Rebecca Lowe is Director of FREER — a new initiative promoting economic and social liberalism, which is based at the IEA, where she is a Research Fellow. She is also an Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.
Recently, there’s been lots of talk about “standing up for your principles”. This column is neither about MPs’ reactions to the Chequers plan, nor about Brexit in general, but it’s in that context that I come to think about the implications of such a phrase.
It’s also in the context of having read this news story, about a visiting academic who suffered an antisemitic attack in Bonn, after refusing to take off his yarmulka.
Powerful and weighty, it’s such an easy phrase to use – a regular argument winner. But what does “standing up for your principles” actually entail? Is it something we should feel obliged to do? Is it something always worthy of praise?
Simply, “standing up for your principles” seems to refer to some mixture of believing in something/s, making that belief clear to others, and acting on it.
With regards to the second part of that mixture, I do think there needs to be some element of directed-ness; it doesn’t mean so much to “stand up” for your principles if nobody is aware you’re doing it. (That’s not to say there wouldn’t be value in doing so, but rather that that’s not what we tend to mean when we use the phrase “standing up”, here.)
Furthermore, self-evidently, those things you believe in – “the principles” – have to be things you think are true, although, of course, others might disagree with you about their veracity. And, in context, I think they have to be things to which you attach some kind of fundamental importance and moral value.
For now, let’s accept that that’s what “standing up for your principles” is: to act, somehow publicly, on something/s you believe to be true and of some fundamental importance and moral value. Of course, some people might disagree with that definition, but what I want to get on to is assessing the societal place of such an action.
Let’s consider some examples:
a) A teenager living in the UK announces on Facebook that he’s supportive of same-sex marriage.
b) A teenager living in Iran announces on Facebook that he’s supportive of same-sex marriage.
c) A politician votes against an amendment backed by her party’s leader because she believes it would damage her constituents’ interests, or her country’s interests.
d) A politician votes against an amendment backed by her party’s leader because she believes it would damage her own interests.
e) The lone parent of six children refuses to remove an item of clothing he believes is essential to his religious observance, when asked to do so by someone threatening him with a gun, in a lonely alleyway.
f) The grandchild of someone who was murdered for their religious beliefs refuses to remove an item of clothing he believes is essential to his religious observance, when asked to do so by a policeman, at a football match.
Some of those are heavy-handed. But the differences between them make it clear that, if we want to assess the societal place of “standing up for your principles”, we need to consider issues such as the expected costs of such an act, as well as its context. It’s usually easy to stand up for something that’s already popular; being a trailblazer has personal costs. And certain special expectations and obligations come with certain roles and relationships – being an elected politician, for instance, or being a parent.
In the way that an on-duty police officer might generally have an obligation to intervene in a fight, whereas a “civilian” might not, a politician generally has a special responsibility to uphold certain civic values, publicly, and to make responsible political decisions that are within the reasonable expectations of their electorate.
Here we touch on the old question of the rivalrous political loyalties of party, constituency, and country. To my mind, political parties are a necessary but flawed mechanism for best enacting our kind of representative democracy: the value of being loyal to a party comes not from respecting the interests of the party itself, but in the societal good such loyalty might bring.
Questions also resound about obligations arising from the more indirect relationships we have with others. Do Germans have a particular obligation to stand up against antisemitism, for instance? And does a businessperson who has benefitted from dealings with a company later revealed to have – unbeknownst to the businessperson – employed and mistreated underage workers, subsequently have a particular obligation to stand up against that kind of exploitation?
My instinct is that these people do not have extra obligations passed on to them indirectly, although it might be of particular significance if they were to choose to stand up against these specific things, nonetheless. For most people, most of the time, “standing up for your principles” seems not to be an obligation.
But what about one’s reasons for doing such a thing? If we accept that “standing up for your principles” is acting on something you believe to be true, important, and of moral value, then we might assume the reasons behind such an act to be morally unimpeachable. But that assumption would clearly be wrong.
First, we might find fault with the belief itself: perhaps we could prove it to be untrue, or it might be of clearly dubious moral value. We’re talking about standing up for “your principles”, after all, rather than, say, “what’s right”. (There’s no time to go into how we might determine dubiousness, so let’s just agree there are certain accepted moral standards in our society.) But, technically you could “stand up” for sexism – or even racism – on our definition.
Secondly, we come to self-interest. Of course, “standing up for your principles” will often involve defending your own interests, as well as, or even rather than, the interests of others. But are you doing so out of a commitment to doing the right thing, or simply in order to benefit for yourself? And is the benefit you seek – whether it’s the protection of your own interests, or whether its the instrumental benefits of gratitude, fame, prosperity, or whatever you might gain from having protected someone else’s – more than a happy side-effect?
If “standing up for your principles” is to be seen as something of moral worth, then surely one’s reasons for doing so, and the place of self-interest within those reasons, are critical. But that’s not where all the value lies. Standing up for the right thing at the right time, regardless of your reasons, can change the world for the better. Sometimes that comes at great personal cost. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes people do good things because they’re good people. Sometimes they do them because they want to be seen that way. Some principles sometimes have greater worth than some other important non-principle-type considerations – such as say, short-term net economic benefit – and some don’t.
This piece is not about Brexit. And it’s about principles in general, rather than my principles. But I’ll finish by saying that democracy should be pretty high on anyone’s list.