Leonard E. Read established FEE in 1946 and served as its president until his death in 1983. This article, excerpted from the April 1957 issue of The Freeman, is the third in a monthly series commemorating the 100th anniversary of Mr. Read’s birth.
A certain business leader, perhaps among the most publicized during the last two decades, once severely lectured me on my unswerving and uncompromising behavior. He charged that I saw things only in blacks and whites. He argued that practical life was lived in shades of grays, actually in the shadows of these two extremes. He suggested that I had a nice chance of “going far” in the world, if only I would become more pliable to the thoughts and actions of my fellows. He really wanted me to be more agreeable to his middle-of-the-road political theories.
The compromising attitude is exalted by many and deplored by only a few. Most current discussions are tempered with concepts of compromise and expediency.
Compromise, like many other words, has different meanings for different persons. I want to use the term in the sense of one of the definitions given by Webster: “The result or embodiment of concession or adjustment.” I wish to show that compromise is potentially good when applied in a physical sense and that it has no application whatever in a moral sense.
For example, you and your wife are spending what is hoped will be a happy evening at home. She chooses to watch TV and you elect to explore Toynbee’s Study of History. The scene appears peaceful as you sit side by side near this piece of furniture. But to you the furniture is making a lot of distracting noise.
Here are all the possibilities for turning a cheerful evening into one of disharmony. But compromise can come to your aid. Your wife can decrease the noise of the TV to the point where she can still hear it, and you can move to some remote corner where you can comprehend Toynbee just as well as anywhere else. Harmony can thus be preserved by compromise.
Compromise in this sense is an adjustment of physical situations. It is the process by which conflicts are reduced to the point most satisfactory to all parties concerned. When thought of in this way, compromise is the great harmonizer, the attitude that makes living together—social life—a pleasure.
Indeed, the marketplace of willing exchange where tens of millions of transactions go on daily is one vast area of compromise. Buyers aim at low prices. Sellers aim at high prices. In a free market, unhampered by private thieves and political restrictions, there is an adjustment of these diverse desires. Compromise establishes the price at which the mutual satisfaction of buyer and seller is at its highest level.
It is in the physical realm that most of our daily life is lived. In this realm compromise is good and it is practical. It begets harmony and peace.
How easy it would seem then, finding compromise so useful in such a vast segment of life, to conclude thoughtlessly that it has an equal place, a comparable value, in that phase of life which consciously occupies little of our thoughts: moral life.
Principles Defy Compromise
But this is precisely the point where I believe many of us are the victims of a confusion of terms. What is compromise in physical affairs—that is, in an adjustment of physical positions—is something entirely different when applied to principles and morality.
For example, let us make the reckless assumption that most of us are committed to the biblical injunction, “Thou shalt not steal.” This is based on the moral principle that each person has the right to the fruits of his own labor. The point I wish to make—my major point—is that this as a principle defies compromise. You either take someone else’s property without his consent, or you do not. If you steal just a bit—a penny—you do not compromise the principle; you abandon it. You surrender your principle.
By taking only a little of someone’s property without his consent, as distinguished from taking a lot, you do compromise in the physical sense the amount you steal. But the moral principle, whatever the amount of the theft, is surrendered and utterly abandoned.
If all the rest of mankind is in favor of passing a law that would take the property, honestly acquired, of only one person against his will, even though the purpose be allegedly for the so-called social good, I cannot adjust myself both to the moral injunction, “Thou shalt not steal,” and to the demand of the millions. Principle does not lend itself to bending or to compromising. It stands impregnable. I must either abide by it, or in all fairness, I must on this point regard myself as an inconsistent, unprincipled person rather than a rational, reasonable, logical one.
What Are Moral Principles?
The question immediately arises as to what constitutes principle. Here again is a term with varying meanings to different persons. I must, therefore, define what I mean.
The Ten Commandments are admonitions derived from the religious experience of an ancient people. In terms of their origin, the Commandments are cast in the form of intercepts of the will of God; in terms of their application, they are imperatives admitting of no dilution. They were expressions of principles at least to the ones who received them, and have been adopted as such by countless millions. Their acceptance springs from the studied deductions of the wiser among us, confirmed through centuries of observation and experience.
The correctness of a principle has little to do with the intensity of conviction with which a man holds it. Someone else may hold a contrary principle with like intensity. No man can get nearer to the truth than his own highest apprehension of it. Ultimate insights may differ, and such differences will always be part of the human scene. But there is another type of difference which is more pertinent to the point of this essay: the difference between those who accept unyieldingly a moral principle as their standard, and those who accept a principle watered down by “practical” considerations. John Morley, liberal English statesman and biographer, warned of this danger when he deplored the tendency to forget the principle itself in our preoccupation with the practical difficulties of applying it.
To me, “Thou shalt not steal,” is a principled injunction not alone because some sage of antiquity said so, but largely because my own experience has compelled me to adopt this as a principle of right conduct which must be adhered to if I am not to destroy my own integrity, and if I am to live peacefully with my fellow men.
To those of opposite judgments, who believe that they should gratify their personal charitable instincts not with their own goods, but with goods extorted from others by the police force, who fail to see how thieving damages integrity, and who accept the practice of political plunder as right and honorable—to them, “Thou shalt not steal” must appear wrong in principle.
