A Matter of Principle

So here’s a theory: to take any principled stance requires a certain amount of insanity.

First, let’s head over to our favourite site for a definition of insanity:


Traditionally, insanity or madness is the behaviour whereby a person flouts societal norms and becomes a danger to himself and others. Greek tragedies and Shakespeare often refer to madness in this sense. Psychologically, it is a general popular and legal term defining behaviour influenced by mental instability. It is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a deranged state of the mind or lack of understanding. Today, it is most commonly encountered as an informal term or in the narrow legal context of the insanity defense, and in the medical profession the term is now avoided in favour of specific diagnoses of mental illness as schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.

It’s really the first of these definitions, flouting societal norms and becoming a danger to oneself and others that I’m thinking of.

If you assume a principled stance to be a consistent one, without suspicion of double standards, then it’ll invariably be easily adhered to when there is no conflict of interests. A principled stance becomes apparent only when there is a conflict of interests, and you consistently chose one position over the alternatives.

And that’s fine as long as the position you chose is one generally accepted to be normal as far as the people involved are concerned. If your position is unusual, however, and you still insist on it, you challenge other people’s assumptions and risk alienating them. This would definitely be behaviour in the category of flouting societal norms; whether or not it’s behaviour that endangers yourself or others depends a bit on the specific dilemma you’re in.

Speaking from personal experience, being principled about veganism is always problematic when eating out with friends. People tend to be fairly understanding about vegetarianism, probably because it has become common knowledge that diets high in animal fats and proteins can lead to health issues. Nonetheless even as a vegetarian you’ll face at least a few minutes discussion about the merits of one diet over another, before moving on to less controversial dinner talk. Vegans, accepting for a smaller range of foods, tend to be regarded as more, well, challenging.

But whether it’s your diet, your favourite football club, or vi vs. emacs, the only risk you pose to yourself or others is one of comfort1. On the other hand, example of a principled stance that may well endanger yourself or others would be pacifism.

So if insanity is defined as flouting societal norms, and a consistent choice to ignore the demands of society is required for a principled stance, it can be argued that insanity is a prerequisite for adhering to principles.

There’s a deliberate flaw in my argument, though.

Taking a principled stance is not necessarily the result of mental illness, nor is mental illness required to behave consistently. It’s more a question of a principled stance being virtually indistinguishable from a mild form of insanity, as long as the sole symptom is your consistent behaviour.

To rephrase my original statement, if you find yourself defending an extreme position, you may appear to others not like a principled person, but rather like a raving lunatic.

What are your thoughts? Has that sort of thing ever happened to you? Did you think someone was weird just because they were passionate about an odd topic?

  1. Cue arguments about a vegan diet being unhealthy. Please read up before you post, though. This might be a good start. []
  • http://infinitefuture.blogspot.com/ Paul Mohr

    I am not sure that the particular principle I adhere to would be odd to you in it’s basic form, however, the idea that all people share equally in the benefit and responsibility of the world as a whole could be considered unusual by some. I simply consider the risk to benefit of have 6 billion members of an open technology community that work in somewhat of a common way and share information equally to be a significant technological force that would easily solve many of the issues that divide them. I would wonder what a Beowulf cluster of 1 billion machines with AI software could do? I am not so much interested if it would turn out to be some dangerous principle, as the nature of society is such now that in my country( and others ) they stock pile enough nuclear weapons to destroy the planet , and this is insanity and wasteful of human endeavor in my opinion.

    Paul Mohr’s last blog post..Blender screen shot for Hangar No 5

    • http://www.unwesen.de/ unwesen

      Can’t argue with you there :)