People engage in behavior for all kinds of reasons. Life is a system of relational dynamics, where the repercussions of what we do ripple out, often in ways we would not have thought possible. We are not autonomous agents interacting with others only when desired. If the effects of our actions could be selectively chosen by those we are connected with, there’d be no impetus to determine whether some reasons for engaging in behavior are more legitimate than others.

As Leonard Peikoff in his book Understanding Objectivism notes, “Life (which is our standard of value) requires certain specific actions, and those are not automatically built into it; therefore, we have to figure out what they are; we have to decide before we act…” (pg. 92) As many faced with even the morning ritual of breakfast can attest to, the most seemingly basic of choices is multifaceted, with no inherently right or wrong selection. Contrary to the absolutist who relegates context to a quaint consideration, the “right” choice in many situations involves any number of potential peak behaviors.

Principles are not here equated with values, nor are they dogmatic statements predicated upon an authority structure whether that be religious or of some secular social institution. Principles, rather, are basic premises that provide the grid through which values and social context create behavior. Principles provide the fundamental cognitive framework by which a person interacts with life, whether in circumstance or with people. The distinction between principle and value is important here, as they are all too often made synonymous.

Again from Peikoff: “The first point in order to understand the issue of principles is that man has to act long-range. What do we mean by “long-range”? A person has to take account of the consequences of his action against the whole span of his life, as opposed to mere immediate satisfaction.” (pg. 91) Values do not offer enough long-term structure, they do not tell us either how we view the world or determine the manner in which we interact with it. For those wanting grander philosophic terms, these two equate to epistemological considerations and metaphysical claims.

Principles work by delineating the importance of information within the matrix of values and social context to create behavior. One example is that of engaging in shame/doubt over the variations in behavior each of us exhibits in different social situations. We may talk of it as putting on different hats, at times feeling and even discussing it as not being the “real” me. A common response to disparate forms of behavior is to declare an act of hypocrisy. I’m declaring that nothing of the sort is occurring. The crisis of identity involved here concerns the principle that defines “ego” or “self.” Unfortunately, instead of focusing on this, the person will instead note a value of consistency or authenticity, believing that different behavior in different situations indicates a lack of integrity, generating shame/doubt.

Stepping back onto foundational principle, it can be noted that the person has structured their view of self as a singular and non-contextual entity, as some kind of soul-based transcendent being. If instead the person viewed ego as a point of reference within social context then all manner of behavior could be accepted as various aspects of what they are capable of imaginatively constructing. While the person can still decide whether certain behaviors are what they want to give energy or focus to, there is no loss of identity here, no room for shame/doubt. The behavior is never “other” than who they are.

Again from Peikoff: “A principle is the only thing that can decide what to do when you have a choice. The whole point of principles is to enable us to make choices, to enable us to judge which is more important.” (pg. 107) These principles are not often conscious and as a consequence not given the consideration they deserve. We can no more remove principles from our lives as we can remove our capacity to live relationally.

What can be done is to bring into the light precisely what principles we are holding that structure the form of our behavior manifesting within our values and the particular social context we find ourselves in. By doing so we can find a greater degree of integration, not only within ourselves but in the interactions we have with others.

© David Teachout


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