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A Peek at Thinking in Principles: The Science of Selfishness.


Your basic tool for making your life the best it can be is your mind. Your basic skill toward that end is your ability to think--to identify and integrate facts, to understand the world and your needs, to choose life-serving values and goals, to plan your days and years for maximum happiness, and to execute your plans effectively. The quality of every aspect of your life--from your career to romance to friendships to recreation to leisure time--depends on how well you think.

How can you maximize your thinking skills? What are the principles of good thinking? How can you embrace and apply those principles to fill your life with values, projects, and people you love? The answers to these and related questions are the subject of this book.

Whereas my first book, Loving Life: The Morality of Self-interest and the Facts that Support It, demonstrates that being moral consists in being selfish, Thinking in Principles: The Science of Selfishness shows what being selfish means in the realm of cognition. (1) It is about how most effectively to use your mind in service of your life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. You need not have read Loving Life in order to profit from reading this book, but reading either Loving Life or Ayn Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness before reading this book will better equip you to understand and integrate the ideas discussed herein. (2)

This book, of necessity, assumes a certain level of agreement about what is true and false, moral and immoral, right and wrong. For instance, it assumes recognition of the fact that reason (i.e., observation and logic) is your only means of knowledge, that neither feelings nor revelation nor faith is a means of knowledge. It assumes some understanding of the propriety of pursuing your own life-serving values and of the impropriety of sacrificing for others, society, or "God." And it assumes some understanding of the morality of a social system that protects each individual's rights to live by the judgment of his own mind and to keep the product of his effort--and of the immorality of social systems that violate these rights. A reader with no knowledge of such truths will have trouble focusing on the subject at hand--the principles of thinking in principles--because he will constantly be challenged by the content and evaluations of various principles being used as concretes for discussion. We couldn't begin to discuss a science of good thinking for good living without assuming a basic understanding of what good thinking and good living consist of, and these ideas are part of such an understanding. If they are foreign to you, I suggest reading one of the above-mentioned books before proceeding.

The purpose of this book is to examine the nature and need of principles; to identify and elucidate the principles of the method of thinking in terms of principles; and to integrate those principles into a systematic, scientific approach to living and loving life.

Chapter 1, "What Principles Are and Why You Need Them," discusses the nature of principles, surveys various kinds of principles, draws crucial definitions of "principle" from the survey, and shows the vital role of principles in thinking.

The next six chapters identify and elucidate the principles of thinking in principles and examine various errors and fallacies that are violations of these principles.

Chapter 2, "Axioms, Corollaries, and Proximate Fundamentals," examines the principles at the very base of all thinking; shows their relationship to other principles that underlie and govern various areas of life (e.g., romance, business, recreation, parenting); considers some major aspects of the process of forming and validating principles; and briefly addresses the crusade against principles (i.e., anti-foundationalism and pragmatism).

Chapter 3, "The Excluded Middle and Matters of Degree," zeros in on the crucial role of the law of excluded middle in identifying and applying principles; addresses misconceptions of and objections to the law; clarifies the proper use of the law with respect to mixed ideas, mixed situations, and "slippery slopes"; and demonstrates the binary, either-or nature of principled thinking.

Chapter 4, "Proper Classification and Definition," surveys the basic principles of Ayn Rand's theory of concepts; shows the proper formation and use of concepts to be at once governed by principles and essential to principled thinking; examines several kinds of violations of the principles presented, including package deals, anti-concepts, and frozen abstractions; and shows why you must form and use concepts in certain ways and not others if they are to serve your life and happiness.

Chapter 5, "Hierarchies of Knowledge and Values," examines the hierarchical structures and interrelationships of conceptual knowledge, moral principles, and personal values; examines the fallacy of the stolen concept, further demonstrating why you must use concepts properly if they are to serve your life; and shows how to organize your values hierarchically and use the "math of egoism" to dramatically improve your thinking, decision making, and all-around effectiveness in pursuing and achieving your goals.

Chapter 6, "Context, Knowledge, and Values," expands on the principles of hierarchy, examining the broader relational nature of concepts, principles, and values; shows why and how these three elements properly fit together to form an integrated, noncontradictory whole in service of your life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness; and examines the fallacies of context dropping, omission of volition, and the argument from intimidation.

