Preference and Principle

Creator: Ralph
Credit: Gratis Graphics

We all make choices, usually several a day. Some of these choices have significant consequences, but most are trivial. Correspondingly, for some we think long and hard, and for some we scarcely think at all. 

Observing how I make choices, I see that there are two major psychological factors that enter into my conscious choices. I call these two factors “preference” and “principle.”

My preferences are deep set, habitual. Making choices based on preferences is rather effortless. Making choices based on principles is usually harder. It is as if there were a kind of inner gravity – choosing based on preference is like going down a slope, while choosing based on principle is like going uphill.

I am not a psychologist, but it seems clear to me that the impetus behind my preferences comes from biology. My preferences are rooted in genetically based instincts. They derive from things needed to survive and reproduce as a social animal. Food, sex, comfort, status are a few of my preferences’ favorite things. 

My principles, on the other hand, are shaped by things I’ve learned. Some were instilled early in childhood, some have come later in life, based on the consequences of earlier choices. In the common parlance, preferences come from nature, principles from nurture.

Sometimes these two factors are in harmony and my choices have a reasonable balance of each. But sometimes they are at war with each other. When preference wins, I fall deeper into established habits. To break free from such habits requires that principle wins. 

The general drift as we become more mature is to make more of our choices based on principle than preference. So when the two factors, my instinctive self and my rational self, are at war, a lot is at stake.

My preferential side loves to eat, and particularly loves sweets. I have Type II diabetes, so it behooves me to be careful about what I eat, and to have a minimum of sweets. Choices about what to eat are often a battleground of preference and principle. I would like to say my principled side, my rational side, usually wins this war, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. I suspect that anyone who is on a diet, or trying to break a long established habit or addiction, knows what I’m talking about.

* * * * * *

I was brought up Catholic. In my catechism classes I learned about the devil and my guardian angel. I understand now that the devil is equivalent to the prince of preferences and the guardian angel the spirit of principle. The devil belongs to that old part of our brain that we share with many other animals. The basic principles of biological survival have “programmed” this part of the brain to eat, to do what it takes to reproduce, to protect its territory, and for social animals like humans, to seek status and power within the group. 

The mythology of devils and angels is an interesting way to look at the problem of preference and principle, but ultimately it puts a person at odds with his or her own inner nature. Rather than devils or demons, I’ve come to think of my preferences as more like my inner dog and my principles as like a dog trainer. 

I know people who have tremendous self control. Self-restraint seems so easy for them. I would like to have a little more of what they have. But not totally. I rather like letting my inner dog run wild at times, even if it does create some havoc. There may be something a little sub-human in giving into our appetites too freely, but it seems a little un-human, a little mechanical, to not unleash our inner dog occasionally. 

* * * * * * 

If acting on principle is like moving against gravity, the inner muscle for this movement is what has long been called “the moral will.”(1) 

There are various reasons why religion has such a strong hold on people. Surely one of them is that religion is seen as an aid to the moral will. Most people want to be good, and most of the time being a good person requires acting from principle rather than preference. That which strengthens our moral will helps us to act from principle.

Many people, I suppose, relate more easily to religious mythology than to the rationality of naturalism. Naturalism, at least it seems to me, is more concerned with things of the intellect, with truth, than it is with strengthening the will. I find, however, that knowing about human evolution has helped me in my efforts to be more principled in my choices. I have also found mindfulness a powerful ally. 

Yet, I think a challenge for spiritual naturalism is to address basic morality in ways that better resonate with people who for whatever reason do not have a good understanding of science or naturalistic based philosophy. To an extent, we need to mythologize our approach. I’m not sure how to do that, but I hope that at least some of the material in this article, such as using simple terms like “preference” and “principle”, suggest a movement toward that approach. Anyone out there have any ideas?

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1 It was largely St. Augustine who first developed the idea of the moral will back in the late fourth century; the idea does not really occur in ancient Greek philosophy. It is important to keep in mind a distinction between the moral will and willfulness in general, or what Nietzsche called the will to power. The desire for power, the desire to be the group “alpha,” is a most dog-like behavior. It is a dangerous instinct – witness the havoc that the Hitlers, Stalin’s and their ilk have imposed on humanity. While such willfulness seeks to control others, the moral will only seeks to control one’s own behavior.

2 thoughts on “Preference and Principle”

  1. Perhaps in addition to the angels and demons, we could have a third class of cosmic beings that are somewhere in between. This way, the demons represent what happens when we let our inner dog get out of control. The angels represent choices based on principles. The beings in between represent how we humans control our own behavior so our more aggressive traits don’t get in the way. What do you guys think?

  2. The role of emotions is a key factor, as is the creation of new habits. Our “principles” won’t really be effective unless we know in our hearts and minds (not just our intellect) until we embed them in action. And that won’t happen unless we feel our resolutions with a sense of their benefits, ideally expressed in a combination of positive self-talk and a felt-positive.

    I’ve been an off & on exerciser. Last month I decided to make exercise a habit. It was a bit alien to my morning routine but sustained by the combination of factors I’ve mentioned. It’s not a long time I devote to exercise (an intense ten minutes or so), but the purpose – developing a new habit, seems to be working. Even old dogs can embed new tricks!

    Dennis Oliver


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