Thinking with Principles

Not many know about this, but Hitler had a soft spot in his heart for at least one Jewish person. 

Eduard Bloch was an Austrian doctor practicing in Linz (Austria) and until 1907 the physician of Adolf Hitler’s family… Bloch was held in high regard, particularly among the lower and indigent social classes. It was generally known that at any time at night he was willing to call on patients… In 1907 Hitler’s mother, Klara Hitler, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died on 21 December after intense suffering involving daily medication … administered by Bloch. Because of the poor economic situation of the Hitler family, Bloch charged reduced prices, sometimes taking no fee at all. 

The then 18-year-old Hitler granted him his “everlasting gratitude” for this… Even in 1937, Hitler inquired about Bloch’s well-being and called him an “Edeljude” (“noble Jew”). After Germany’s union with Austria in March 1938 (Anschluss) life became harder for Austrian Jews… The 62-year-old Bloch then wrote a letter to Hitler asking for help and was as a consequence put under special protection by the Gestapo. He was the only Jew in Linz with this status. Bloch stayed in his house with his wife undisturbed until the formalities for his emigration to the United States were completed.

One can only wonder how the course of history might have changed, if Hitler had used the example of Eduard Bloch, to reconsider his anti-semitic beliefs. An entire genocide could have been averted. Unfortunately, that was not to be. In Hitler’s mind, Bloch was filed away as simply an exception that proves the rule. One that can somehow coexist harmoniously with his despicably racist worldview.

Rules and Exceptions

As someone who loves to discuss politics, current events and philosophy, I have learnt painfully that some people are impossible to convince. Not because of any intrinsic deficiencies, but because their beliefs are completely immune to any possible challenge.

The most impressive thinkers that I’ve met, have exhibited a strong dedication to principle-based thinking. When encountering disparate pieces of information, they form in their minds a principle that can best explain what they are seeing. A mental model for the world. And then, they continuously update this mental model when coming across more and more information. 

And most importantly, when challenged with something that grievously refutes their mental model, they revise their principles to take this into account. When the facts change, so too do their beliefs.

A famous example would be the physicists who have achieved tremendous progress in illuminating the world. For millennia, people thought that objects have an intrinsic tendency to “fall downwards”. Until one day, Newton revised this mental model using the principle of Gravitation – a principle that declares that there is no such thing as “downward”, but rather, objects have a tendency to move towards other objects, proportional to their size.

And this principle held up for centuries more, until it was revised once again when Einstein was able to demonstrate the superiority of the Theory of Relativity, using a single counter-example.

As stubborn and egoistical as the above thinkers might be, at least it is possible to have a debate with them. Not so with those whose thoughts are completely free of coherent principles. 

“Why did the apple fall to the ground?”
“Because that’s what things do. They fall down.”
“Why do birds not fall down then?”
“Because birds are not things. Living creatures and apples are totally different.”
“Then why doesn’t the moon fall down?”
“Because the moon is not a normal thing. It is huge. It so so huge in comparison to an apple, that you can’t even compare them”
“Then why don’t astronauts in space fall down?”
“That’s a horrible analogy. Space is completely different from Earth. The same rules don’t apply there.”

Lest you think that this is limited solely to science, it certainly isn’t. The absence of principles is something that has long infected people in every domain.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
“What about Africans and African-Americans? Shouldn’t we outlaw slavery and grant them their liberty, since they too are created equal?”
“I was clearly talking about Europeans. Africans and Europeans are totally different. You can’t even compare them”
“What about the Irish and Italians? Since they too are created equal, aren’t they entitled to the same rights and respect we grant to other Americans?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. They are the exceptions that prove the rule. Besides, most of them weren’t even born here so they aren’t entitled to anything from us.”
“What about women? Shouldn’t we grant women the same fundamental rights and privileges we grant men, since they too are created equal?”
“Did you hear me say women? I clearly mentioned that only men are created equal. Women are totally different from men, you can’t compare them.”
“What about gays and lesbians? Shouldn’t they be entitled to the same liberty and pursuit of happiness?”
“Of course not. Homosexuality is deviant and an affront to God. How dare you even compare me to a homosexual? That is deeply offensive.”
<centuries of oppression and civil rights abuses then follow>

The person who truly believes in principles will rally to defend their principle from any and all attacks. And when their principle proves to be indefensible, they will graciously accept defeat and rally around a more defensible principle.