Chapter 7, "Evidence, Knowledge, and Happiness," examines the nature of evidence (both perceptual and conceptual); demonstrates the crucial role evidence plays in thinking, forming principles, applying them, and choosing and pursuing values; and shows the highly destructive nature of arbitrary (evidence-free) assertions, which throttle and thwart thinking in myriad nonobvious ways.

Chapter 8, "The Science of Selfishness," pulls together all of the foregoing principles, demonstrating their unity as an observation-based, integrated, life-serving system of thought; shows how this system applies to specific situations and goals; and shows how to use the principles of the system to create highly effective personalized micro-principles and standing orders to guide specific day-to-day actions, enabling you to achieve massively challenging life-enhancing goals.

Chapter 9, "The Art of Selfishness," shows how the fully formed science of selfishness applies to a broad array of real-life and hypothetical situations, from personal to social to political, demonstrating its immense power to clarify your thinking, simplify your decision making, and fill your days and years with values, projects, and people you love.

If that interests you, let's dig in.

Chapter One: What Principles Are and Why You Need Them

"I don't have any principles. If I believe in anything, I believe in rules of thumb," boasts an outspoken college professor. "Therefore, as I say quite often (and it's true) my forward time span is generally two hours. By that I mean I tend not to think about or worry about anything more in the future than two hours hence." (3)

If this professor's claim were true, he would not be able to function as a human being. Granted, if he didn't think about anything more in the future than two hours hence he wouldn't need principles or have any to speak of. But, then, he wouldn't have a life to speak of either.

Consider just a few reasons.

If he didn't think beyond two hours hence, he wouldn't be able to plan for or lay out a coherent semester of classes for his students. At best, if he could make it to class on time, he would walk in and present two-hour stints of spontaneous noise.

He wouldn't be able to deliver a coherent lecture or write a coherent article or do anything of the sort, as all such projects require recognition and use of the principles of logic and communication.

He wouldn't be able to engage in a successful romantic relationship. "Oh, heavens! Is today your birthday? No? Our anniversary? Rats! Should we do something for it? I can set aside two hours--after that, I'm not sure what's going to happen."

He wouldn't be able to establish any quality relationships, because all such relationships depend on the principle of justice--the idea that people should be judged rationally and treated accordingly.

He wouldn't be able to raise children or even understand where they come from. "Whoa! What's that? How did it get here? Is it staying for more than two hours?"

He wouldn't be able to understand that protein is essential to a healthy diet, or that exercise is essential to physical fitness, or that thinking is essential to self-esteem, or anything of the sort. Such truths are principles.

He wouldn't be able to plan a vacation--unless it was to the local park for a couple of hours. Travel agent: "When and where will you be traveling, sir?" Professor: "Um... I don't know." Travel agent: "Sir, I'll need that information to book your flight and hotel."

He wouldn't be able to save for retirement--or even conceive of it. "Retirement? What's that? Is it going to happen within the next two hours? If so, can I manage it with a rule of thumb?"

You get the idea.

Tragedies aside, human beings do not live for just a moment or a day; human life is an ongoing process spanning years and decades. Nor are we simple creatures; we are complex beings of body and mind, matter and spirit, whose needs pertain to both aspects of this integrated whole. To live and prosper, we need many things--from food, clothing, medical care, and retirement funds; to meaningful work, recreation, and leisure time; to self-esteem, friendship, and romantic love; to liberty, rule of law, and defense against people who aim to harm or kill us.

Our basic means of understanding our needs and achieving our values is reason, the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by our senses. (4) The essential tools by which reason operates are concepts, such as "teach," "relationship," "self-esteem," and "save"; and principles, such as "In order to teach a course, you must know what you aim to teach"; and "If you want to establish and maintain good relationships, you must treat people justly"; and "If you want to gain or keep self-esteem, you must think and act rationally"; and "If you want to have a happy retirement, you must save enough money to make that possible."

Principles are mental integrations for the purpose of guiding our thoughts and actions. Properly formed, they identify cause-and-effect relationships, enabling us to think in causal terms and to enact the causes necessary to achieve the effects we want or need--not only in the short term, but also into the distant future. Principles enable us to think, plan, and act with respect to the span of our lives and even beyond (e.g., the span of our children's and grandchildren's lives). In short, principles are our means of anchoring our thought processes in reality so that we can achieve our goals in reality.

