Should You Be a Person of Principle?

Often people say that it’s good to be a “person of principle.” Sometimes this idea is justified by appeal to virtues like consistency, predictability, and fairness. If we judge that one action is morally wrong, a principle can guide us towards making the same judgment about a similar case in the future, which means a fairer judgment on our part. 

Equally often I hear people claim that, instead of appealing to general principles, it is much better to take things on a case-by-case basis. Virtues like nuance and flexibility are offered in support of this kind of approach. When we encounter novel situations, past principles often prove unhelpful. Better to pay attention to the particular details of the case at hand; better to draw analogies between other particular cases than to appeal to outmoded principles.

Usually it is taken for granted that these two approaches to moral deliberation, the principle-based approach and the case-by-case approach, are distinct and inherently opposed to one another. However, there is an important sense in which they are consistent—they can yield the same results and achieve the same goals. This is not to say that the approaches are one and the same, or that the debate over which approach is better is not substantive. My goal here is to simply point out that the two approaches are not opposed to one another in a way that they are commonly thought to be.

1. Some background on the distinction

Philosophers appeal to something like the distinction between the principle-based approach and the case-by-case approach when debating the respective merits of “generalism” and “particularism” in meta-ethics. There, one of the questions is whether our ethical theorizing should be focused on the development of general moral principles to apply to particular cases, or whether such theorizing is misguided or backwards. Note that scientific investigation proceeds from the observation of particular instances to establish general laws or principles—one might ask why ethical investigation should be any different. 

Utilitarians like John Stuart Mill, however, were decidedly in favor of the search for general moral principles to help us reach judgments about particular cases; it’s the reverse of empirical scientific investigation. In fact, Mill thought there was an ultimate foundational principle according to which we could judge the morality of our actions: the principle of utility, a.k.a. the greatest happiness principle. Deontologist Immanuel Kant similarly thought that ethical theorizing should be focused on the establishment of a foundational principle, though for him it was the Categorical Imperative.

The distinction between the principle-based and case-by-case approaches is also assumed in the legal world. It is reflected in the difference between statutory law and common law. Statutory law is a body of law that consists of codified principles. It’s the type of law that is drafted by legislators. Common law (or “case law”) is a body of law that is constituted solely by court precedent. In common law jurisdictions, cases are often decided by appeal to analogy between past cases and the case at hand. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo once explained:

“[C]ommon law does not work from pre-established truths of universal and inflexible validity to conclusions derived from them deductively. […] Its method is inductive and draws its generalizations from particulars.” 

While Cardozo spoke favorably of the common law system, Jeremy Bentham, a utilitarian like Mill, considered it “sham law” or “dog law.” Bentham explains: 

“When your dog does anything you want to break him of you wait till he does it, and then you beat him for it. This is the way you make laws for your dog: and this is the way [common law] judges made law for you and me.” 

Maybe dogs have a good case against dog law, too.

(Speaking of dogs, one last bit of background: In his “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail,” Jonathan Haidt argues for a sort of skepticism regarding the above approaches. According to Haidt, it’s not general principles or analogies that we use to reach our moral judgments; instead, we have gut reactions and appeal, post hoc, to general principles or analogies. If this kind of picture is correct, then maybe it’s impossible to genuinely take either approach. For now, though, I’m going to set this kind of skepticism aside.)

2. Malcolm Gladwell on the distinction

In a recent series of episodes on his Revisionist History podcast, Malcolm Gladwell too emphasizes the conflict between the principle-based and case-by-case approaches. In opposition to Bentham, Gladwell quite clearly favors the case-by-case approach, seemingly because he thinks it leads to correct judgments more often. Specifically, he praises the Jesuit “casuistic” method, a case-by-case approach according to which we should abandon principle-based deliberation and instead “descend into the particular.”

As Gladwell describes it, descent into the particular involves appeal to analogy rather than the deductive application of general principles. This should sound like Cardozo’s explanation of the difference between common law and statutory law.

Gladwell uses an interesting example to bring out the difference in approach—former New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte. In 2007, Pettitte, along with many other players, was named in the Mitchell Report as a player who at one point used performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Notably, Pettitte claimed to have only used PEDs to recover from an injury—he was using them just to get back to normal. (As a Yankees fan, I wanted this to be true.) According to Gladwell, a principle-based approach led many people to condemn Pettitte’s use of PEDs. PEDs just aren’t allowed in baseball. (There’s no crying either, by the way.) End of story.

If, on the other hand, we employ the casuistic approach to Pettitte’s case, we (according to Gladwell, at least) get a different outcome. Gladwell appeals to two cases that most of us have pretty clear intuitions about—Tommy John and Barry Bonds. 

Tommy John is well-known in the baseball world for the eponymous surgery that restored his throwing ability after he tore a ligament in his arm. After the success of John’s surgery, it has become commonplace for players who tear their ulnar collateral ligament to undergo this procedure. Nobody thinks this surgery is tantamount to cheating—it’s merely restorative. Barry Bonds, though, was a cheater. After using PEDs himself, his hat size grew from 7 1/4 to 7 3/8. More importantly, in 2000, Bonds hit 49 home runs. In 2001, he hit 73. As Gladwell puts it, Bonds’s use of PEDs wasn’t merely restorative; it was transformative. Once we’ve acknowledged the difference between restorative and transformative enhancements, Gladwell asks us to consider whether Pettitte is more like Tommy John, or more like Barry Bonds. If we take Pettitte’s word for it, his use of PEDs was restorative. He’s closer to John than Bonds.

