What are Principles and Why Are they Important? – How to Understand Practical and Moral Principles

Principles are, in a broad sense, simply rule-sets which we follow. Below we will discuss the importance of different types of principles.[1]

Although they are often discussed in teaching, morality, economics, politics, or science. We won’t be limiting ourselves to one field. Instead, we will discuss principles as broadly as possible.

This is a practical, moral field guide that covers the theory of principles in Natural Philosophy which contains physics (here understood as all physical things, not Newton’s physics) and logic (pure reason like the pure practical reason of mathematics and theoretical physics), and Moral Philosophy contains ethics (like a lawyer’s rule-set) and metaphysics (the potentially unprovable pure morals behind the lawyer’s rules; pure philosophy).

From this perspective:

Principles are the fundamental underlying truths and beliefs that form the foundation of our knowledge and values and guide our action. Everything can be reduced to a set of principles or rules or official and unofficial laws or guidelines.[2]

Principles are rulesets, guidelines, or theories that include everything from Newton’s laws of physics to the basic rules one can construct based on the classical virtues. They include axioms, maxims, morals, concepts, laws, official policies, the ideals policies are based on, the ideals groups share, and even to the underlying physical principles of the universe.

For some purposes we may define principles more specifically, but for metaphysical and practical purposes, we don’t want to get overly concerned with the semantics of things like “the difference between values and principles.” That is another sort of subject within this realm of “the personal and shared codes that inform actions” we are discussing.

When we use the term principles broadly, we only mean to imply tangible blips people can check their actions against before they act. With this in mind, I think “official and unofficial rule-sets” is a good semantic placeholder.

Ideally, one’s core beliefs are based on well justified philosophical theories and moral principles. This saves much flailing around in the dark. Acting without principles is as random as trying to do mathematics without any formal training. However, principles themselves don’t denote correctness and that should be noted.

Think of it this way, if we consider there to be four spheres of human understanding noted above: physical (empirical), logical (reason), ethical (morals in-action), and metaphysical (pure metaphysic morals) then principles are the underlying rule-sets of each type, official or not, implicit or explicit.

Once a person has confirmed a good set of principles with the help of accumulated knowledge, and a good order for those principles they will have the equivalent of a masters’ guide to life. Given our resources, we can stand on the shoulders’ of giants with the winds of history at our back. We should have a series of first principles to check a series of second principles against and then a third. In doing this, we can unveil answers to questions that would be obscured to a less principled explorer.

Here principle speaks to willpower and critical thinking, as a certain amount of willpower and thought is needed to adhere strictly to one’s principles. A good set of principles should be positive and easy to follow as it is a joy to “life well.” Even less-than-ideal principles and values offer a direction and a rule-set as guidance. Thus, willpower and structure combines with common ideals to strive toward and band together around as collectives.

Combining principles, reason, and willpower can give you masterful insight into both new and old subjects and moral as well as practical ones. Ideally, we can weed out weakly justified pseudo-philosophy, but there is no accounting for tastes so we have a conversation about judgment calls and justice.

Focusing at this point on well-justified principles:

Key first principles include Locke’s non-aggression principle, Smith’s economic and moral principlesMill’s Utilitarian principle, and Einstein’s relativity principles, but the concepts of principles needn’t be heavy or restricted to academia.

A practical first principle may be something as simple as “don’t drink and drive,” with a second principle being, “having just one drink and waiting an hour doesn’t count as drinking and driving.”

In other words, principles are just rule sets based on morals, ethics, science, and common sense.

For another example, the moral principles of “being fair” and “seeking happiness for one’s self and others” are some of the guiding first principles of moral philosophy and utilitarianism. By adhering to this ruleset, and checking all else against it, we help ensure correctness in our actions.

One who adheres to moral principles in their means and ends is respected and consistent; one who acts and lives without moral principles is typically seen as immoral or amoral and is generally “less respectable.” Although everyone loves an anti-hero, even they tend to be principled.

For another example, the scientific principles of “seeking better theories” and “applying skepticism to data” (first principles of science as found in the scientific method) will often lead to better science than one who doesn’t adhere to these principles. One can’t bake cakes and do chemistry without using precise measures and rule-sets!

Likewise, an engineer who applies F=ma when building a bridge will almost always create a better bridge than one who casts aside measurements and equations and builds based on whims.

Principles are important because they are the foundation of everything admirable about human beings. How can we relate to someone who changes their principles on a whim?

Ethical conservatives stick to the ideals of conservatism as a first principle. They aren’t hard and unchanging; they aren’t unwilling to reach across the aisle; they check everything against a set of Republican principles.

The same is true for a liberal. The liberal alway seeks to balance the principles of Liberalism.

So then, should no middle ground ever be found between the ideologies? No. Just the opposite.Balance is found when principles are checked against each other. What is corrupting in government is not principles; it is a lack of principles.

The First Principles Method Explained by Elon Musk. Musk explains how to combine reason and principles (how to reason by principles). There is a reason he is successful. He isn’t going to abandon the principles of physics when building rockets. SpaceX comes to mind.

TIP: See a list of fundamental dualities in the universe. See a list of virtues and vices. These both speak to the underlying building blocks from which foundational principles are established. Electricity and magnetism exist and E=MC^2 arises. Thus we can say, at its core, balance is a fundamental aspect of nature.

Milton Friedman Puts A Young Michael Moore In His Place. What is it that Friedman does to win the argument against a young Micheal Moore? He takes a loaded question and reduces it to its underlying principle. He removes the rhetoric and forces a focused discussion on the fundamentals. That shuts down the debate, but it didn’t have to. When you have a debate between principled masters of a subject, you have a good debate. Truth and principles are closely related concepts.

TIP: Plato thought the best systems of government were ones that embraced aristocracy. Why? Because they were principled and that allowed for the order needed to maintain a balance of virtues.


  1. Principle
  2. What is a principle? How are principles important to your life?

"The Importance of Principles" is tagged with: Metaphysics, Morality, Self Help, Theories, Truth

What do you think?