In a sense, we have no choice about whether we will refer to and act in accordance with principles. The human mind, by its nature, operates by reference to principles--which is why, his claims to the contrary notwithstanding, our outspoken professor does have some principles. One of his principles is (in his own words): "The trouble with principle is, first, that it does not exist, and, second, that nowadays many bad things are done in its name." (5) He is, of course, right that many bad things are done in the name of principle. But the fault here lies not with principles as such, but with bad principles and the people who embrace and apply them.

For instance, many bad things are done in the name of the principle that "Might makes right" (another one of the professor's principles), (6) but this is not because it is a principle; rather, it is because it is a. false principle. The fact that dictators, criminals, and the like embrace the idea that "might makes right" and act on it does not damn principles; it damns the dictators, criminals, and professors who treat the idea as true when there is no evidence to suggest that it is--and a world of evidence to prove that it is not. (7)

Herein lies our choice in the matter. We can passively absorb the principles that float around the culture--"Might makes right," "There are no absolutes," "We are our brother's keeper," "Abstinence is the best policy," and so on--and try to "think" about true and false, good and bad, right and wrong by reference to that unexamined chaos. Or we can seek a method for examining and validating the principles we embrace, anchoring them in the perceptual facts of reality, and applying them properly in service of our life, liberty, and happiness. This book is about such a method--the method of thinking in principles--and its applications to various personal, social, and political issues.

Thinking in principles consists (essentially) in observing reality, using logic, and asking questions aimed at getting to the bottom of a given issue, wherein lies the fundamental truth of the matter along with a corresponding principle (or principles) of proper thought and action. This approach is both enlightening and controversial: enlightening, because the truth on important issues is rarely obvious; and controversial, because the truth is often at odds with popular belief.

For instance, by thinking in principles, you will discover that, contrary to widespread myth, the achievement of your own happiness is the moral purpose of your life. You will come to see that thinking in terms of extremes is always right and always practical. You will discover that aiming to abstain from sex until marriage--or advising others to do so--is not high-minded or noble but foolish and cruel. You will discover that so-called "white lies"--such as lies that friends tell each other to avoid hurting each other's feelings--are invariably harmful to both the liar and the lied to. You will come to see that the alleged "virtue" of tolerance is actually a life-throttling vice; that the ultimate goal of the environmentalist movement is not man's well-being but his elimination; that a person of genuine humility is, by that fact, capable of committing the worst of crimes; that conservatism is a form of statism; and that advocates of "social justice" are enemies of actual justice.

Granted, thinking in principles will not help you to be "politically correct" or "biblically correct." But it will help you to be factually and morally correct. It will help you to ground your thinking in observable reality and the requirements of your life; to detect and avoid logical fallacies and sacrificial policies; to communicate clearly and concisely; to increase your productivity, eliminate procrastination, complete your projects, expand your leisure time, and fill your days and years with experiences and people you love.

A tall order? Indeed. Such is the power of thinking in principles.

Over the course of the book, we will explicitly identify and systematically analyze the key elements of thinking in principles; concretize each element with many examples; and see how each unites with the others to form an observation-based, fully integrated science: the science of selfishness.

For the remainder of this chapter, we will expand on the nature of principles; draw some crucial working definitions of the term; and set some necessary context. In chapters 2 through 7, we will examine, step by step, the principles of thinking in principles, identifying the facts that give rise to them, showing how each serves rational thinking and good living, and addressing potential errors and related fallacies along the way. In chapter 8, we will pull the preceding together into a unified whole, an integrated system of thinking in principles. And, in chapter 9, we will apply that system to various areas and aspects of life, converting the science of selfishness (principles) into the art of selfishness (practice).

To begin gaining a fuller understanding of the nature of principles, their ubiquity in human life, and their role in thought and action, let us start not with a definition, but with a flood of concretes, from which we will draw important distinctions and, eventually, definitions. (8)

"An object at rest will remain at rest unless an unbalanced force acts on it." "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." (9) These, of course, are principles of physics.

