It’s never a bad idea to critically analyze your own beliefs. As a lower case libertarian, I like to believe my principles are my guide with respect to nearly everything in life. Those principles might be based on any number of things which led me to my current world view. I also like to believe my principles are based on logic, reason, and rational thought. While these principles guide me, I’m not perfect and in certain circumstances, I may reluctantly but willingly violate them. I believe you would too. I mention all this to suggest that while principles should guide us, we should all be willing to admit there can always be exceptions. Some would suggest that violating principles automatically implies hypocrisy. I disagree. It’s not automatic nor is it always wrong. You might be wondering why I believe this. Let me cite a few hypothetical examples using some thought experiments.
EXAMPLE ONE: Would I ever participate in political corruption? I find the concept of political corruption abhorrent. I despise it with every fiber of my being. Yet, I can think of realistic exceptions of when I would participate:
- Hope the Mexican justice system behaves as it should and that during her incarceration she will not be raped or in some other way molested. Further, you hope that the absurd charges will be dismissed, because she in fact was not smuggling anything. You don’t have time to wait on the bureaucrats at the local embassy. One night in jail may result in your daughter being raped. You literally must make a decision on the spot.
- Hand over a substantial amount of cash to the police and the entire incident will disappear.
EXAMPLE TWO: Have you ever seen the movie John Q, featuring Denzel Washington? If not, do yourself a favor and watch it. Ask yourself what you would do to save the life of your own child. John Q addresses that question in a powerful way. The story centers on a man whose nine-year-old son is in desperate need of a heart transplant and death is imminent if he doesn’t get it. When he discovers that his medical insurance won’t cover the costs of the surgery and alternative government aid is unavailable, John Q. Archibald takes a hospital emergency room hostage in a last-ditch attempt to save his child. The Hollywood version requires you to suspend belief slightly, it is not beyond comprehension that someone could indeed be faced with John’s problem. Eventually, John Q gets his son a new heart. I won’t spoil the details, but there is a catch.
Would you not exhaust every possible avenue to save the life of your own child? I think most of us would. This is an extreme case, but then, that’s my point. At the extreme, we’re all willing to sacrifice our principles to some degree.
EXAMPLE THREE: Do you consider yourself a law abiding citizen? If so, to what extent? Surely there are laws you’re willing to intentionally violate, right? Unless you’re an oddball, you probably do it frequently. No? Do you ever go beyond the posted speed limit? This is one of those cases where we evaluate the law for its validity, consider the risk of getting caught, and set the cruise control to five or six miles per hour over the limit hoping we don’t get caught. When you do this, you are effectively nullifying the law. Now, if the speed limit is 65 miles per hour, speeding at 100 miles per hour is something most of us don’t do, but 70 miles per hour? Yeah, we’re okay with that. The bottom line is that you are still a criminal and you probably commit that crime often. You are in fact, not a law abiding citizen.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that intentionally violating laws is the same as violating our own principles. As a libertarian, I believe it is in fact honorable to ignore laws that violate my natural rights. This includes speeding a dozens of other things I can think of. But, if you’re not a libertarian and you like to boast about being a law-abiding citizen, just be aware that you probably aren’t. It’s all a matter of personal judgement about which laws we believe to be just.
While principles are good, they are not hard and fast. There is a gray area in nearly all of them. And it’s because as humans we are capable of and often willing to rationalize. One can imagine some odd but unlikely circumstance when we would be willing to steal someone else’s property, but most of us would not consider it appropriate to do that in anything but extreme circumstances. It is our ability to use reason that allows us to avoid breaking our principles routinely.
A career criminal is unable to do that. Someone may rationalize being a career thief by convincing himself that it’s unfair that others have wealth and he doesn’t, but he doesn’t arrive at that through reason or regret.