People over Principles

Originally published at The Jedi Path.

A Jedi of quality lives a principled life. They have a strong moral center which guides their interactions with the world, and the beings within it. But morality never happens in a vacuum. It takes place in a real environment and context of those actions. I would suggest a moral code that is specific in nature, but very general in application is superior to one that is general in nature and specific in application.

Moral principles in order to work in the real world rarely are absolute principles. I will concede that there are a few moral absolutes, but they are much fewer than some people would like to believe. That is, there are actions that any context or environment will always result in unnecessary suffering. But I would caution all Jedi about the tendency to think in absolutist terms. When I teach, I often pose the question, “who is the most dangerous Jedi?” It is often answered a variety of ways. But in my opinion, the correct answer to this question is, “the Jedi who is absolutely convinced they are right.”

Sometimes a person or an organization can be so dedicated to principle, that while on the surface it is a good thing, that they put the devotion to that principle over the real impact on people. In holding a principle to even its most extreme applications, what in most situations is good and upright can become toxic and harmful. Bad actors can use one’s principles against us so that while we hold to an ideal, a less than ideal outcome is the result. When an idea is more important than how the idea is applied, you have lost the way.

All or nothing or black and white thinking is a cognitive distortion. It is my experience that when one is presented with a dichotomy, more likely than not it is a false one. Situations, people, organizations, and actions are rarely purely good or purely bad. The reality of the situation is more nuanced, where elements of goodness or badness, rightness or wrongness can coexist. In the Star Wars saga, there are clear good guys and clear bad guys. It says in the opening crawl of A New Hope that the Galactic Empire is evil. In Rogue One, these lines are blurred. And while still fiction it is clear who are the (albeit flawed) heroes and who are the villains of the piece. In the real world, things are a little messier. The line between good and evil is blurred. Things are not good or evil in totality, but rather we make these judgments in the aggregate. Again, we must take into account the context and environment actions take place in in order to make a clear assessment of an action’s morality. One can take an action that while not purely good, is still the right thing to do. Often we will be presented with difficult choices, where no option seems right, but we still have to choose.

The key to overcoming all or nothing thinking is taking a practice of reflection over reaction. A daily meditative practice is ideal to take some time to reflect and examine our own thought processes, biases, and conclusions. Remember what I said about the most dangerous Jedi? During our reflection, it is important to cultivate that idea that we may indeed be mistaken, that we might be wrong. Through reflection, we seek to have clarity of thought not encumbered by strong emotion, or deeply held biases. It is important that we not believe a thing because it is appealing, but rather because it is true and stands up to intellectual rigor.

It is with clarity of thought that we see the failings of what might even be guiding principles. Principles and codes that serve us well in most, if not nearly every situation, can break down when we hold to a principle so tightly, we neglect the actual impact it has on the people around us. It is possible to hold on to a good principle so tightly that the application of that principle actually becomes harmful. We can lose the way when we lose sight of the real consequences for philosophical ideals when applied in the real world. This is why even in the application of principles, we must not become rigid, and we must always apply them in a compassionate manner. A principle means nothing if it is not also applied with compassion. We must not focus so tightly on our principles that we lose sight of the effect on real people. It is possible to live a principled and moral life and hold to those principles even when it is difficult, but a principle, like anything in life, is not an all-or-nothing situation. Hold to compassion, hold to the Force, and you will rarely lose your way.

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