"Emotions are consequences of one's value judgments in relation to one's experiences." (10) "Self-esteem is a requirement of happiness." These are principles of psychology and ethics.

"Proper hydration is essential to healthy crops." "Crop rotation maintains nutrient-rich soil."... principles of agriculture.

"A thing cannot be both A and non-A at the same time and in the same respect." (11) "An argument stands or falls on its merit, regardless of the character of the person making it."... principles of logic and rhetoric.

"Following through with your swing improves accuracy and power."... a principle of tennis, golf, and several other sports.

"To begin solving a problem, you should state as clearly as possible what the problem is."... a principle of problem solving.

"To make lines appear parallel, you must direct them toward the same vanishing point."... a principle of drawing, drafting, perspective.

"Net worth is a function of assets and liabilities."... aprinciple of accounting, finance, bookkeeping.

"Supply constitutes demand." (12) "Bad money drives out good money."(13)... principles of economics.

"Government is an institution of force."... a principle of politics.

"When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side." (14)... a principle of philosophy or of principles themselves.

We could go on and on; there are principles in every field of human concern.

As we can see from these examples, one of the unifying characteristics of principles is that they are generalizations. A principle says of a group of things--whether objects, actions, processes, or institutions--that the things are or are not of a certain nature, or that they must act or be done in a certain manner. Emotions--all emotions: love, trepidation, elation, fear, and so on--are consequences of value judgments in relation to experiences. If you are drawing a picture--any picture--and you want a road in the picture to appear to recede into the distance, then you must render it so that it gradually narrows. Arguments in general stand or fall on their merits, regardless of the character of the people making them. And so on.

So the first thing to note toward a definition of principles is that they are generalizations.

But not all generalizations are principles. Consider another set of examples:

"An apple will fall if you release it in midair."

"Fear is a consequence of value judgments."

"To grow corn, you need water."

"Money can be used to buy goods."

"A communist regime is an institution of force."

These too are generalizations. But there is a difference between these and those in the first set. What is the difference?

The difference is that those in the first set are conceptually broader and deeper than those in the second; those in the first subsume many more instances than do those in the second; those in the first underlie and explain many more truths than do those in the second.

"An object at rest will remain at rest unless an unbalanced force acts on it" is a broad and fundamental generalization; it explains many things--including the generalization that "an apple will fall if you release it in midair." The latter, although a generalization, is narrower and non-fundamental; it says only what an apple will do when released; it explains nothing beyond that. Likewise, "Emotions are consequences of value judgments" is abroad and fundamental generalization--a truth that explains emotions as such. That "fear is a consequence of value judgments" is a generalization--but it says only what causes one particular emotion.

So the second thing to note toward a definition of principles is that they are (relatively) broad and fundamental generalizations--generalizations that underlie, subsume, and explain many other matters.(15)

Consider more examples:

"Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed"; "Existence is identity"; "God's will creates reality"; "There is no reality." These statements pertain to metaphysics, the branch of philosophy concerned with the fundamental nature of existence. Clearly, they are fundamental generalizations. But are they principles? Hold that thought while we consider some similar examples.

"Society should take from each according to his ability, and give to each according to his need"; "You should ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country"; "The proper purpose of government is to protect individual rights." These are fundamental generalizations concerning ethics and politics. Are they principles? Again, hold that thought.

"Being moral consists in self-sacrificially serving others"; "Morality is not black and white"; "God's will is the standard of moral value"; "Man's life is the standard of moral value." These fundamental generalizations pertain to ethics. Are they principles?

Each of the fundamental generalizations in the above three paragraphs is--in the broadest sense of the term--a principle. Some are valid; some are not. But each is a principle. Why?

In the broadest sense of the term, the concept of "principle" includes fundamental generalizations in general--whether valid or not--so long as the generalizations are actually held by people and used to guide thought and action. "You should ask not what your country can do for Swiss cheese, but what Swiss cheese can do for your country" is not a principle, because no one holds the idea as true or attempts to put it into practice.

