Principles: A Two Dimensional Approach

Can a principled commitment to justice and freedom lead to opposing conclusions?

I am a citizen who likes to engage in public discourse, especially when it is infused with moral questions. I debate frequently with friends who are smarter than me. But as you could tell from the question, the debate hasn’t been going anywhere. Despite our best efforts, we still fail to come to agreeable terms. And what is adding to my frustration, I think, is the fact that my debate opponents and I share the same values and worldview. To what then can I owe the differences?

In a moment of ignorance, my mind would slip into thinking that I’m a man of more integrity than they are, that my commitment to the principles I uphold has passed the test of life and they failed. But because my debate opponents are also my friends, that conclusion about their integrity wouldn’t sink in with me. I respect them. So I continued to look for the roots of this irritatingly persistent disagreement.

Amani Albedah, a good friend of mine, was tweeting to her followers in what has become a secular adaptation of a religious ritual, the Friday Sermon. And in last Friday’s sermon, she carried the conventional liberal criticism of islamists. Great arguments as usual but what struck me was her assertion that the standing of liberals against an islamist-led democratic movement is a matter of principle, despite the fact that the demanded reforms only promised more freedoms, in this case more political rights. Amani, in her calculated and justified position, was one step ahead of the simple minded liberal. It takes no genius to predict what the islamists would do to individual freedoms after they reap the benefits of democracy.

Liberals who share the same view with Amani are ready to overlook the imprisonment of their ideological enemy (a violation of principle) because they fear that the enemy would present a bigger danger to individual freedoms (a matter of principle) in the near future. Aside from the obvious dilemma presented here, you may notice that we introduced a new dimension: time.

Many of us care for justice and freedom, probably with equal passion as well. We only part ways because of the variance in the timeframe in which we hope to uphold these principles. It helps to navigate three possible variations of our commitment, after factoring in the time dimension:

  1. Iron commitment is the simplest. It is concerned with the immediate upholding of a principle while neglecting all its possible negative repercussions. It’s also worth noting that the average person tends to judge our personal integrity based on our iron commitment, or lack of it.
  2. Tactical commitment overlooks the immediate violations of the principle for the expected (relative) upholding of the principle in the near term.
  3. Strategic commitment overlooks the immediate and short-term violations for the expected upholding of the principle in the long term.

People who feel a responsibility in shaping the future tend to base their commitment to a principle either tactically or strategically, depending on the perceived clarity in which they can foresee the chain of events unfold. But they must also be aware that they will be penalized by society if their judgment was conflicting with the one based on an iron commitment.

Now for us to win the debate for democracy in a conservative society, we need to convince our liberal brethren to shift their tactical commitment to freedom to a strategic one. We have to build the case for why the Kuwaiti youth will have what it takes to fight the fundamentalist forces in our society. And why, for the battle to start, our enemy needs to surface to the top and be visible.