Thinking in Terms of Principles: Principles vs. Convention

There is a seemingly fine line between principles and convention.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence (with the editing assistance of John Adams and Benjamin Franklin), he penned the list of grievances against the British throne and parliament that provided the foundation and principle the Colonies used for separation. Many have argued that Thomas Jefferson plagiarized much of John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (e.g. the Declaration’s use of the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”), yet Jefferson spoke conventionally when he said in a letter to James Madison, August 30, 1823, that the Declaration of Independence

contained no new ideas, that it is a commonplace compilation, its sentiments hacknied in Congress for two years before, and its essence contained in [James] Otis’ pamphlet, may all be true. Of that I am not to be the judge… Otis’ pamphlet I never saw, and whether I had gathered my ideas from reading or reflection I do not know. I know only that I turned to neither book nor pamphlet while writing it. I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether, and to offer no sentiment which had ever been expressed before.

While Thomas Jefferson was writing the principles used for separation from England, he was also stating the conventional thought of his day. Principles can become conventional with time and experience, but they are not the same thing. At the same time, conventions do not necessitate principles.

Principles and Conventions


Principles constitute an underlying law or axiom of reality that is required in a system of thought that establishes specific and general rules in decision making.  As Aristotle stated,

In every systematic inquiry where there are first principles (6.4), or causes, or elements, knowledge and science result from acquiring knowledge of these; for we think we know something just in case we acquire knowledge of the primary causes, the primary first principles, all the way to the elements. It is clear, then, that in the science of nature as elsewhere, we should try first to determine questions about the first principles. The naturally proper direction of our road is from things better known and clearer to us, to things that are clearer and better known by nature; for the things known to us are not the same as the things known unconditionally. Hence it is necessary for us to progress, following this procedure, from the things that are less clear by nature, but clearer to us, towards things that are clearer and better known by nature (Phys. 184a10–21; emphasis added).

Principles are the primary foundation of our reality. They are the source of where our ideas come from – they are not the ideas or applications in themselves. As Aristotle argues, because things appear one way, however, that does not mean that it is the way they are. It is through a foundation of sound premises (i.e. sound laws and assumptions) that we then learn to determine the law (speaking descriptively of law, not prescriptively) around us.


Conventions are a set of basic norms and customs given to fulfill or solve a basic social problem. When someone is pressured to explain the causation of repeated social idiosyncrasies responds and answers that “this is the best way we know to solve the problem, and it’s the way it is and works,” then this person is not responding according to axioms of principles (thus, showing the primary cause of the particular idiosyncrasy) but, rather, is speaking conventionally. That individual is not responding to causation of the social idiosyncrasy, but is merely responding in acceptance or acknowledgement of the social nuance’s existence.

Whereas Aristotle may have succeeded or failed to correctly establish true first principles in his explanation of the nature and order of the universe, his deduction of reality came from his first principles. His work was based on a logical progression of assumptions and laws (i.e. principles) to justify his epistemology (study of “how you know”) and ethical claims.

By way of example, the Catholic Church, contra-Aristotle, before and after Copernicus, did not perpetuate their proposed religiously founded system of the universe from deducted information from principles. Rather, they squelched the Copernican system and punished the principled observers who supported it (e.g. Galileo) in the Church’s own attempt to perpetuate their religious convention (i.e. their religious norm, dogma, custom, and tradition). The difference here is that Aristotle worked from a set of axioms, laws, and logical assumptions towards truth, whereas the Catholic Church promoted a theory based on customs, norms, and traditions.

Distinguishing Importance?

Is it important to distinguish between convention and principle? Actually, it is very important.

It is difficult to determine when the switch from a principled society to a conventional society occurs. We know that, for better or worse, the Founders of this country worked from a basic set of principles regarding natural rights pertaining to life, liberty, and property. In separating from England, structuring the new government, and in putting forward new policy – the appeal, foundation, and premise of this country was rooted in principles first and then carefully abstracted or deducted outwardly.

Today, Party politics has made any appeal to principle practically impossible. For example, in a day when “conservatives” chant the “anyone but Obama” platitude, we can see that the people are looking more to Party and social conventions than to principles. Never would a principled person say “anyone but someone else,” for, to be principled, they must have a firm and reasoned system of principles wherein they would vet and support each candidate.