Just as we can arrive at the idea of "valid argument" only after we have arrived at the concept of "argument," so we can arrive at the idea of "valid principle" only after we have arrived at the concept of "principle." And to form or understand the concept of "principle," we have to look at the things or units in reality that give rise to the need and use of the concept--including the units subsumed under the long-standing historical use of the term. (16)

Although the fundamental generalizations, "God's will creates reality" and "Society should take from each according to his ability..." and "Being moral consists in self-sacrificially serving others" do not have any basis in reality, these ideas are--to some extent--accepted and used by people to guide thought and action. This gives these generalizations the standing of "principle" in the widest sense of the term.

To deny that such generalizations are in any sense of the term principles would be to commit the fallacy of the frozen abstraction, which consists in substituting a particular concrete--in this case, "valid principle"--for the wider abstract class to which it belong--in this case, "principle." (17)

Freezing the abstraction of "principle" at the level of "valid principle" would cause problems on several counts. Among other things, it would preclude us from seeing socialists and the like as acting on principles, which they do to some extent--and to great harm. It would preclude us from recognizing the realities and destructive natures of moral codes that demand or permit human sacrifice (e.g., altruism and relativism), and of philosophies that posit a non-sensory means of knowledge (e.g., religion and subjectivism). More fundamentally, it would preclude us from understanding the importance and the process of validating principles--a process that presupposes recognition of the concept of "principle" in its broadest sense as well as its narrower senses (the latter of which include not only valid and invalid, but also many kinds within those categories: moral, political, grammatical, etc.). (18)

So the third thing to note toward a definition of principles is that they can be valid or invalid--meaning, they can be rooted in reality or detached from it. (19)

Now, why do people form principles? What are principles for? What is their purpose? Our concern here is not their ultimate purpose--we'll get to that shortly. Our concern here is their primary or initial purpose. What, first and foremost, do physicists do with the principle that "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction"? What, first and foremost, do altruists do with the principle that "being moral consists in self-sacrificially serving others"? What, first and foremost, do farmers do with the principles of agriculture?

In each case, the answer is that the people in question use the principles to guide their mental actions, their thought processes. A physicist uses the principles of physics to guide his thinking about how the physical world works, and, subsequently, his corresponding physical actions (e.g., experiments and applications). An altruist uses the principle of altruism to guide his mental actions concerning the "right" way to act, and, subsequently, his physical actions. A farmer uses the principles of agriculture to guide his thinking about how to plant, nurture, and harvest crops; only then does he physically act in accordance with those principles. And so on. The primary purpose of principles is to guide people's thinking.

So this is the fourth thing to note toward a definition of principles: They are guides to thought and physical action--primarily to thought, secondarily to physical action.

Pulling all of the foregoing together, we can now see that a principle is a fundamental generalization to guide one's thinking. That is the broad definition of principle. But, for our purposes, we need a narrower definition as well.

Given that principles can be valid or invalid--rooted in reality or not--and given that invalid principles are worse than useless (e.g., "Aryans are the master race," "Might makes right," and "You should emulate the Prophet Mohammed"), let us set aside invalid principles and zero in on the nature and function of valid ones, those that are demonstrably true.

A valid principle is a fundamental truth to guide one's thinking--or: a fundamental truth on which other truths depend. (20)

To further illustrate the idea of thought processes being guided by fundamental truths, or of certain truths depending on more basic truths, let's consider some valid principles and observe how they guide thinking and what truths depend on them. These observations will also drive us toward the ultimate purpose of principles, which we have yet to pin down explicitly.

Take the principle of honesty, the truth that if you want to live successfully and happily, you must not pretend that facts are other than they are. This principle arises from observations and integrations of the fact that there is one reality, the one before our eyes, and that pretending that other realities exist doesn't make it so. We reference the principle of honesty (implicitly or explicitly) every time we remind ourselves of the absolute nature of reality and of the futility and danger of pretending that it is other than it is. For instance, the reason we don't buy a Ferrari or a summer home or the like when we know we can't afford the payments is that we are being honest about our financial situation; we are refusing to pretend that facts are other than they are. Likewise, the reason we don't eat an unhealthy diet and pretend that we're eating a healthy one is that we know pretending doesn't make it so and thus can't work to our advantage. Similarly, the reason we don't continue to trust a person after we've witnessed him pretending that facts are other than they are--say, lying to his girlfriend to cover up an affair, or lying to himself to curry favor with friends--is that to do so would be to pretend that he is committed to honesty when we know that he is not.

