Why Should One Act on Principle?

by Leonard Peikoff
From Why Businessmen Need Philosophy
Why Businessmen Need Philosophy: The Capitalist’s Guide to the Ideas Behind Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”
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This lecture was delivered at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum on April 24, 1988, then published in the February 27, 1989, issue of The Intellectual Activist and later anthologized in Why Businessmen Need Philosophy: The Capitalist’s Guide to the Ideas Behind Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” (2011).

There is no bromide more common today than the statement that we live in a “complex” world. Whatever the subject of discussion, this claim is routinely offered at the outset as a kind of magic incantation and all-purpose depressant. Its effect is not to inspire people to think, but to induce a sense of helplessness, weariness, hopelessness. It is used not to solve problems, but to assure people that there are no solutions.

The past, our cultural spokesmen often suggest, was different; once upon a time we could find answers to our questions and know what to do, but no longer. Life is just too complicated now for — here is the dread word — “simple” answers. The word “simple” itself has become the basis of a whole new condemnation, contained in the modern term “simplistic.” When I argue with people, I hear all kinds of attacks from them thanks to my Objectivist views — I am selfish, impractical, too idealistic, atheistic — but the commonest attack by far is: you are being “simplistic.”

“Simplistic” is not the same as “oversimplified.” If you accuse someone of “oversimplifying,” you imply that it is all right to simplify, but that one must do it rationally, not leaving out important factors. The modern charge “simplistic” conveys the notion that it is not merely an issue of some omitted factor; it implies that the simple, the simple as such, is naive, unrealistic, bad. The term is an anti-concept intended to smuggle into our minds this idea: you have simplified something and by that very fact you have erred, distorted, done wrong. This amounts to legislating simplicity out of existence. I call this attitude “complexity-worship” — and it is everywhere today.

How should we deal with all the “complex” situations we encounter, according to the conventional wisdom? The answer implicit in today’s practice is: by disintegration. That is: break up the initial problem into many parts, then throw most out as too complicated to consider now, then throw some more out. Keep eliminating aspects until finally you get a narrow concrete left on the table to argue about.

Suppose, for example, that some American businessmen are upset about Japanese sales in the U.S., which they feel are cutting into their own sales, and they go to the government for relief. Of course, if they came to me, I would say: you must decide whether you advocate the principle of free trade or the principle of protectionism. Then I would offer a proof of the evils of protectionism, showing why it will harm everyone in the long run, American businessmen included, and why the principle of free trade will ultimately benefit everyone. That would be the end of the dilemma, and the people demanding tariffs would be sent home packing.

But this kind of analysis would be ruled out today by any congressional committee or academic commission studying economic problems. We cannot be “simplistic,” they would say; we cannot talk in generalities like “free trade” or “protectionism.” How, they would ask, can we possibly make sweeping statements on this level, which involve every country, every product, every group of consumers and producers, every era of history? Life is just too complex for that. What then do we do in the face of such complexity? Basically, they answer, we have to narrow our focus profoundly. We must not talk about free trade in general, but free trade with Japan — and not Japanese industry as a whole, of course, but only Japanese cars; we’ll have to leave computers and TV sets for another committee to wrestle with. And we’ll have to leave trucks out, since that introduces too many tricky factors; automobiles are enough to worry about — but maybe we should include small pickup trucks, because they’re pretty close to cars; let’s farm that one out to a subcommittee to study separately — and of course we’re not talking about forever here or even ten years. We’ll confine ourselves to a year, say, or even just this season, and we’ll renegotiate the issue the next go-round. In the end, the question being debated is not: should we adopt a policy of free trade with foreign countries? but rather: should we place a 30 percent import duty on certain kinds of Toyotas and Datsuns for the next six months?

Now, we are told, the question is not “simplistic.” Unfortunately, now it is also not rationally answerable. How is one to decide what to do in this case, once one has thrown out the appeal to principles as naive? The answer is: you hold hearings, and all the lobbyists involved scream, bribe or make threats, and everybody offers contradictory compromises. The Toyota people say that 30 percent is unfair, but if we cut it to 20 percent they will try “voluntarily” to sell less in the U.S. The Chrysler people insist that this is not good enough, but maybe they can pay their workers more if Toyota is really squelched — so the labor unions jump in and demand a crackdown on Toyota, while the consumer groups are busy demanding more of the cheaper Japanese cars. What finally comes out of it all? Some range-of-the-moment deal — a “moderate” squeeze on the Japanese answered by a new Japanese retaliation against us, a new government subsidy to Detroit, a new agency to help consumers finance auto loans, a bigger budget deficit and another committee to review the whole situation next month or year. After all, we are told, no policy is set in stone. There are no absolutes. We have to be “flexible” and “experimental.”

