Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Rules and principles

'It is of little use to argue and only makes the impasse worse.' (Alcoholics Anonymous)

Tradition 11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.

A while ago, I was engaged in a discussion. I quoted the first of the two passages set out above. My interlocutor suggested that there was no general principle involved and that the suggestion not to argue applied only to the specific situation under discussion in the relevant chapter of the Big Book.

Today, I spoke to a friend who is starting a new group, and she suggested to her friends that in naming the group they should try to find an attractive name, not one that promotes the group as somehow superior to the other groups in her city. She was told that Tradition 11 applies only at the level of press, radio, and films and that there was no general principle involved.

To my mind, these two anecdotes are connected. My response to rules, in the past, has been to grudgingly comply and to frame the rule as narrowly as possible so as to continue to do precisely what I want without the rule getting in the way.

Principles, by contrast, are universal. You have a rule? Fine. Construe it in a limited way and it needn't get in your way. You have a principle? Boy, are you in trouble. You now have to consider it in all domains of your life.

Rules also require no consideration. Principles often conflict, and wisdom is required to determine which principle is to be accorded more weight in a particular situation. For instance, sometimes honesty outweighs discretion; sometimes the reverse is true; sometimes a good-natured but robust discussion is necessary because a point needs to be pressed home, whereas sometimes it's best to keep your mouth shut. Should you argue? Probably not: but occasionally there will be an overriding reason. How do you know? Well, this is the second reason you're in trouble if you apply principles: you're going to have to rely on God.

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