In contrast, the person with no principles, who follows an ad-hoc bag of beliefs, will simply deflect any and all attacks by refusing to even acknowledge them.

“Those were completely different times!” 
“Those are totally different things!”
“How dare you even compare ABC to XYZ? I take great offense at that!” 

In the end, free from any and all evidence or logic that can change their world-view, the only things the person sees, are the things that confirm their existing beliefs. The only way to convince such a person is by either appealing to their emotions or to their self-interest. Logical discourse is about as productive as arguing with a wall.

In Defense of Simplicity

Is it really so bad to live life using a hodge-podge of rules and exceptions?

“What goes up must come down, unless it has any sort of wings or a rocket.”
“It is never okay to bomb civilian areas. Except for the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – those were special circumstances.”
“Government handouts should be avoided because it will make people lazy and indolent. Except for medicare, because society has a duty to provide healthcare for its elders.”
“We all have a duty to follow the law, even if we disagree with it. Except for speeding because it is so trivial. And the underground railroad too – it is so exceptional, that it isn’t comparable to anything else.”

Scientists have debated this question for centuries, and have come to the same conclusion as Machine Learning researchers. The most accurate beliefs tend to be the simplest:

“Occam’s razor has gained strong empirical support in helping to converge on better theories. … Excessively complex models are affected by statistical noise … whereas simpler models may capture the underlying structure better and may thus have better predictive performance.”

To put it simply, a small set of principles are far more likely to be accurate, than an encyclopedic compendium of rules, sub-rules and exceptions. Clear principles, constantly reviewed and revised, allowed us to put a man on the moon. The alternative leads us to flat-earthers and anti-vaxxers.

This is true not just in science, but also in morality. It is far easier to commit atrocities like slavery or genocide, when one can arbitrarily tack-on explanations as to why XYZ people aren’t deserving of the same moral rights that we extend to ourselves.

Principles allow for no exceptions. That’s precisely what makes them so frustrating – they stop us from doing what we want to do. But that’s also what makes them necessary – they stop us from doing the things we really shouldn’t be doing.

The Burden of Learning

If your goal is to simply live your life, unencumbered by challenges to your world-view, having principles is incredibly burdensome. People will constantly challenge your principles. And all it takes is one glaring counter-example, and you’ll have to change your entire belief system and lifestyle.

Why put yourself through all that? Why not simply live life believing whatever you want to believe, and inventing ad-hoc explanations to justify any contradictions someone points out? You can never go wrong by saying “those are totally different things” and implying that the other person is an idiot for even making the comparison.

If your livelihood depends on you being right, then that’s a great reason to take on this monumental burden. Principled decisions are far more likely to be right, than their convenient or arbitrary alternatives.

But when it comes to morality, politics, or religious beliefs, no one is going to give you an award for making the right decisions. No one is going to appreciate your spending hours analyzing the issues before supporting a public policy initiative. In fact, thinking deeply about morality might actually require you to act in ways that contradict your self-interest. The horror!

Why put yourself through all that when you can just mindlessly chant your favorite bumper sticker like a broken record, and the people on your side will love you for it. Even better – you can chant a bumper sticker that reaffirms your own self-interests, and allows you to pursue it without compunction. Best of all, you never have to face the harsh cognitive dissonance of questioning the choices you’ve made, and the beliefs you’ve built your lifestyle around.

I started off writing this essay, wanting to explain why I think everyone should think and live with principles. But as I come to these final paragraphs, I realize that I’ve failed. I can’t name even one persuasive argument in favor of living a principled life. Why be a martyr and carry a cross that does you no good whatsoever.

The best I can muster is this: If you care about being on the right side of history… if you care about doing the right thing… then thinking with principles and living a principled life is your best shot at achieving that. History is full of moral atrocities that were committed by people who should have known better. And unless we think critically about every belief we hold, we are bound to commit many more.


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