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What makes for a Principled Person?

Did Ted Cruz Say the ‘Right’ Thing at the Republican Convention?

What makes for a principled person? McNabb points out that usually, when someone is called a ‘person of principle’ it means a person who faithfully follows their principles or set of principles rather than abandoning them when convenient. If faced with a seemingly difficult decision in life, that person will refer to his or her guiding set of principles and then merely deduce the correct action from it. If on rare occasions such principled people do not behave according to their principles, they would consider such actions to be moral mistakes on their part.

I thought about Ted Cruz’s speech last Wednesday in the context of a principled action and wondered whether it is as simple as we might conclude -- that he did act in a principled manner. It seems so from what McNabb has said. However, actions have consequences for others and deciding what to do or say in a particular situation based on one’s principles ignores the larger question of whether one’s principles need to be tempered by obligations to others.

Did Cruz act in a principled manner? After all, he labels himself as a ‘principled conservative’. Or, did he promote his self-interest without regard to the implications of his actions and words on the delegates and the Republican Party?

I have no doubt Cruz acted on what he believed to be the right thing to do. He was standing up for his values and purposefully avoided supporting Trump who had insulted his wife and father. Should he have honored a pledge made months prior to the convention and endorsed a man he loathes?

Looking at it from an ethical perspective, an act utilitarian might argue that the benefits to the delegates and Republican Party of Cruz endorsing Trump outweighed the “cost” to Cruz of violating his principles. However, a rule utilitarian would respond that while utilitarian benefits should be considered, one’s actions should never violate certain rules that apply to the situation. For Cruz that may have been to be honest and open with the audience.

An approach based on Rights Theory might lead to a different conclusion. Rights Theory holds: “Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will to become a universal law”. The universality perspective of Rights Theory provides that one should act in a way he or she would want others to act in a similar situation for similar reasons. Thus, the action has universal appeal to those affected by the decision in a particular situation with a similar set of facts. If Cruz could say, for example, that John Kasich should have done the same thing and Marco Rubio as well (Trump’s main competitors), then he would eschew satisfying the delegates because he acted on the universal principle not to support someone you don’t respect.

My problem with Cruz’s speech is it was all about his views and what he thought was the right thing to do. In making the case for the delegates to vote based on their conscience, Cruz was telling them what their conscience should be on a variety of political and religious issues. If he had, instead, discussed it from a dispassionate, moral point of view then I would have found it to be a principled speech.

The gratuitous remark by Cruz acknowledging that Trump is the nominee and then telling the delegates to vote their conscience gave out the message that if one’s conscience says not to support Trump, other values such as honoring the decision of the party and loyalty to the party are meaningless.

The bottom line for me is Cruz should have declined to speak once he had decided not to support Trump. Logic dictates that a convention is not for the purpose of one person promoting his views and ignoring what the candidate stands for. Imagine if each speaker had acted in such an egoistic manner.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz on July 26, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at:

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