This ties into the question about false consciousness, where Cassandra wanted to defend 'a large grain of truth.' Elise gets to what is probably the core of any such grain:
I think perhaps the underlying question is, "What constitutes an argument based on principles?" I'm not going to claim that my emotional certainty polygamy is a bad idea is a principle but my conviction that a dyad is the best form for marriage may be.
I'm seriously out of my depth here but what about the case of a woman who asserts that she has no problem being married to a husband who beats her?A principled argument is a kind of demonstration, in which you give an account of a thing that goes upwards from particulars to the core truths that give rise to those particulars. In chemistry, a demonstration of this type would go from particulars like ice and water and steam to a higher truth -- the structure of H2O -- which explains why those particulars arise in given circumstances. When you can give a demonstration of this type, you are arguing from principles.
You may still be wrong, of course. Aristotle had a system of elemental chemistry that was quite principled, and succeeded in giving an account of why ice changes into water; but the principles gave way, on further evidence, to better principles that offer a fuller account. This is important, because principled arguments are only as good as the principles underlying them. It is important to return to the principles, and re-examine them carefully in every generation.
So, in terms of the argument that Elise offered about the dyad in marriage, it is indeed a principled argument: the principle is that the convenience of the courts is an important feature of the marriage contract. Because non-dyadic marriage is more legally complex, she argues, polygamy is impossible in a society like ours.
There are a couple of good things about principled arguments in politics. The first one is that they give you standards that can prevent you from being led astray by a charming or persuasive politician. This has been a problem since at least ancient Greece, where the complaint against Socrates (more properly aimed at the Sophists) was that he offered teaching in how to 'make the weaker argument appear the stronger.' Utilitarian philosopher Neil Sinhababu, the first of our gentlemen of the Left, praises this aspect particularly.
Lots of people in politics want to get you excited in a way that'll get you doing what they want, so they'll work to create the right emotions in you. Given your psychology and their interests, it may be most effective for them to develop or manipulate your emotional attachments with a particular tribe or politician, either loving them or hating them.
What's of fundamental importance in the world, and what good people are really trying to advance through involvement in public life, doesn't have a proper name like "Obama", "Bush", "Reagan", or "the Republican Party." It's described by more general terms like "the greatest happiness for all" or "helping people" or (according to views I think are wrong) "obeying God" or "property rights" or "the revolution." If you don't try to sort out what you care about at this level, the emotions that tie you to politics may attach to politicians and tribes and not the things that are described in well-reasoned principles. And then the things that motivate you won't be the things of real value.The first benefit, then, is that you can be sure you are not swept off your feet. One can certainly appreciate why this is a question of particular interest to thoughtful Leftists in the wake of 2008.
It is not only clever politicians that can sweep you off your feet. Far more dangerous for most people are strong emotional reactions. One can imagine a case in which a helpless girl child has been brutally murdered, and the wrong man is pinned with the crime. How hard will it be for the jury to give him a fair hearing, given their fury at the crime, and the finger of authority pointing at him?
Not impossible, to be sure! Yet the reason it is possible at all is that we have a strong principle about the importance of a fair trial. We trust in that principle to cause the jury to put aside its anger and desire to punish, and demand of themselves that they hear the evidence fairly.
The other good thing about principles is that they give us grounds for addressing questions like Elise's: "What about the case of a woman who asserts that she has no problem being married to a husband who beats her?" Is it really the case that there is no principled argument here?
If all we have is emotional certainty, we have to admit that other people are just entitled to theirs as we are to ours. They have exactly the same standing to say, from their own unique perspective and position, "This seems right to me." In order to say, "But it isn't right," we have to be ready to give a demonstration from principles.
It's not important that we should always do so. To a large degree, many important questions really can be decided based on what 'seems right,' provided that we have a mechanism for making space for those who disagree. This brings us to our second gentleman of the Left.
