Our precious principles

Moral principles make a society cohesive. They provide a set of basic rules that are necessary for us to thrive as a group. I recently read a piece about the need to stand for our principles. But what does it mean to stand by my principles? It sounds as though they might be confronted; otherwise, why would they need defending? It would also mean they are not shared by everybody. Why?

Why don’t we all stand for the same principles? What’s with this diversity? Why is it positive? How can I defend something so fiercely when others don’t share, or even attack, my beliefs? How can I know I’m right? Have my believes always been the same as they are now? If not, how can I know my principles are now right and not before?

When I offer you survival
You say it’s hard enough to live
And I’ll tell you when it’s over, shut up
Poor and tired, but more than this
How do you know that you’re right?
If you’re not nervous anymore

The Killers, Bling

Where do my principles come from? Genetics, personality, upbringing, rational deduction? If it’s education, is it because of my parents’ personalities, because of their own education? How far back would I have to trace this? Are my principles really mine? If I don’t know where they came from, how can I know they’re right?

Oh, I see… I just know they’re right. So, it’s intuition. In that case, did my principles come from my unconscious, or even from my ancestors’ unconscious?

Ultimately, our principles constrain our choices, our freedom. In fact, that’s one of their main advantages: not having to choose, as Fromm so eloquently argued in Escape from Freedom. Being free is exhausting…

Most people are convinced that as long as they are not overtly forced to do something by an outside power, their decisions are theirs, and that if they want something, it is they who want it. But this is one of the great illusions we have about ourselves. A great number of our decisions are not really our own but are suggested to us from the outside; we have succeeded in persuading ourselves that it is we who have made the decision, whereas we have actually conformed with expectations of others, driven by the fear of isolation and by more direct threats to our life, freedom, and comfort.
Erich Fromm, Escape form Freedom.

What really fascinates me about the concept of human freedom is the need we have to feel we are free. Regardless of whether freedom is real or not, we need to perceive we are free as individuals. This is an evolutionarily conserved trait. Why? How does this need to feel free make us more adaptable, fitter?

Maybe, if we were certain there was no freedom, we wouldn’t fight for survival under extreme circumstances. We would accept that everything is beyond our choice and let go. The belief that we are free, regardless of truth or illusion, gives us the conviction that there is an alternative reality we can fight for. That there is a choice. Even if we were not free, believing that we are would be an evolutionary advantage.

Rationalizing is not a tool for penetration of reality but a post-factum attempt to harmonize one’s own wishes with existing reality.

Erich Fromm, Escape from freedom

Never underestimate the power of questioning. Living on the doubt is much freer than living on the conviction, which, by definition, excludes other possibilities. Fundamental questions need no answers. They just need to exist, formulated in our minds, shining like a star.