Our thinking in all such instances is guided by the principle of honesty. The particular truths--that we should not buy the unaffordable car or that we should not trust the untrustworthy person or the like--depend on a more fundamental truth: the principle that pretending doesn't make it so.

This is how (valid) principles work when we embrace and employ them: They guide our thinking and keep it connected to the facts of reality. In so doing, they enable us to plan with respect to the long-range and wide-range material and spiritual requirements of our life and happiness, to avoid avoidable problems, and to achieve our goals and values with a high degree of success.

Consider the principle of justice, the truth that if we want to establish and maintain good relationships--relationships with good people, people conducive to our life and happiness--we must judge people rationally, according to the available and relevant facts, and treat them accordingly, as they deserve to be treated. This principle arises from observations and integrations of the fact that people's qualities and characters can have significant positive or negative effects on our lives. People can be intelligent or stupid or anywhere in between. They can be well suited or ill suited to perform a given job or task. They can be ideal for a given position or relationship, they can be less than ideal for it, or they can be catastrophically bad for it. And all of that is evident even before we factor in moral character. People can be rational or irrational, honest or dishonest, first-handed or second-handed, just or unjust. The principle of justice is our means of dealing intelligently and effectively with this most complex aspect of life: other people.

If we didn't know to judge people rationally and treat them accordingly--and how to do so--we would wind up in highly problematic relationships, to put it mildly. We could just as soon hire a slacker as hire a producer, just as soon marry a partner from hell as marry the partner of our dreams, just as soon help to elect a wannabe dictator as to elect an advocate of individual rights.

The principle of justice guides our thinking so that we make the best decisions possible concerning our relationships with other people and the politics that affect our lives. With the principle, we can establish and maintain great relationships and make life-serving social and political decisions throughout our lives. Without the principle, we are destined for social and political mayhem.

Consider a principle of parenting. The basic purpose of parenting is to help or enable a child to learn how to use his mind so that he can develop into an independent, life-loving adult. This principle arises from observations and integrations of various facts--such as the nature of a parent, the nature of a child, the nature of the parent-child relationship, and the fact that man's means of knowledge and basic means of living is his reasoning mind. What thinking is guided by this principle? Practically all the thinking that (rational) parents do with respect to their children involves (implicit or explicit) reference to this principle.

For instance, on this principle, if a child becomes frustrated with his BB gun because it's jamming, a parent encourages him to think about ways he might solve the problem, such as by cleaning and lubricating the gun. Similarly, if a child asks his parents for a pony but the parents are unable or unwilling to purchase one for him, this principle guides them to give him understandable reasons for their decision and to encourage him to think about alternatives, such as the possibility of a less-expensive, lower-maintenance pet, or the possibility that the child could work and earn enough money to buy and maintain a pony himself. Likewise, if two children are arguing over who gets to use the zip line first, this principle guides a parent to monitor the situation as necessary for safety purposes, but otherwise not to get involved, leaving the children to use their own minds to figure out how to deal with such situations. If the parent concludes that speaking with the children later about the situation will further profitably exercise their minds about how to deal with such matters, he might do so. If not, he won't.

All sorts of parenting decisions properly depend on this principle. Without it, parents would have no idea how to mentally process or properly deal with the constant flow of issues that arise in the days, months, and years of a child's development, and parenting would be a nightmare, as would the child's life with his parents--full of screaming, punishments, beatings, and/or other nastiness. With the principle, parenting is still a lot of work--but wonderful and substantially simplified work.

Of course, principles do not pertain only to such weighty issues as honesty, justice, and parenting. Consider some principles of tennis.

The principles of tennis arise from observations and integrations of the goals of the game (e.g., to hit the ball over the net and in bounds such that your opponent cannot return it) and the respective natures of the objects involved (e.g., racquet, ball, net, players). To acquire the proper techniques for playing the game, a player must think in terms of principles. He must learn and remind himself to bend his knees and keep his weight on the balls of his feet. He must learn and remind himself to keep his eyes on the ball and follow through with his swing. He must learn and remind himself to connect with the ball at the sweet spot on the racquet. And so on. Over time, such techniques may become second nature; but to get to that point, a player must think in terms of the relevant principles. If someone tries to learn how to play tennis without reference to the principles of the game, he will get nowhere. This is true of learning practically anything, whether tennis, grammar, writing, ballet, rock climbing, archery, or the method of thinking in principles. Principles make all such things possible.

