The Under-Principled Life
By Bryan Caplan
I just finished re-watching The Bridge on the River Kwai. If you’ve never seen it, it’s all about Colonel Nicholson (played by Alec Guinness), a British officer with Principles. Nicholson refuses to try to escape from his POW camp, because he was ordered to surrender; an escape attempt, he avers, would be insubordination. Nicholson similarly refuses to allow his officers to serve as manual laborers for the Japanese, because the Geneva convention forbids it. He’d rather suffer in a hot box instead.
This movie put me in a reflective mood. When I was young, under heavy Randian influence, I was as convinced as Colonel Nicholson that you had to live under the daily guidance of Principles. But when I actually observe my life, I’m struck by how small the role of Principle actually is. Yes, there are many principles I live by; I don’t lie, steal, adulter, murder, or knowingly accept beliefs on emotional grounds. But in all honesty, I have no need to refer to any of these principles on my typical day.
How is this possible? Here’s the explanation that currently makes the most sense to me:
1. If you’re dealing with reasonable people, Principle rarely comes up because reasonable people can amicably reach good outcomes on a case-by-case basis.
2. If you’re dealing with unreasonable people, Principle is of little help, because unreasonable people (Colonel Nicholson is a case in point) usually stubbornly hew to their own bizarre principles. If you’re stuck dealing with unreasonable people, the reasonable person’s best option is to carefully craft the best approach that the unreasonable people will accept. It’s sad but true.
Admittedly, it’s possible that my experience is more a reflective of my timid, non-confrontational personality than the world. (Don’t laugh; I’m only intellectually aggressive).