In Greek, the prefix "a" means "not" and the word "tomos" means cut. Our word atom therefore comes from atomos, a Greek word meaning uncuttable.
the problem with discourse is that we tend to load up our ideas with detail. This results in people who might actually share the same underlying principles to disagree vociferously on an issue because they perceive the other side to be opposed to the common aim. A good example is the "not anti-war but on the other side" trope that gets bandied about against lefties on the topic of Iraq.
the way it should work instead is that we articulate the basic - "atomic" - principles, and then evaluate policy against them. That evaluation can take many forms, though I personally ascribe to the methodology that demands that the means by which the desired end is achieved match in full the principles and values that defined said end. In other words, as I have argued before, the ends do not justify the means - and the means actually influence the ends. But absolutism on principle is also detrimental to success; perfection is the enemy of the good.
The process of defining principle first, defining end goals in accordance with those principles, and then devising means that both stay within the boundaries of those means AND (critically) actually achieve the desired end, is what I call "principled pragmatism". Part of the pragmatism comes from acknowledging that there is tension in the criteria for means, between principle and success; finding the right policy therefore requires human judgment, and intelligence, and knowledge. Only thus can the degree to which the two criteria are compromised be minimized. And compromised they inevitably are to some extent.
The above might be more succinctly summarized as,
principled pragmatism (PP): (a) the means influence the ends, but (b) perfection is the enemy of the good.
Here is where the need for atomic principles comes in. Principles that are too detailed ("Bush is Hitler"; "abortion is murder"; "The US is a rogue state"; "liberals are objectively pro-terrorist"; "not anti-war, but on the other side", etc) result in making it impossible to articulate effective policy. In other words, overly specific (and dogmatic) principles violate PP(b). Further, policy derived from such principles ultimately end up violating PP(a). For the requisite degrees of freedom needed to navigate the space of policy and principle without violating PP, we must have principles that are broader in scope, leaving human judgement and reason in control at the implementation level rather than blind obedience to dogma.
Of course, principle can't be so broad as to be devoid of meaning. "evil is bad" comes to mind. There needs to be a targeting of the idea towards a specific issue. This is far easier said than done, but the guiding light here can again be the "atomic" characteristic. Atomic principles literally must serve as building blocks, which can be rapidly assembled into more complex structures.
On Plato's theory of atomism:
Plato's Timaeus ... elaborates an account of the world wherein the four different basic kinds of matter—earth, air, fire, and water — are regular solids composed from plane figures: isoceles and scalene right-angled triangles.
What atomic principles might we articulate, then? Remember, these are principles, not axioms; disagreement is inevitable, and even beneficial! In the context of recent events, here are some I start with:
- Direct military intervention, including ground troops, are a moral obligation upon nations with the capability thereof, with regards to ongoing genocide and massacres.
- "With great power comes great responsibility" applies to nations as well as men; lack of direct self-interest in either case is not sufficient to excuse inaction.
- Lasting regime change for the purposes of liberalization/democratization can not succeed if driven primarily by foreign military intervention.
- Democracy is an end-product of liberalization, not an initial condition.
Upon these principles, rest pretty much my entire opposition to the specific implementation of the Iraq War by the present Administration, my support for almost all the Democratic presidential candidates over any GOP counterpart, and my increasingly weakening stance on maintaining a sizable troop contingent in Iraq for any length of time (though on the latter point, I still am against "withdrawal" as preferentially defined by the mainstream left). But disagreement on these issues of policy is far less fruitful than disagreement on the atomic principles above.
Incidentally, this essay more rightly belonged at Nation-Building blog, but Google robots have declared it to be a spamblog and thus it has been suspended pending review. I don't know how long that will take or even whether it will turn out in my favor but I do hope that 4 years of blogging there aren't consigned to /dev/null. My fate is in Google's hands. This was the final straw; I will be moving City of Brass off Blogger and cease using blogger entirely in the near future.
Related essay: the means influence the ends at City of Brass