to avoid killing other people today.
But what if I’m driving and hit a pedestrian? Regardless of the legal definitions and outcomes, I believe I would feel immense guilt, due to my principles. Guilt that may not be assuaged by the legal process, or the assurances of my friends and family that it was all a terrible accident.
I would find it difficult not to go from thinking “murder is wrong” to “I killed someone” to “I am wrong for killing someone”.
And, again, that’s the simplest case, one of the few clear-cut examples of morality that human life can offer. What about other, lesser moral values? Lying? Cheating on a relationship? Theft?
So much to think about. What do I value and what are the boundaries on those values?
Is consistency the best approach to matters of principle? When does consistency become a demerit, rather than a gain?
Can I, this late in life, begin to achieve some… flexibility?