As a final example of how principles guide thinking, consider a principle from the realm of politics: Legitimate laws are those that prohibit the use of initiatory physical force in social relationships, and permit the government to use force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. This principle is derived from observations of the fact that people need to think and act in accordance with their rational judgment in order to live and prosper, and the fact that physical force used against them stops them from acting in accordance with their judgment. This principle properly guides all thinking about what should and should not be a law. Whenever a question arises about a possible piece of legislation, this is the basic principle to which citizens and legislators should turn. To the extent this principle is involved in thinking about legislation, proper, rights-protecting laws can be conceived and passed; and improper, rights-violating laws can be blocked or repealed. To the extent this principle is absent from thinking about legislation, improper, rights-violating laws will be passed, will remain on the books, and will throttle people's lives.

Should legislators pass a law legalizing homosexual marriage? Should they pass a law forbidding the sale of large soft drinks? Should they pass a law forcing everyone to buy health insurance? Should they repeal laws prohibiting the sale and personal use of drugs? All such questions are properly answered by reference to the principle that legitimate laws prohibit and do not warrant the use of initiatory physical force--including the government's use of such force. All proper thinking and decision making in the field of legislation depends on this principle.

What happens when legislators legislate without reference to this principle? Exactly what we've seen in America for decades: the passage of rights-violating laws upon rights-violating laws upon rights-violating laws--from antitrust laws, to minimum wage laws, to bank bailouts, to ObamaCare.

When we identify and employ valid principles, we can think clearly about what is true, what is right, and how we, others, and government should and should not act. When we don't, we can't. With valid principles, answering important questions about the requirements of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is possible and often relatively simple. Without valid principles, answering such questions is literally impossible.

When it comes to complex matters, we can accurately reach conclusions of true or false and correctly make decisions of right or wrong only by reference to principles. Granted, some moderately good thinking can occasionally be performed by implicit reference to principles; but extremely good thinking can regularly be performed only by explicit reference to principles.

Now, why ultimately does any of this matter? What's so important about true and false, right and wrong? Why can't we just get by without principles and wing it? The answer is becoming clear.

We have seen some of the ways in which principles condense and deliver crucial information that simplifies the otherwise overwhelmingly complex world. Valid, reality-based principles enable us to think with respect to the nature of things, the law of cause and effect, the way the world actually is and actually works. Whether we are thinking about how to prepare a lecture or whether to buy a car, how to treat our lover or how to speak to our child, whom to trust or whom to hire, how to improve our game or whether there ought to be a law--our means of thinking objectively about the issue are the (valid) principles that govern that domain. Principles enable us to think with respect to the long-range and wide-range, material and spiritual requirements of human life in general--and of our own lives in particular--so that we can make good decisions and act in our long-term best interest.

So the question, "What is the ultimate purpose of principles?" becomes, "Why do we need to make good decisions and act in our long-term best interest?"


We need principles so that we can live and prosper. The ultimate purpose of principles is to enable us to flourish. The better we understand and employ principles in our thinking, the better our lives and the happier we will be.

The principle here is: Valid principles are essential tools for a life of happiness. And this principle has a particularly profound corollary: Embracing a fully principled approach to life--committing yourself to identifying and employing principles in all of your thinking about all that you do--is an entirely self-interested way to live.

Thinking in principles is the science of selfishness.

If you want to make your life the best it can be, you must think in principles. And, barring tragedies, if you do think in principles, you will succeed--and spectacularly so. Will you fail at various endeavors along the way? Absolutely. You must. As we will see beginning in chapter 2--and repeatedly from different perspectives throughout the book--substantial failure is essential to great success. (That's a principle.) The key to making your life the best it can be is not to fear failure or to avoid it at all costs, but to love success and to embrace the science of achieving it.

Let us now turn in earnest to the elements of thinking in principles.


