The Little Principle

It it ethical to be good to your family?

Since the Renaissance, ethics has been a core subject in the humanities, but it has fallen out of the usual core curriculum at liberal arts schools, but Penn State is reviving the tradition. Many faculty at Penn State have taken ethics training via Penn State’s Rock Ethics Institute, which provides a week-long crash course in the basics and helps us integrate ethics into the curriculum.  The aspiration is that all faculty will be trained and all courses will have an ethics component. I think it’s a great project.

This means that I have just enough training in formal ethics to think about the topic as a sort of educated layperson or hobbyist. I find ethics to be a great way to think through problems and interrogate our motives, but not necessarily a way to arrive at the “right” answer to a dilemma: different ethical frameworks can yield different conclusions, as can bringing different values to the problem (but when all frameworks point to the same conclusion, you know you’ve got a robust answer). Some ethical reasoning is also about justifying our guts’ impulses formally, codifying, explaining, and refining peoples’ collective moral compass.

One paradox I struggle with is between our deep, instinctual tendency to treat our friends and loved ones better than others, and the bedrock principles of fairness that underlie most ethical frameworks. Put simply: there are things I would do for my family I would not do for a stranger, and things I’d do for a stranger I would not do for an enemy. How does that fit in with ethical analysis?

When thinking about this, I call it “The Little Principle,” and I consider it axiomatic. Here it is:

It is appropriate to treat some people better than others. Specifically, one should prioritize those to whom one has an emotional bond over others.

or, more simply: “Je suis responsable de ma rose.”

The name comes from The Little Prince, the classic children’s(?) book by Antoine Saint-Exupéry. It is a primary theme of the book, and is captured best in the lesson the fox teaches the little prince:

So the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour of his departure drew near—

“Ah,” said the fox, “I shall cry.”

“It is your own fault,” said the little prince. “I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you…”

“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

“But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.

“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

“Then it has done you no good at all!”

“It has done me good,” said the fox, “because of the color of the wheat fields.” And then he added:

“Go and look again at the roses. You will understand now that yours is unique in all the world. Then come back to say goodbye to me, and I will make you a present of a secret.”


The little prince went away, to look again at the roses.

“You are not at all like my rose,” he said. “As yet you are nothing. No one has tamed you, and you have tamed no one. You are like my fox when I first knew him. He was only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But I have made him my friend, and now he is unique in all the world.”

And the roses were very much embarrassed.

“You are beautiful, but you are empty,” he went on. “One could not die for you. To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you—the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose.


And he went back to meet the fox.

“Goodbye,” he said.

“Goodbye,” said the fox. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

“It is the time I have wasted for my rose—” said the little prince, so that he would be sure to remember.

“Men have forgotten this truth,” said the fox. “But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose…”

“I am responsible for my rose,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.

The book is elliptical and has some odd moral dimensions, but with this theme it nails something important on the head, something both profound and trivial: you treat those you care about better than those you have never met.

It’s easy to get carried away with individual ethical principles, to take your morality to extremes. I’ve written before about the great evil that comes from following your ideas to their logical conclusions (and also about the importance of radicalism to positive political change). Clearly, taking The Little Principle to its extreme leads to a sort of puerile selfishness, where all of our actions are centered around helping ourselves and those in our in-group, at whatever expense to others. Depending on whom we identify with, this can lead to great evils like genocide, and is contrary to the egalitarian principles of law and democracy. The Little Principle needs to sit next to another principle that all humans (and, I’d argue, much life) is entitled to a minimum level of moral standing. The Little Principle is not license to treat others badly.

But the other extreme—that we owe nothing special to our friends and loved ones—is fundamentally contrary to who we are as humans. Indeed, we don’t even restrict this instinct to other people, but it extends to our pets, our environment, and even whole classes of beings we’ve never met (“Save the Whales!”). The Little Principle states that any useful moral framework acknowledges that individuals can prioritize which others they help and care for.

I think one way to thread the needle is to acknowledge that this prioritization is personal, not universal. I treat my children better than yours, but I also expect you to treat yours better than mine. We do have universal moral responsibilities, but we also have relative ones that depend on who we care about. We can build universal legal and moral structures that themselves eschew the Little Principle, while enshrining it at the individual level. We are “a nation of laws, not of men.” A court will impartially defend the rights of any parent to care for their own children.

It’s an interesting and nuanced issue!

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