Cherry-Picking Belief Systems: A Matter of Cognitive Dissonance

Not every “reasoned” belief is, in fact, reasonable. While philosophers sometime have a hard time determining what philosophy is about, the simple answer is that philosophy is concerned with understanding reality (metaphysics), determining and demonstrating how we know that reality (epistemology), and what morals and virtues (ethics) we may deduct or induct out the metaphysics and epistemology. Whereas most people think of “principles” in terms of ethical assumptions, first principles are discovered in a discussion of metaphysics and epistemology, not of ethics.

Most people who study politics and economics only study the ethics portion of philosophy (e.g. religion, politics, economics, sociology, etc.) and never even question their metaphysics (views reality) and epistemology (how you know that reality). More often than not, this does an individual more harm than good, for most people do not know that they cherry pick their ethics.

Philosophers like John Locke (who had a great influence on American independence and Constitutionalism) did not start his disagreement with England’s conventions in his Two Treatises on Government and then work backwards into his metaphysics and epistemology. Locke, rather, had a metaphysical and epistemic system of thought wherein he deducted out his ethics. In other words, Locke, in his Essays of Human Understanding, reasoned that reality existed in a certain way (metaphysics) and he argued that he could know that reality through empiricism (i.e. epistemology). From the arguments in his Essays he reasoned and put forward his ethical thoughts on politics in his Two Treatises on Government – not the other way around.

Today, however, very, very few people come to their ethics (belief on politics, religion, economics, society, etc.) through establishing first principles in metaphysics and epistemology. Some might say that it is not necessary to know the intricacies of metaphysics and epistemology to know that something is true to have a consistent moral belief system. The problem with this is that, regardless of our conscious or cognitive knowledge of the many and varied philosophical constructs arguments surrounding “metaphysics” or “epistemology”, every value judgment we make carries with it presuppositions of reality and of how we know that reality that we cannot help to make.

If, as a Latter-day Saint, I say “I know the Book of Mormon is true,” I have presupposed something of reality and of how I know that reality (e.g. that God lives, that Jesus Christ lived and died, that the Holy Ghost communicates knowledge, that there were Nephite/Lamanite/Jaredite civilizations that were destroyed, that God appeared to Joseph Smith, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, that you can receive revelation from God, etc.), even if I do not consciously acknowledge that I am making a metaphysical assertion. Every ethic and value judgment we have presupposes something we accept of reality and of how we know that reality – regardless of whether we are aware or accept that we are doing this or not.

The great thinkers of history, however, whether they were right or wrong, came to their ethics as a result of their belief of reality and knowledge. On the other hand, society today largely comes to its ethics by way of social experiences and pressures. In other words, for example, if a conventionalist John Locke were living today, he would write the Two Treatises on Government first in response to his absolute disdain for monarchies and the injustice that they bring, and then he would write his Essay on Human Understand afterwards to justify his ethics. In this way, Locke’s ethics (discussion of politics, economics, etc.) would come as a matter of convention – not of principle. Such a reversal of knowledge creates contradicting presuppositions of reality.

The problem here is that when we start with our ethics first and work backwards into our views of reality and knowledge, we end up with competing views of reality – i.e. cognitive dissonance. If we first begin with our ethical views, then we try to justify how reality fits our paradigm. However, if we start with the discussion of reality and how we know it, then we are on a correct path to having consistent ethics on its own terms – and not for what we want it to be.

When the process of knowledge is incorrectly reversed – from conventions to principles – we end up with cognitive dissonance: the holding of two contradictory beliefs and belief systems at the same time. The solution to such cognitive dissonance is to discover a set of first principles wherein our ethics are deducted. Sadly, however, in a day of Party politics and social convention, this seldom happens.

False Knowledge and Freedom

It has been said that “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free” (attributed to Goethe). This has more than one meaning, especially concerning our process of knowledge. Everyone wants to be thought of as principled. We might say that our social convention is to be principled. Social and emotional stigmas are placed upon those who we say are unprincipled. However, in a society that largely establishes its ethics on convention first, principled people are hard to find. The difficulty here, however, is that a conventionalist, due to the social stigma and convention, considers himself principled (i.e. principled in how we are discussing things here), when, in fact, he is not.

