Well, I’m not a great American thinker.
This year anyway.
The finalists for the Great American Think-off next month in New York Mills, Minn., have been announced and I’m not among them. Congratulations to those finalists, who will debate the following question on June 8:
Which is more ethical: sticking to your principles
or being willing to compromise?
I entered the competition with the following essay. Since I’m not a finalist, I’m making the most of my well intended effort by sharing it here and encouraging debate. Here’s to deep thinking on a Friday in May when snow is falling on my home state.
* * *
At 23, with a freshly pressed bachelor’s degree in hand, I was what society would consider well educated. After two marriage courses, I was what both a Lutheran pastor and a Catholic priest would consider prepared. After two and half years of dating the groom, I was informed. In a beautiful ceremony in front of 150 people, I promised, “For better and for worse. Until death do us part.”
And yet, 16 years later, the words coming out of my mouth were “I want a divorce.”
I could not stand by my publicly stated and privately held principle that marriage was forever. I compromised.
Now remarried (yes, I promised my commitment and fidelity until death do us part at a second, equally beautiful ceremony), I am most definitely happier. But compromise on this life principle does not make me more ethical.
It is always more ethical to stick to one’s principles. The very definition of compromise betrays its noble intent: A compromise is a settlement to a dispute in which both sides make concessions. If a principle is a fundamental truth and if ethics require upholding a fundamental truth, then yielding a point cannot be ethical.
Let’s consider my first marriage.
In principle, I married for better or for worse until death. In practice, though we promised our fidelity, we cheated. We compromised by remaining wedded only until multiple affairs rendered our emotional bond irredeemable.
Was this an ethical decision? No. It was a convenient decision, an act which permitted new pursuits of happiness. Was it the right decision? Yes. It was the right decision for me.
Note the important addition of the clause “for me.” Let’s consider how a personal principle should be applied to the community in which one lives.
Among tenets in my personal mission statement is the obligation that I seek to treat my body as a holy gift from God. I nourish it, rest sufficiently and eschew bad habits. Among other behaviors, this principle requires that I don’t drink soda pop. Pop is filled with sugar and chemicals that offer no nourishment and in fact may contribute to obesity. I, therefore, would have had no issue with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to limit the size of sugary drinks sold to no more than 16 ounces.
The proposal, recently struck down by the New York Supreme Court, is itself a compromise on a principle. Paragraphs of principled language relate details of the obesity epidemic, how sugary drinks are driving this epidemic and how oversize portions contribute to ever greater consumption of sugary drinks, yet the proposed health code did not outlaw said beverages, it only limited portion sizes.
When I choose to indulge in a sugary drink whatever the size, I am not making an ethical decision. I am compromising for convenience. Though I believe it is fundamentally wrong to manufacture, market and consume sugary beverages, my principle does not necessarily require me to slap Big Gulps out of the hands of every thirsty shopper in my neighborhood 7-Eleven. It requires me to limit my own consumption.
To compromise on my personal principle by allowing others to choose to drink pop is not compromise. It is required in order to coexist because not everyone holds the same principles.
Are there any principles so fundamental that all people can agree to them without compromise?
Consider “Thou shalt not kill,” a universally accepted tenet of ethical behavior.
Unless the victim is a blob of cells unable to exist outside of a woman’s womb.
Or the victim intended to kill first.
Or the victim is a cold-blooded killer on death row.
Or the victim is the diabolical head of an evil organization bent on the annihilation of all for which the United States of America stands.
Is legal abortion or lethal force used in defense of self or the death penalty or the killing of Osama Bin Laden ethical? No. They are acts that compromise a central tenet accepted by most fair-minded people. But these compromises in principle are necessary to ensure the safety of the populace.
Would I personally have an abortion, shoot back, earn my salary as an executioner or volunteer as a Navy Seal on a secret mission in Pakistan? Unlikely. These activities violate my ethical principles. But I concede their necessity.
Compromise may be convenient. It may be expedient. It may even be necessary in order to coexist or even to survive. But to compromise is never more ethical.