Sound Judgment Required
Whether a principle is right or wrong cannot in any ultimate or absolute sense be determined by any single one of us human beings. Principles on the level of human perception are what are judged to be the rules of life or nature; what are judged to be universal, eternal verities; what are judged to be fundamental points of reference. But, human judgment is fallible. Therefore, whether a stated principle is held to be right or wrong will depend on the quality of the individual’s judgment. Aristotle claimed that there were a million ways to be wrong; only one way to be right. How easy for fallible beings to decide on a wrong way!
Sound judgment leads toward right principles. No person can rise above his best judgment, and he can rise only as fast as his judgment improves. On what, then, is an improving judgment dependent? My answer is: on revelation—“The disclosing or discovering . . . of what was before unknown. . . .” Other terms for revelation are insight, cognition, inspiration, extrasensory perception. On what does revelation or insight rest? Surely, on conscious effort, education, the kind of people with whom one associates, the topics selected for discussion, what one chooses to read—all of these relate to one’s perception. More fundamental, however, than anything else is intellectual integrity, without which, I am certain, the cognitive stream cannot flow at its best. Goethe expressed the idea thus:
Nature understands no jesting; she is always true, always serious, always severe; she is always right, and the errors and faults are always those of man. The man incapable of appreciating her, she despises; and only to the apt, the pure, and the true, does she resign herself, and reveal her secrets.
Intellectual integrity simply means to reflect in word and in deed, always and accurately that which one believes to be right. Integrity cannot be compromised. It is either practiced or not practiced.
Certainly, there is nothing new about the efficacy of accurately reflecting what one believes to be right. This principle of conduct has been known throughout recorded history. Now and then it has been expressed beautifully and simply. Shakespeare enunciated the principle when he had Polonius say:
This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Edmond Rostand had the same principle in mind when he wrote for Cyrano:
Never to make a line I have not heard in my own heart.
The Bible announces the penalty of surrender—what it means to abandon the truth as one sees it:
The wages of sin is death.
Whether the wages of sin be mere physical death, as when men shoot each other over ideological differences, or profound spiritual death, as in the extinction of integrity, character, and self-respect, one needs to make but casual inquiry to verify the rightness of this biblical pronouncement. Abundant testimony is being provided in our time. Nor is the end in sight.
All the world is filled with examples of surrendered principles: men who know practically nothing about themselves trying to play God, attempting to control and forcibly direct the creative actions of others; the glamour of popularity and shallow earthly fame rather than the concepts of rightness directing the policies of nations; expediency substituting for the dictates of conscience; businessmen employing “experts” to help them seem right, often at the expense of rightness itself; labor leaders justifying any action that gratifies their lust for power; political leaders operating on the premise that the end justifies the means; clergymen preaching expropriation of property without consent in the name of the “common good”; teachers not explaining but advocating coercive collectivism; aspirants to public office building platforms from public opinion polls; farmers, miners, and other plunderbundists uniting with the police force to siphon others’ labor; arrogance replacing humility; in short, surrender of principle appears to be the distinguishing mark of our time.
If we were suddenly to find foreign vandals invading our shores, vandals that would kill our children, rape our women, and pilfer our industry, every last man of us would rise in arms.
Yet, these ideas born of surrendered principles are the most dangerous vandals known to man. Is the Bible right that the wages of sin is death? Observe the growth of domestic violence. Note the extent to which the organized police force—government—promotes and enacts plunder rather than inhibits it. Scan the last forty years of war, hot and cold; wars to end wars, each serving only as a prelude to larger wars. And, today, we worldlings, in angry and hateful moods, stand tense and poised to strike out at each other, not with shillelaghs, pistols, hand grenades and cannons, but with mass exterminators of the germ and atom types, types that only a people of surrendered principles could concoct.
Is Honesty Dangerous?
Perhaps it is timidity that prevents many a man from standing squarely on his own philosophy and uttering nothing less than the highest truth he perceives. He fears the loss of friends or position. Actually, the danger lies in the other direction, in settling for less than one’s best judgment.
Does it take courage to be honest? Does one have to be brave to express the truth as he sees it? Indeed, it is not dangerous to be honest, but rather a mark of intelligence. Being honest and adhering to principle requires intelligence more than courage. Courage without intelligence makes men blusterous and cantankerous with their views; they offend with their honesty. But, the villainy in that case is their cantankerousness, not their integrity.
Finally, some may contend that even if everyone were a model of intellectual integrity, by reason of the great variety of judgments, differences would still remain. This is true. But differences lead in the direction of truth in an atmosphere of honesty. Honest differences are livable differences.
Life in a physical sense is a compromise, a fact that need not concern us. But, when vast numbers of people surrender living by what they believe to be right, it follows that they must then live by what they believe to be wrong. No more destructive tendency can be imagined.
Honesty—each person true to his highest conscience—is the condition from which revelation springs; from which knowledge expands; from which intelligence grows; from which judgments improve. It is a never-ending, eternally challenging—a thoroughly joyous—process. Indeed, it is living in its higher sense.