(1.) I borrow the phrase "thinking in principles" (short for "thinking in terms of principles") from Ayn Rand, who used it to name her method of thinking. To my knowledge, Rand did not explicitly state the elements she regarded as central to the method, but certainly the basic principles of her philosophy, such as her theory of concept formation, are the kinds of things she had in mind. Although I think Rand would agree with the elements of thinking in principles that I present in this book, and although several of the elements are drawn from her philosophy, I obviously cannot speak for her. A philosopher's work is what he or she says and writes, no more, no less. My purpose in this book is not to convey Rand's ideas on thinking in principles, but to convey my own. My approach to the subject is greatly influenced by her philosophy, with which I fully agree, but my ideas are mine, and hers are hers.

(2.) Craig Biddle, Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Lnterest and the Facts that Support Lt (Richmond, VA: Glen Allen Press, 2002); Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964).

(3.) Stanley Fish, There's No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It's a Good Thing, Too (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 298. Fish is equally forthright on this matter elsewhere, for instance: "Let me say at the outset that I am... against an adherence to principle"; Fish, The Trouble with Principle (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 2. And, as we will see toward the end of chapter 2, he is not alone on this count.

(4.) See Ayn Rand, "The Objectivist Ethics," in Virtue of Selfishness, p. 22.

(5.) Fish, Trouble with Principle, p. 2.

(6.) Stanley Fish, Doing What Comes Naturally (Durham: Duke University Press, 1989), p. 10.

(7.) See Biddle, Loving Life, especially chapters 3 and 4.

(8.) Some of the principles here are stated in simplified form for ease of integration and analysis. The purpose here is not to state each principle in its fullest, most precise form, but to show the prevalence of principles in human life.

(9.) Newton's first and third laws.

(10.) Cf Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, p. 30.

(11.) Aristotle's law of contradiction.

(12.) Say's Law.

(13.) Gresham's Law.

(14.) Ayn Rand, "The Anatomy of Compromise," in Capitalism: The Unknown Ldeal (New York: Signet, 1967), p. 145.

(15.) Whether a given generalization is a principle is contextual; it depends on how fundamental is it to the issue in question and how much guidance it provides in that area. "Fear is a consequence of value-judgments in relation to experiences" could, in certain contexts, be a principle. If a generalization is fundamental to a sphere of human concern, and if it provides substantial guidance in that area, then it is a principle governing that area. If not, it is not. We will address this kind of thing from various perspectives in chapters 2, 3, 6, 8, and 9.

(16.) We will elaborate on how we can know what things are and are not properly included under a given concept when we discuss proper classification and definition in chapter 4.

(17.) This fallacy was first identified by Ayn Rand. We will discuss it in some detail in chapter 4, when we discuss Rand's theory of concepts, and, in chapter 5, when we discuss the principles of hierarchy.

(18.) The broader and narrower meanings of the concept of "principle" are akin to the broader and narrower meanings of the concept of "value." The broader meaning of value is "that which one acts to gain or keep"; the narrower (morally validated) meaning of the concept is "that which one rationally acts to gain or keep for the purpose of sustaining or furthering one's life." For more on these two definitions of value, see Rand, "Objectivist Ethics"; Leonard Peikoff, "Unity in Epistemology and Ethics" lecture (New Milford: Second Renaissance Books, 1997); and Biddle, Loving Life, especially chapters 3, 4, and 6.

(19.) We will discuss key aspects of the process of validating principles at various stages throughout the book.

(20.) For comparison, the Oxford dictionary defines principle as "a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning." And Ayn Rand defines principle as "a fundamental, primary, or general truth, on which other truths depend" ("Anatomy of Compromise," p. 144).


Craig Biddle is the editor of The Objective Standard and the author of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-interest and the Facts that Support It and the forthcoming Thinking in Priciples: The Science of Selfishness. His website is

Author's note: The following are the introduction and first chapter of my forthcoming book, Thinking in Principles: The Science of Selfishness. The book, which will be published this December, is aimed primarily at active-minded young adults who have some familiarity with the principles of rational egoism. The purpose of the book is to show readers the importance and method of thinking in principles. I hope you enjoy these early pages. --CB
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Author:Biddle, Craig
Publication:The Objective Standard
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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