April 2, 2009

Ideology vs Principles

Ideologies are strangely seductive.

Ideologies promise a sure-fire recipe to solve all problems. They often give you a single value to maximize, and equally often tell you who to blame.

Got a problem? Easy. Just trust the free market. Or increase government spending. Or blame the wealthy. Or blame the poor.

Whichever solution an ideology offers, that is supposed to be the first solution to apply whenever a problem arises, and if that doesn't work you're supposed to do apply it again until it does work.

Given the complexity of some of the problems that face us in our daily lives as individuals and even more so in our collective life as a society, it is easy to see the allure of straightforward solutions you don't have to think about too much.

But history has shown us over and over again that ideologies are fairly poor at solving problems in the short run, and in the long run usually create worse problems of their own.

If you want effective problem solving, you're better off with principles rather than ideology.

A set of principles is like an ideology in that it expresses values upon which to base decisions, but principles can't be applied unconditionally. Principles compete with each other, forcing you to make trade-off decisions. The exact trade-offs have to be worked out differently for each instance of a problem.

Ideology is like the imaginary fifties family where everyone listens to Dad and the kids never compete for attention. Principles are like a real family, where you love everybody, but you can't always make everybody happy.

The amount of work required to implement a decision is about the same for both ideological and principled approaches is. The real difference is in the amount of certainty you have, both before you choose a solution, and after you've made a choice.

In a principled approach, you always have to wonder if you could have gotten the balance of competing values better, and you may have to constantly rejig the balance as new situations develop. With an ideology, you always have it right, even if you aren't getting the results you want.

As nice a feeling as it is to be certain, if you really care about outcomes, uncertainty has the benefit that it keeps you more closely in touch with the realities of your problem. It makes you listen more attentively to the feedback from your solution. You are much more likely to succeed in the end, even if paradoxically you are less sure at any one point in time that you have found the right solution.

Abandoning certainty leads to greater confidence of real success.

This idea has so many applications to software development, project management, government, and other governance and systems thinking domains, I'll leave elaboration to future posts.


  1. Good stuff! I really like your summary in later post, "reject all forms of ideological thinking on principle".

  2. Thanks, Tim.

    Nice to know someone is reading and enjoying. ;-)

  3. What about truth in all of this? I agree that you should always be open to adjusting your view of truth. But, this should never negate the reality that there IS a truth to discover.

    The problem with so many people is that their initial assumption is that "truth" is relative, that there is no absolute truth. Therefore, they sway their opinion to the popular opinion of the day.

    “The first reaction to truth is hatred” Tertullian

  4. @Anonymous:

    Truth is a complex idea, much more complex than any simple dichotomy between relative and absolute is going capture.

    I tend to think that the real problem is always epistemology: how do you discover, recognize, evaluate, and test for truth. I think this applies whether you think truth is relative, absolute or otherwise.

    Having said this, I would be inclined to say that committing to a set of principles is to commit to them as "truths" in some sense. I would presume that there is some process of truth-finding someone will have gone through to select their principles, and that they will continue to use this process to evaluate their behaviour and effectiveness.

    I'm not sure that I would consider principles that changed arbitrarily without some notion of truth behind them to be real principles.

  5. Mr Hamann, what a pleasure it is to find your thoughts and find that you and I share a philosophy of principle. Seeing the dates of the post, I am late to your party, but as with any good writing, the timelessness of the words maintains. I've been on the hunt for a clear, or as clear as possible, distinction between ideology and principle and you've given me a good base from which to plumb further. May I share your thoughts in some musings of my own?

    Dann Reid

    1. Thanks for your kind words! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

      The beauty of the internet is that you are always free to reference and build on what you find there. I'd be interested to see where you go with the idea.