Inside Out

Principles and Values

I am struggling to define and contrast principles and values for a while now. They are important aspects of what defines me as a unit of identity and my interactions with other units and the world in general. This post is an attempt to write down some of the thoughts in the hope for clarity.

Many faces of Principles

Principles are fundamental statements of truth regarding an entity, its structure or its operations1. They are objective, axiomatic and universally applicable.

Principles help us reason over an observation. E.g. laws of gravity. They’re used to define the key working characteristics of an entity. E.g. working principles of a transformer is based on electromagnetic induction. Finally, principles can serve as operating guidelines to ensure entities match a desired specification. Such guidelines are usually a set of do and don’ts. E.g. single responsibility principle (SRP) in software design.

A principle can be stated as a consequence. E.g. a particle in motion stays in motion. We can state them as a rule. E.g. every class in a computer program should have one and only one reason to change. Every principle must be fundamental. Reducing the stated principle further should change the instruction or the consequence.

Values

Values are core personal beliefs about what is important. They are subjective and a function of an individual’s world view. Value is assigned as a property of an entity2. E.g. economic value is a property of gold. In this case there may be a shared notion on the value of gold. But it is possible that a value is intangible and decided by individuals based on their disposition. For instance, ethical values, our primary focus.

Values help prioritize and choose the right action. The choice is simply an act of maximizing as much value as possible. Values change over time because the underlying beliefs can change with experience. E.g. Alice used to value moving fast over higher quality until she broke production multiple times. Values are not the same as desired end goals. E.g. wealth, fame, happiness and so on. Values determine our approach to a desired outcome.

Values may be used as an indicator of what to expect from an individual or an organization. An incongruence in the actions and value system of an individuals is undesirable. We may call such an individual unethical or hypocrite.

A value can stated as a trait. E.g. integrity, growth mindset, trust etc. They apply to an individual or a collective. The shared values of a collective and the individuals must have significant overlap for the actions to be consistent.

Comparison

Values are personal where as principles are objective. Values change over time where as principles stick around. Values are traits and principles are rules or consequences.

However, both of them help reason over behaviors of an individual.

Better together

Brian Cantrill’s talk3 and Oxide Computer’s Principles4 proposes to use both Values and Principles together as a framework for decisions and actions. Principles are defined as constraints. They are binding and carry a consequence for an action that violates them. Values on the other hand are objectives or aspirations. They’re debatable and often create tension with each other.

An organization should internalize both Principles and Values. Using them to hold a high bar for our behavior also makes sense to me. But can we personalize principles? What does my principles mean? My principles are the set of constraints within which “I as a unit” will operate in my interactions with the world. E.g. similar to how single responsibility principle outlines the characteristics of a component in a larger system.

While principles act as constraints and decide the territory. Values are a set of traits to cultivate and act as a map. Note how a map is a representation of the truth. So if we choose the territory incorrectly, map doesn’t matter. This mental model of constraints (restraints) and aspirations (positive actions) is also seen in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, an ancient treatise on the philosophy of Yoga. It describes the rules for right conduct in two parts. Yama, the first step of Yoga enumerates the principles of control and Niyama, the second step, outlines the positive duties.

So to reason over my behavior look at my principles (timeless, non negotiable, constraints) and my values (aspirational personal beliefs, subject to change).

Principle enables Values

Ray Dalio connects Principles with Values in his famous “Principles” paper5:

  1. What are principles?

Your values are what you consider important, literally what you “value.” Principles are what allow you to live a life consistent with those values. Principles connect your values to your actions; they are beacons that guide your actions, and help you successfully deal with the laws of reality. It is to your principles that you turn when you face hard choices.

This note uses Principles in the working principles sense. Values determine the ideas that an individual deeply cares about. Principles define his internal constitution to ensure that his actions live up to the values he enshrines. This is exactly how a transformer uses electromagnetic induction (the Principle) to step the voltage up or down (the Value).

A key aspect of working principles is that they ensure consistency by tuning the actions. They’re an effective compass to choose the right actions. An individual’s principles similarly keeps them afloat while they try to cross the ambiguous realities in the world. They’re the saviour in difficult times.

It is also interesting to note a similar mental model in Mahabharat. In a discussion between Yaksha and the king Yudhisthira, we learn that righteousness (Dharma) protected, protects the individual6.

So to reason over my behavior know my values (things I deeply care about) and my principles (that decide how I act to be consistent with values).

Value is a Principle

A value is a trait. If we describe the trait and its consequence at a fundamental level, we arrive at a principle. E.g. we can write curiosity as cultivate a strong desire to reflect, experiment and learn from every experience. This play of words was the root cause of my confusions.

The trick is to ask why. Why do we term this as a principle? Does it set a constraint or a working principle? What does it explain? Is it universal? What are the consequences of not doing it? Let’s also question the other way around. What is it that makes a statement personal? Why should we call it value? Why is it not generic enough to be a principle?

For example, I decided to keep craftsmanship as a value because I believe the definition is debatable (not universal). However this is a crucial element of my practice. I use it to decide priority of tasks and choose operational principles for my creations. On the other hand, seek wisdom is a principle. It is universal and objective. It forces me to be rational, look beyond the effects and enquire into the causes.

Conclusion

Both principles and values act as a compass for ourselves. They help us choose the right course of action in ambiguous situations. Principles are fundamental and universal. We should try to discover working principles of entities we care about and establish operational principles for our creations. This generates enough clarity to push us through abrupt realities.

I loved the expression of principles as a set of constraints and values as a set of positive duties. The act of distinguishing a value from a principle requires rigorous discrimination and reflection.

The initial set of values are handed over to us from the collective we’re part of. It could be the cultural heritage of a society, or the value system of a religion. As we experience the world, we must observe, reflect and strive to discover the principles at work.

Thank you for reading this far.


  1. See the superclass tree at https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Q211364

  2. Value is an instance of Type of Property. Type of Property is a metaclass of Property. Thus Value is a subclass of Property.

  3. Principles of Technology Leadership, Bryan Cantrill, 2017. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QMGAtxUlAc

  4. Principles are fundamental, universal truths that transcend time, geography, culture and context. These principles are not aspirations, they are constraints;

    Unlike principles, values indicate relative importance: they are objectives rather than constraints, and can come into tension with one another.… To ensure these values are explicitly considered and internalized, we take an unusual step: we ask Oxide employees to commit these values to memory.

    See https://oxide.computer/principles

  5. Page 7, Online version of Principles by Ray Dalio, 2011.

  6. धर्म एव हतो हन्ति धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः ⁠।
    तस्माद् धर्मं न त्यजामि मा नो धर्मो हतोऽवधीत् ⁠।।⁠

    Dharma eva hatah hanti dharma rakshati rakshitah,
    Tasmat dharmah na tyajami ma nah dharmah hatah avadhit.

    Dharma destroyed destroys. Dharma protected, protects. Therefore, I shall not abandon Dharma. Let not Dharma destroy us.

    Verse 128, Aranya Parva, Vana Parva (Book 3), Mahabharat.


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