Our principles are derived from some combination of biologically derived intuition, socio-family norms, and experience. Jonathan Haidt says we begin our lives with a first draft that is revised over time, with the input of experience. In a sense, we have to begin with principles – because we can’t help it. They are pre-loaded.
From one perspective, the difference between principles and outcomes seems to be simply and only a function of two different time horizons. Principles exist to be useful – over and over again. Outcomes, on the other hand, are inherently situated in time. Our principles are all of our past outcomes, pooled and concretized into our DNA, culture and individual modus operandi. Perhaps it is a false question to ask which should come first – principles and outcomes are constantly engaged in a hyper-intense evolutionary micro-process struggle which shifts the landscape in situ.
But if you believe as I do that human beings wield agency, that we can affect the world willfully and in a way that is not inevitable, then within these micro tensions are still choices for us. We can influence if/how outcomes are interpreted and translated into principles, and we can adjust the lens through which we evaluate outcomes. We can filter and tweak the feedback loop using the twin tool attachments of rigorous coherence and the appropriate scope of evaluation. It matters how we think about it, the lens we use. It changes what we do, and changes the world around us in a meaningful sense.
Take public education, for instance. It’s hard to remember but there was a time not that long ago when there was no real consensus on what makes a great education. The options included more budget, better facilities, smaller classrooms, the inclusion of arts and music, native language instruction, among many. Every faction looked at public education using a different lens – usually based on a combination of principle and personal experience – and almost literally saw something different.
Lately, and arguably, there has been an emerging consensus that it is great teachers that make a great education, almost full stop. Or perhaps, a great-teacher-per-student ratio that embeds classroom size. A great teacher gets better with resources, but can teach in a meadow if need be. It seems remarkably intuitive now that we (basically) know – and now that Bill Gates has backed the idea - but it was non-obvious a decade ago while the nation was slipping in competitiveness. One reason for the non-obviousness is that there was precious little data available about good teaching, partly because principles – such as fairness to teachers who have to deal with an extreme range of learning situations – limited us from even collecting the data. The other reason why is that outcomes need to be interpreted and polarized ideologies affect the lens, resulting in conflicting disseminated conclusions that needed to be negotiated in the public realm.
This is clearly not a blanket argument for outcomes. But there is here a warning about relying on principles, which is the easiest, most intuitive route. Our intuition tells us that principles should come first, because we are born with them and principles are evolutionarily cheaper than outcomes. In some emotional, unutterable way, I want to take a principled stance. It feels cold and calculating, and deeply unattractive, to run the math on everything.
But recent business literature has emphasized how following our gut (and heart?) can lead us astray, a la “predictable irrationality.” Here’s a question. I’m inclined to take a principled stance and I often can’t help taking a principled stance. But if we could not start with principles – if we could help it – then should we?
There’s an analogous and controversial question posed by Chris Anderson – do massive data sets and processing power make hypotheses and thereby the scientific method obsolete? That is, should we start with the data rather than the educated guess based on accumulated knowledge?
In my mind, the answer to this question depends on your philosophical approach to certainty and uncertainty. If the universe of “all” can be encompassed in a conceptually bounded system with rules, then Anderson’s thesis makes more sense. You just crunch through the data using some complex and iterative set of rules. And to give him credit, there’s plenty in the universe of “all” that can be newly discovered through data-mining. Sizable contributions can be made to the body of human knowledge. That is clear. So we don’t have to start with principles. We can start with outcomes.
But if you believe in what I will call deep uncertainty, that we don’t know very much, that there are infinite expanses beyond what we can know, that the world in its fabric cannot be bounded, then you miss a lot – a lot – by limiting inquiry to the arenas where we have data and to the relationships that we can describe through rules. So it’s not inherently better to start with outcomes. Starting with principles may lead us to truth far more efficiently – if outcomes can get us to a given place at all.
So we come back around to our original intuition, that there must be some interaction between principles and outcomes. Starting with either is valid. But there must be a dynamism to their interaction. More interactions lead to faster learning.
We should question situations where this learning interaction is interrupted, such as when we place so much faith in a principle that it prevents us from seeking disconfirmation, e.g. how to best improve public education, the effect of gays in the military, the level of welfare and universality of health care, that the world is evidently and obviously flat, and – perhaps – the idea of faith itself. Truth is not always obvious or intuitive.
Principles are easy to come by. They are readily accessible, though rarely broadly valid and first-order (e.g. the phenomenon of time passing). Data is not. We frequently find ourselves in situations where we have many principles but little data – at least available to us as individuals, if not as a human race. Realistically, we will tend to use what is available to us. But we could make decisions at these points – evaluate the bases for our principles, the costs of collecting data, the right foundation for the discussion – and change how we have the conversation.
This is so hard. Our principles become more than our outcomes pooled and concretized. They become part of our very identity. And for those who doubt the power of identity, a letter from Mark Anderson of the Strategic News Service excerpted from his excellent newsletter:
Visiting the Normandy beaches, and the cemetery up on the hills behind them, was, and remains, one of the most stirring, saddening, troubling, and terrifically inspiring experiences of my life.
I was 19 myself when I hitchhiked across France to the coast with three friends, using a cardboard sign (“A la mer”), arriving at dusk as we walked the last mile or two into Arromanches, where the artificial harbor had been created by sinking ships in place during the days following the invasion. Coming over the rise, looking out to the sea, under a full moon, we saw the sunken ships lying there still and timeless, each dropped nose-to-stern into a breakwater and then harbor.
-- Like many of the troops, they, too, suddenly in their final resting place.
I remember going to the top of the strategic Point d’Hoc, looking down the steep cliff face, trying to imagine being a teen-aged Texas Ranger fighting my way up with nothing but grappling hooks borrowed from London firefighters, as the Germans shot us off the cliff with machine guns. My memory is that the Rangers took more than 80% casualties, and it didn’t take long. But they prevailed, somehow.
Colonel Rudder Lane, a little path at the top named after the mission leader, still had barbed wire running in front of the German bunkers, waiting for anyone who made it over the top.
But even after seeing all this, I was still completely unprepared for the cemetery. Or, maybe, it was because I had seen it: the beaches, after all, are only so wide.
I remember the scene you describe, on a sunny Sunday morning: thousands of crosses in exact position, either Jewish or Christian in design, rolling down a valley and up to the hilltop half a mile away. I thought it was unbelievable, that so many could have died in just a few hours.
Then I crossed to the other hill, and the crosses went on again as far as the eye could see, to the next horizon.
How do we thank those teen-aged boys? How do we thank their families, and the families they never had?
I don’t think they died for their comrades, per se, although I have often heard that said. I tend to side with my father-in-law, who served in the infantry in Germany, and who believes that our most important motivator – that thing which we will die for – is our own self-image, who we see ourselves to be.
This, too, suggests that individuals really do matter.
Thank you for an evocative letter.