This post is a continuation of my previous post, EDITORIAL: Thoughts Whether Or Not We Are Virtuous. Both my previous post and this one have been prompted by private conversations I have had in connection to my involvement with the Steve Nichols’ Morning Drive talk radio program last week. To set the table for this post, I had another conversation with the same friend mentioned in my last post. This time, we discussed the notion of ‘principles’ and how it is connected to the greater discussion of how rights, duty, virtue and morality are all connected. Once again, I am going to try to keep my comments as neutral as possible and, where this is not possible, as far removed from the people and examples that prompted this private discussion. I am trying to explain how I see these issues, and why I see them the way I do. I have no desire to single out any one person or persons in the process. That would defeat my point — especially given the discussion at hand.
So, the question came up as to what ‘principles’ are and how they work. For me, they are very much like ‘virtue,’ but they work in a different way. In the case of virtue, we are dealing with a quality inalienable from the individual and related to how a person acts. A person is said to be virtuous if and only if they habitually do their duty of their own free will — not by being forced to do so. Well, ‘principles’ are also inalienable to the individual. They are — at least theoretically — the set of those things an individual believes that make up his moral perspective on the world. In other words, ‘principles’ are supposed to be the set of rules governing right and wrong which govern the way a righteous person lives. If a person has a personal morality, and they habitually live by the standard of their personal morality, they are said to be principled.
However, people often ignore their personal standards of right and wrong, much in the same way they try to push off their responsibilities on to other people. And, just like those people who push off their duties on to others, the people who ignore or compromise their moral principles often believe they still deserve to be called a principled person. Here again, I do not understand how people such as this arrive at this conclusion. If I believe something is wrong but I ignore that belief, or worse, I willingly act in an opposite way, then I am not acting according to my principles. How can I honestly expect people to then think of me as principled? It would be like I were walking around naked, but expecting everyone to tell me how nice my new clothes are.
I suppose this should not surprise me. I do it all the time, and I believe I know better. Why should I expect others — who have never consciously considered such things — to be any better? But I do expect them to know and act better — especially when they are in prominent positions of public trust. One cannot claim to oppose something and then act in such a way that supports, defends or furthers that thing. If I am against world hunger, but I act in a way that prevents aid from getting to a region suffering from famine, I can tell myself I am ‘principled’ all I want. The truth remains: I am not acting in a principled manner in this case. If I make this sort of thing a habit in my life, then I am not and can not be a ‘principled’ person until I change my ways. It is that simple.
If we dig down to the absolute bedrock of this issue, I believe what we’ll find is the issue of moral compromise. Principled people do not make moral compromises. That is why they are said to be principled. Unfortunately, being a morally principled person usually results in great personal cost — especially in a morally compromised world. It can also be difficult to see when we are making moral compromises. If we find ourselves in a position where we know we are being asked to compromise our principles, but it might cost us our job, we could easily convince ourselves that it would be more wrong to put ourselves in a position where we cannot provide for our family. I only wish morality worked that way. Then people like Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, and Dr. King could have made their principled stands without paying any penalties. But that is often how we know we are making a moral stand, living a principled life: the world takes its pound of flesh from us in response to that stand.
Anyway, like I said: I know I am guilty of compromise. But I try harder every day to look for and avoid them. This is actually what Jesus was talking about in the passages about not judging. He does not tell us not to judge. Anyone who keeps reading that passage will see it ends by telling us the point is to learn how to judge correctly, righteously. But this requires us to look inward first, so we can see ourselves and the way we live our own lives as we truly are — not as we think we are. This is supposed to teach us to be sympathetic and charitable toward others, so that, when we judge their actions, we can put ourselves in their shoes. Now, that does not mean we excuse wrong. Too many among us have made that conclusion and it is wrong. It leads directly to the slippery slope of ruin. But it does mean we should be much more reserved about what we correct in others, and much more gentle in how we do it. At least, that is how I have come to see this whole issue of rights, morality, duty, virtue and principles.