This is not to say that a conventionalist is a bad person. In fact, this is not true. By way of example, I once had a college roommate who converted to the LDS Church as soon as he was out of the military. He had mentioned in a Church lesson that before he joined the Church his standard of moral conduct was asking whether something was “legal” or not – in that “bad” was only something that would land you in jail. This roommate was not a bad person – he just pulled his moral code from society’s customs and norms. He did not posit any principles in his life of reality, but he just lived according to what society deemed was appropriate as established by their laws.

Most concepts and feelings of nationalism and patriotism today are very conventional. This is not to say that conventions (norms and traditions) are bad, this is not true. However, the importance here is to cognitively pull our beliefs and knowledge from principles – not conventions. Traditions are great, if they reflect actual principles. But when conventional nationalism takes priority over principle, then the convention is often in danger to the individual and his rights.

No person is more hopelessly enslaved in their own mind than those who pull their ethics from convention, when they falsely believe they’re deducting their beliefs from principles.

America Today

America’s founding was based on a set of ethics (i.e. beliefs) that were deducted from a reasoned system of metaphysics and epistemology. Whether the Founders were right or not is another discussion entirely. The point is that they were not mere rebels against English conventionalism, they were pro-active agents who had a reasoned view of reality and of how they could know that reality – they were men of principle.

Our country was based on a set of principles. Through the living of certain correct principles, certain customs and traditions (conventions) were created. The danger that faces every principled society comes when reliance and focus is placed on continuing the perceived convention (outcome) instead of continuing to acknowledge and follow the principle that made and brought about that convention.

Societies flourish when they abide by ethical truths as reasoned from correct principles of reality, but conventional societies, by definition, regard the tradition and the custom as the principle in itself (e.g. near deification of nationalistic icons such as the military, national anthems, national slogans, and national images such as the flag). True and correct principles lead to good society, but unprincipled conventional societies (i.e. those societies that place importance in the custom, tradition, and norm itself and not as a result from knowing and living within reality) must arbitrarily seek to form its own good society through enforced rules and regulations. In other words, when a society has transformed from principle to convention, it no longer sees the natural causation that occurs when principles are followed – it only sees that “good society” is the result of enforced customs and norms.

This difference is evident in the shifting perception that our society has on our Constitution. Whereas a Constitution was once considered a document that constituted and set limits on government, a Constitution now is defined as a tool of government to makes “good society”.

Today, in America, we have various social traditions that range from military valor and patriotic spirit, to the belief in a divinely inspired Constitution. Many of these traditions came about from living correct principles. However, today, the overwhelming numbers of Americans – without even realizing it – are merely conventional for the sake of the convention. They perceive that their desired convention (ethic) is “good” (therefore they think it is principled), and so they seek to preserve it by mandating, through various means of intimidation, coercion, and legislation. Such people generally seek to show that the world exists in a certain way (reality/metaphysics) because their particular convention is true, yet, as we have discussed, this only creates cognitive dissonance and inconsistent thinking.


True and correct knowledge is found through an inquiry of reality and knowledge first, and of ethics second. Ethics (all discussions of politics, economics, religion, etc.), correctly learned, are a result of the conscious study of reality and knowledge. When one begins with ethics first, multiple contradicting realities emerge. Ethics exists because of reality, not before it.

Principles are the foundation of good and rational thinking. Good principles lead to good, upright, and moral traditions, norms, and customs. The traditions, norms, and customs (conventions) are not “good” on their own merit, but because they are derived from the living of good principles. Merely living the convention for the convention’s sake leads to cognitive dissonance.

America, today, with all of its promotion of Party slogans and political platitudes, is a conventional society. The Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were based on principles that created good conventions, yet our current society seeks to perpetuate these traditions on their own merit without looking back to the principles that created the convention.

Promoting a convention for the convention’s sake is disastrous for any society, for conventions are merely outcomes. When a society, like what America has today, seeks to perpetuate the convention without an understanding of the principles of reality and knowledge – the result will be a web of customs, traditions, and laws that are contradictory. Such cognitive dissonance is at the heart of America’s political problems, as America has forgotten the principles that made her great.