Whose Principle Is It, Anyway?

In a recent post, I say:

[Thomas] More’s constancy to principle … stands in high relief against the practice of tailoring one’s principles to fit the data at hand — or the data that one selects to justify one’s prejudices. I have found economists to be especially prone to such tailoring. For example, too many economists justify free markets on utilitarian grounds, that is, because free markets produce more (i.e., are more efficient) than regulated markets. This happens to be true, but free markets can and should be justified mainly because they are free, that is, because they allow individuals to pursue otherwise lawful aims through voluntary, mutually beneficial exchanges of products and services. Liberty is a principle, a deep value; economic efficiency is merely a byproduct of adherence to that value.

David Henderson, an economist whose views I often share, slips into the category of unprincipled economist with this:

I watched most of the movie Paradise Road yesterday…. It’s about a large group of women who were captured in Singapore during World War II and taken prisoner by the Japanese government to the island of Sumatra. It’s quite moving.

The lead character, Adrienne Pargiter, … puts an orchestra together to sing Dvorak’s New World Symphony a capella. It’s amazingly good…. The Japanese prison guards are moved by it and, momentarily, become slightly less inhumane.

Later, one of the guards asks Pargiter if she will put together an arrangement of a Japanese folk song. She refuses and it’s clear, from her tone and body language, that this is an issue of principle for her. She hates what they have done to the women so much that she refuses to cooperate.

It seems clear from the context that some of the guards and even the prison commander are willing to trade. The Japanese soldiers have, apparently, stolen their rations, withheld quinine, and generally been nasty. But earlier in the movie a Jewish doctor in the camp … managed to get quinine by trading or making concessions….

So in refusing to conduct the Japanese song, Pargiter is giving up a chance to trade for food and/or quinine, which could save innocent people’s lives.

I don’t see this as a question of principle. Remember, they had been asked to sing a folk song, not the Japanese anthem. (Even with the Japanese anthem, I would have agreed if it had got food or quinine for some of the prisoners.)

I believe in living by strong principles. But I also believe that you should identify very clearly where there really is a principle at stake and where there isn’t.

In the circumstances, I probably would join Henderson in trading with the Japanese guards. But I do not agree with him that there is no principle at stake. The principle, which seems to elude Henderson, is that the guards deserve a rebuke (at the very least) for their inhumane treatment of the prisoners. And the only rebuke that Pargiter can deliver is to refuse the guard’s request.

Pargiter’s stance may seem quixotic, but it reflects a principle — like it or not. I would fault Pargiter’s stance only if it did not reflect a consensus among the other prisoners about (possibly) forgoing food and/or quinine in favor of a rebuke to their captors. But given the unlikelihood of obtaining much, if anything, in the way of better treatment in exchange for the performance of a Japanese folk song, I suspect that Pargiter did the right thing, even if she did it instinctively, out of anger.