The Corner

The Eclipse of Principle by Emotion

My biweekly First Things column uses Senator Portman’s change of heart (literally) about same-sex marriage as the launching point to discuss the priority of emotionalism over principle that I think is badly damaging our society. (The article is not about same-sex marriage.) From the piece:

When Portman’s principles came into conflict with profound personal interests, he decided to change his principles. Who among us have not, at least occasionally, molded our principles to fit the parameters of what we want or allowed them to become elastic to keep from hurting the feelings of others for whom we deeply care? And to be fair, periodically measuring our principles against our life’s experiences is necessary to ensure that our moralities aren’t actually masked legalisms devoid of empathy and mercy.

But surely, living a principled life has to go deeper than “how I feel,” or “what’s in it for me.” If we all “tailor our consciences to fit this year’s fashions,” as playwright Lillian Hellman once put it, our lives will become like flotsam and jetsam driven by the winds of emotion and currents of expediency.

Ironically, those we admire most are leaders and everyday people who stayed true to their principles even at great personal cost. But being admired isn’t the point:

Doing the right and principled thing, rather than taking the emotionally expedient course, is what really matters. For as Lau Tzu wrote: “Expediency is the mere shadow of right and truth; it is the beginning of disorder.”

Look around. Isn’t that precisely what we see?


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