Rigid adherence to principle is midwife to atrocity…
How often in history have the world’s worst crimes been perpetrated by the world’s most intense fanatics? How often have rulers of millions been, themselves, slaves to dogma?
The world seems too much of a whirlygig of complexity to be contained within rigid boxes with their straight walls and sharp corners. As much as I would like to believe that there are certain principles in life which, if followed, would always lead us to the greater good, I cannot now, after several decades’ worth of experience, contend that there exists any principle which is not abandonable depending on the situation. Some would call this pragmatism. Others would call it weakness. I suppose that’s the subject of today’s post: to act in all specific cases by general principle– Is this wisdom or folly?
Surely a life lived without principle would be a wind-tossed and unhappy one, increasing pain and despair for ourselves as well as those around us.
The middle path (which is usually the wisest one) would be one in which we occasionally make exceptions to our principles. But how do any of us know that we’re qualified to know when it is a proper time to abandon principle? The world around us is so complex– even in the best situations we are making decisions without a clue as to third, fourth, and higher degree repercussions of our actions. Each time we reach out and act upon the world, it is as if our finger is touching the surface of a lake in which the ripples we send forth never dissipate, but affect the world forever and ever, even to the utmost corner of the map.
There is something difficult about maintaining principles only MOST of the time. For instance, a recovering addict has a much better chance of avoiding relapse if he NEVER tries his personal poison again than if he tries to indulge only “moderately.” There is something about human nature which, once we start making exceptions to the rule, encourages more and more frequent exception-making, until at last, our moral garment hangs limply, more holes than cloth.
Another complicating factor when it comes to trying to abide by principles is that two situations which appear similar to us may not be similar at all. With our limited view of the world, it’s a little like attempting to surmise how an entire tapestry must appear after only seeing one corner of it.
I have been led these thoughts today because I have just finished reading Scalia Dissents, edited by Kevin A. Ring, and I think, whether one approves of Antonin Scalia’s jurisprudence or not, he must surely be credited with being the most rationally consistent Supreme Court Justice in modern times. No other Justice has demonstrated the possession of a judicial philosophy as complete and non-contradictory as that of Scalia’s. But after studying his multi-decade, tenacious adherence to his own dogma, I began to wonder… Does this make him the best Supreme Court Justice… or the worst?
It also got me to thinking about the different roles played by judges, on one hand, and by Supreme Court Justices on the other. I think we tend to think of Supreme Court Justices as serving the same basic function as the local judge– only on a grander scale. But I don’t think this is correct.
I think there’s a good argument to be made that part of the function of the LOCAL judge– the man or woman on the spot– is precisely to finesse the law. Knowing the local situation and perhaps even the participants, they can decide how strictly to enforce the law and how harshly to pass sentence on those found guilty. The local judge, it could be argued, can sacrifice the law for the well-being of the individual. However, a Supreme Court Justice views the matter through a different lens. He or she may be setting a wide and long-lasting precedent with any decision made. A Justice may very well need to sacrifice the individual for the law.
I would like to explore the jurisprudence of Justice Antonin Scalia in my next few posts…