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In discussing moral questions, I have found that there is an interesting distinction between two kinds of people.  Some people declare their beliefs ("What I believe to be right is…"), and try to modify their behaviour to fit those beliefs – it is their beliefs that are fundamental and their behaviour derivative.  The other kind, when asked what they believe about some ethical question, reflect upon what they do or what they are inclined to do - indeed, even sometimes say things like "What I do is…" or "What I would be likely to do is" - and then report what is implied by their behaviour as their ethical view.  In other words, it is their behaviour that is fundamental, and their beliefs derivative.  Some in this latter group might even robustly defend the propriety of their method, saying that they were genuine, whilst those that professed one belief but conducted themselves otherwise were hypocrites.

I once read that in their private papers and diaries, late eighteenth century people used to present themselves, their sentiments and their attitudes as they thought they ought to be.  The writer telling me this appeared to imply that this was because people at the time were so repressed that they couldn't even be honest and genuine about themselves to themselves.  His view appeared to be that their true self was constituted by their feelings and actions, and the self they aspired to be was a false self, a lie.  But I don't believe that is necessarily how the eighteenth century diarist concerned would have regarded things.  I suspect the diarist would (in my language, at least) have contended that her true self was the self she aspired to be, was defined by her beliefs, hopes and ambitions; and that the self of her feelings and moments of weakness was a passing and fading irrelevance.


Our society has recently come to regard being open about one's personal feelings and weaknesses to be a strength, and that it is your sentiments and behavioural inclinations that define the real you.  But it is important to appreciate that this is not some progression towards the modern.  To be sure, the distinction between the objective analytical "1950s" mindset and the surf-the-wave-of-sentiment "1960s" outlook is central to the iconic 1974 novel Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, but the distinction is much older – present in debates between the conscience-driven pew Protestant versus the more sentimental and earthy pew Catholic; or the Stoic versus the Epicurean.  The key question, for our purposes, is whether what is truly definitive is principle ("what I think ought to be") or pragmatics ("what is").  The pragmatist says that what ought to be is only of interest in respect of how it can be turned into what is; the principled says that what is is only of interest as a step in the journey to what ought to be.

I was reminded of this distinction by the scene in The Iron Lady in which Streep's Thatcher says her father was very keen on a pithy formula believed to originate with the nineteenth century theologian Tryon Edwards: "Thoughts lead on to purposes; purposes go forth in action; actions form habits; habits decide character; and character fixes our destiny." and another in which she rebukes someone who says to her that she was an inspiration, complaining that people today are far too concerned with what one is whereas the more proper interest was in what one did.  For the distinction between principle and pragmatism is every bit as potent in public policy as in private ethics. 

Is what really counts about a society what it is – how wealthy, say, or how powerful – or what it aspires to become and what it does with what it has (e.g. standing up against oppression or injustice)?  Is what really counts about a government how many terms it has in office or how big its majorities are, or is what really counts how much it succeeded, in a lasting way, in moulding the country to what the government aspired for it?  Is what really counts about a Prime Minister how popular she is, how she made people feel, whom she inspired or discouraged, how well the economy performed when she was in office, or is it what she did and how that changed the country for better or worse? Should a government be focused on how things are – with an over-focus on how things might be resulting in an addiction to perpetual change, in ideology, in trampling on people's lives, in the ends justifying the means, in such-and-such being "a price worth paying" - or should its primary focus be on how it aspires for things to be – with complaints about the now being simplying "special pleading", obstruction, weakness, moral cowardice, populism, compromise?  How we answer this question is one of the most significant dividing lines in politics.

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