Philosophically, this is called pragmatism. In this approach, there are no principles, like “free trade” or “protectionism”; there are only concretes, like Toyotas or Chryslers, and groups of people who fight over them with opposite desires. So the only solution is to find some temporary expedient that will appease the loudest screamers for the moment — and then take a drink until the whole mess erupts again.

It is no wonder that people who employ this method believe that life is complex and that there are no answers to any problems. Yet the paradox is that they use this method because, they insist, life is too complex for us to rely on principles.

Some philosophical thought is clearly in order here. Is life complex? If so, does man have a rational (as against a pragmatic) means of dealing with its complexity? If so, do our leaders fail as badly as they do because they are rejecting man’s proper means of dealing with complexity? My answer to all these questions is a resounding yes. My thesis this evening is: life is complicated, enormously so; but man has a conceptual faculty, a faculty of forming principles, which is specifically his weapon for coping with complexity. Yet our leaders, thanks to centuries of bad philosophy, distrust and reject this faculty, and are therefore helpless to lead or to know what to do.    


Let us begin by defining “complex.” “Complex” is a quantitative idea; the “complex” is that which involves many elements or units, all tied together or interrelated. The “simple,” by contrast is that which involves one, or at most a few, units. For example: if the officials of the Ford Hall Forum want to attract a large audience, they have to grapple with many different issues: whom should they invite? does he have to be famous? what should he speak about? will he agree to come? can he condense his talk into 50 minutes? how will he fit into the rest of the year’s program? This is a relatively complex problem. By contrast, if the audience is here on the night of the talk, clamoring at the doors, and someone inside asks: what do we do now? — that is a simple problem, the solution being to open the doors and let the people in. Here we have no complexity; there is only one element to deal with.

Now the first thing to note is that human life is inherently complex. Contrary to all the propaganda we hear, this is not a distinctively modern problem. It is not a result of the Industrial Revolution, the growth of population or the fact of worldwide communication. All these developments have brought certain new factors into our lives, but they have also removed problems. They have given each of us in many contexts fewer units to think about and have thus made life simpler. Consider, for example, the utter simplicity of feeding yourself today via a trip to the supermarket to buy some frozen food, as against the situation in medieval days. Think how many different questions and separate tasks would have been involved in that era for you merely to reach the point of having a dinner on the table fit to eat.

Man’s life is complex in every era, industrial or not. He always has countless choices to make, he has the whole world spread before him, he must continually make decisions and weigh results keeping in mind a multiplicity of factors. Even in the most primitive times, the caveman had to decide what to hunt, what risks to take, what weapons to use, how to make them, how to protect his kill, how to store, preserve, apportion it. And he had to do all this long before there was any science, long before there were any rulebooks to guide him in all these activities. In his context of knowledge, stalking his prey was an enormous complexity, no easier for him than our hardest problems in our advanced context are for us to solve.

‘‘Simplicity,” in the absolute sense, is the prerogative only of animals. Animals function automatically to sustain themselves; they are programmed to act in certain ways without the need to work, produce wealth, choose among alternatives, weigh results. They merely react to some dominant sensation in a given situation; a dog, for instance, smells his bone and runs to get it. What could be simpler? But man cannot survive by reacting mindlessly to sensations.

No human being can escape the problem of dealing with complexity and somehow making it simple and therefore manageable. This applies to the modern pragmatists, too, who make such a fetish of complexity. But they try to solve the problem by reverting to the animal level — by narrowing their focus to some isolated concrete, like the dog reacting to the smell of a bone, while evading all the other concretes to which it is connected in reality. They solve the problem of complexity by throwing out vast amounts of relevant information, thereby reducing themselves to helplessness.


The proper, human method is the exact opposite. We need to retain all the data we can — the more facts we can keep in mind in making any decision, the better off we are — but we need to retain all these facts in a form we can deal with. We can’t be expected to read or rattle off to ourselves, before every action, a whole encyclopedia of past human experiences, or even a single volume of tips, rules and practical suggestions. Somehow we must gather and retain a wealth of information, but in a condensed form. This is exactly what is accomplished by the distinctively human faculty, the conceptual faculty — another name for which is reason.

About the Author
Leonard Peikoff
Leonard Peikoff
Leonard Peikoff, author of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, is the foremost authority on Rand’s philosophy. Learn more at his website.