Principles and pragmatism

I recently read this interesting article by a friend of mine and it had me thinking about a pretty big question: in what situations do we stick with our principles and when do we be pragmatic and take a win when one is on the table?

I'd like to think that everybody has a code, their own set of principles by which we choose to live. They all might be wildly different, but the idea that we all have a system like this seems pretty plausible to me. These beliefs can come from any number of sources: your upbringing, your economic circumstances or the mass media. In politics, these systems are called ideologies. When we talk about people, we refer to these things as values. Whatever you might call them, they are the guide for our actions, decisions and judgements.

The thing that I've found most interesting when thinking about these concepts at both the group and individual level is that belief systems generally have a lot of big things in common and that it is often just the way they want to achieve these things that differs. Few things are more boring to me than watching two partisans arguing about something ton which they fundamentally disagree. Very few of the arguments that take place in the public sphere today are about simple issues, but advocates often treat them as such. Progress is very rarely made when they use their points of view as starting points and make no effort to try to reach nuanced conclusions on complex situations.

What is more interesting to me is starting from a place where two opposing viewpoints overlap and working outward from there. These starting points may need to be reasonably broad in order to establish common ground, but this method could be far more useful than yelling from different sides of the street.

I'd argue that the idea of fairness is one that could be easily claimed as a fundamental principle of almost all significant political ideologies today. The idea of fairness might seem pretty abstract, but ask an ideological person what fairness means to them I'm prepared to bet they will be able to give you a pretty strong answer. Progressives might say that fairness is about every person being treated equally in all aspects of life, whether it be the home, the workplace, the bedroom or the hospital ward. Conservatives might say that fairness means that a person has the ability to make their choices and to not be burdened with the impact of the choices of others. Both are two different characterisations of the concept of fairness and depending on your point of view you might more closely agree with one or the other. A debate that begins on this framework already appears more interesting and productive to me than a lot of today's public discourse.

The fact is that on some issues, traditional opponents can end up agreeing with one another. But dealing with the sensation of finding common ground with someone whom you usually disagree with is hard. You want them to be wrong. You are suspicious of their motives. You want to know what it is they are hiding, why they are being duplicitous. Sometimes you start to question why it is you believe that thing in the first place. They are normally seem so backward and so consistently wrong that you might question why it is that you believe that thing. But this needn't be the case.

In any debate, personal or political, we must first come to terms with what we want to achieve from the situation. Are we arguing for arguing's sake or are we trying to do something positive for ourselves and other people? Should we reject an opportunity to do something constructive just because the our enemies have come to similar conclusions by a different route? Train tracks headed in different directions sometimes intersect; something good that is achieved is infinitely better than something good that is not.

A win may not be a win in every single circumstance, but sometimes our principles can act as agents of restriction rather than as forms of guidance. Having a strong will and principles are great characteristics, but are not necessarily greater than insight, flexibility and restraint. We should always give ourselves the freedom to change our own minds whilst being able to grant our adversaries the same right. Humility can be just as an important a trait when proven correct than it is when you are proven wrong.