3. Is Gladwell right?

I will admit that I like Gladwell’s conclusion. I am an Andy Pettitte fan, and I’m not convinced that he deserved the criticism that was thrown his way after he admitted to PED use. But I’m also not convinced that it’s Jesuit casuistry’s “descent into the particular” that uniquely vindicates Pettitte. I’m not convinced that the case-by-case approach necessarily gets it right and the principle-based approach necessarily gets it wrong. In fact, it seems to me that, contrary to the standard story, these two approaches are not inherently opposed after all. In an important way, they are consistent.

I take it that the principle-based approach, as Gladwell is envisioning its application to Pettitte’s case, looks something like this:

Argument 1 

  1. Andy Pettite used PEDs as a baseball player.
  2. Using PEDs as a baseball player is cheating.
  3. So, Andy Pettite cheated.

We start with an empirical premise (line 1). Then we invoke a general moral principle (line 2). Then we arrive at a verdict.

Instead of deductively employing a general principle, Gladwell has it that the case-by-case approach involves analogical reasoning, like so: 

Argument 2

  1. Andy Pettitte was a pitcher who used PEDs while on the disabled list to restore his pitching abilities.
  2. Tommy John was a pitcher who used surgery while on the disabled list to restore his pitching abilities, and Tommy John didn’t cheat.
  3. So, Andy Pettite didn’t cheat either.

Notice here that there is no (explicit) appeal to a general principle. Instead, we appeal to similarities between John’s and Petttite’s particular cases to draw the conclusion that Pettitte didn’t cheat.

This is how I think Gladwell sees the arguments running. But here’s the problem that I see with Gladwell’s story: Couldn’t we just as well appeal to a principle-based argument to reach the very same conclusion that Pettitte wasn’t a cheater?

Argument 3

  1. Andy Pettitte used PEDs as a baseball player in a merely restorative manner. (Empirical premise)
  2. Using PEDs or medical procedures to gain an edge is cheating; using them in a restorative manner is not cheating. (General moral principle)
  3. So, Pettitte didn’t cheat. (Verdict)

Same conclusion; an apparently different approach. If we can successfully transform Argument 2 into Argument 3, we should notice that it’s not principle-based deliberation itself that is the problem, as Gladwell seems to suggest. It’s the particular principle (“No PEDs in baseball, ever.”) that Gladwell truly has a problem with. Notice, too, that our judgment that John did not cheat in the analogical, similarity-driven argument above implicitly appeals to the general principle invoked just above in the second line of Argument 3. While this is only one example, my sense is that analogical arguments like Argument 2 will regularly rely on implicit appeals to principles in this way. If so, then I think it’s right to say that the two approaches aren’t opposed in the way that Gladwell seems to think.

Good principles are nuanced and, to find them, we must pay close attention to the details of particular cases. When “descending into the particular” and looking at the details of particular cases, an analogy is often compelling when there is a compelling general principle that underlies our judgment of relevant similarity.

4. Final thoughts

One might wonder what the precise relationship is between the case-by-case and principle-based approaches. What I’ve said above is suggestive of some possibilities. It could be that there is really just one approach and that we sometimes try to emphasize different aspects of it. It could even be that there is a translation scheme whereby we could move from the case-by-case approach to the principle-based approach. That there could be a translation scheme of this sort is suggestive of the idea that the case-by-case approach can be reduced to the principle-based approach, or perhaps that the approaches are somehow equivalent. 

At present, I actually don’t want to take a stand on whether such translation is possible. My hunch is that it would involve an investigation into whether there is a genuine difference in kind between analogical and deductive reasoning. That’s a difficult question in the philosophy of logic. Additionally, such a reduction could very likely fail to preserve important differences between the approaches: even if both approaches ultimately make some appeal to principles, the principles precede the judgments about particular cases on the principle-based approach; it’s the other way around with the case-by-case approach (contra Mill).

For now, I simply wish to make the modest claim that the case-by-case approach and the principle-based approach, as they are standardly construed (and as Gladwell seems to have construed them), are consistent in a way that is often overlooked. They are consistent in the sense that they can reach the same results, and that they can achieve the same virtues of predictability, nuance, flexibility, and fairness. (Whether this consistency rises to the level of equivalence is, again, a difficult matter.)

Now, I do believe there is a version of the principle-based approach that is rightly criticized and remains distinct from the case-by-case approach. If one maintains that general principles are to be set in stone and never questioned, then, yes, the case-by-case approach is preferable. And, granted, this is very likely the kind of principle-based approach that the Jesuits and proponents of common law jurisprudence—and Gladwell, for that matter—sought to criticize. But notice that this isn’t a problem with a principle-based approach per se. It’s a problem with bad principles. A principle-based approach according to which we constantly seek to improve our principles is just as nuanced and flexible as the case-by-case approach.

So is it better to be a person of principle, or better to be someone who takes a nuanced, case-by-case approach? The answer is that this is a bad question.Blue

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