I’m sympathetic to Arendtian concerns about the mismatch between absolute principles and the intensely particular world of human affairs.... The reason I care about all of this gets back to the very beginning, when I was mentioned the possibility of being “uninterested” in principles. More to the point, I worry about those whose principles are not strongly enough held to entice them into political action, because I do share what I see as Madison’s concern: that it’s one thing to establish a republic in which all citizens are empowered to act equally, and quite another to figure out how to entice them to actually get involved. That’s the crisis of 1787; not just that the mechanics of the Articles were broken, but that republicans had always assumed that only a virtuous people could make a republic work, and as 1776 gives way to 1787 it’s increasingly clear that the people were to be corrupt, not virtuous. In my reading, Madison’s leap is to essentially jettison the assumption of virtue and try to use self-interest to entice people back into public action. That’s why Madison’s Federalist essays are so radical: he’s overturning not only centuries of assumptions about the mechanics of republics, but far more critical assumptions about the citizens of republics. Madison makes self-interest — not well-argued principles — the entryway for political participation precisely because he’s seeing all around him the lure of private happiness, rather than the appeal of public happiness.I think that's a really interesting claim about Madison. I'm not sure it's right, but let's grant it for the sake of argument. It surely is the case that our democracy intends to involve as many people as reasonable in at least the voting process, because the United States claims that its legitimacy depends on consent of the governed, as proven by their representation in government. Thus, the more of the governed who vote for representatives, the more legitimate any action of the Federal government must seem.
So what if people are 'uninterested' in principles, and just want to live the way they think is best?
Arendt, as it happens, has a model for this: it is based on Kant's approach to aesthetics in his third critique, the Critique of Judgment. There is an immediately obvious sense in which a model like this is appealing. Political questions are fundamentally questions about justice, and the language of justice is very often the language of beauty. We say that a just decision, like a beautiful thing, is "balanced" or "harmonious" or "fulfilling" or even "stirring." It is an emotional reaction rather than a scientific one; to put it in Arendt's terms, justice is a question about meaning, not a question about fact.
Justice isn't chiefly about exactly what happened, but about what would make it right. Determining the facts is at most a preliminary condition. I say "at most" because we very often set the facts aside if we determine that they were arrived at in a wrong way: say by violation of 4th amendment rights without due process. Nor is this particular to the American system: we can see a similar setting-aside of facts in, say, Sir Thomas Malory's account of the trial of Guinevere.
So, to a degree I think we ought to try to make room for different emotional certainties about justice. Fortunately, we have been provided with a way of doing that in very many cases: the 10th Amendment. In the wake of the 2004 elections, I wrote:
We should remember that they felt all the passion and concern that we did ourselves, and found that doing everything they could only led to the defeat of their cause. That kind of defeat can weaken the Republic, which many of us are sworn to uphold. It weakens it by undermining faith and confidence in the institutions. We must take care to be sure they find fair hearing of their concerns in the institutions that conservatives now control. The government must serve them as well. We should take care to observe the tenets of Federalism, and not use the power of the Federal government to try and influence liberal states according to a general will. We should erect new walls in that regard, so that our disappointed neighbors can still live the lives they want to live in what is also their country.This still seems right to me. If we can restructure the American system along originalist lines, we can more readily ensure that 50 different systems of 'emotionally certain' ideas of justice can flourish alongside. The 10th Amendment's push of almost all authority to the state and local level is the health of our Republic, especially as it becomes more diverse with age.
However, there are some questions that have to be decided for everyone. I think these are questions that have to be decided on principle, precisely because otherwise we are enforcing our will on others whose moral standing is just as strong as our own. Such enforcing will provoke a revolt, and more than that, it ought to provoke a revolt.
Since principles can be wrong, we still have plenty to argue about at the Federal level. A principled argument is open to two different kinds of arguments, actually: that the principles are wrong (modern v. Aristotle's chemistry), or that the application of the principles can be handled differently than posited (that legal ease can be achieved for the most complicated polygamy if they are organized legally as a sort of corporation or trust).
That still leaves lot of room for things you believe intensely, even if you can't say quite why. Those things are good too, sometimes: at least, they should be if they truly are aesthetic principles. For aesthetics looks to the beautiful, and the True and the Beautiful finally prove to be only the first division of the Good.