As a mediator, I am often surprised when people raise objections “as a matter of principle” on issues far removed from things I would consider of such overwhelming importance to invoke that noble standard. Defined as “a moral rule or belief that helps you know what is right or wrong,” a “matter of principle” certainly applies in areas of virtuous and ethical behavior but rarely to less consequential issues.
When principle interferes with communication, cooperation, common sense, or compromise, it can be an impediment to progress. It can become a refuge for those who do not wish to engage or an excuse for behavior not otherwise explainable. In response to a party raising the principle issue in a matter that involved assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a particular case and the likelihood of his prevailing, I recently suggested the concept was misplaced.
There are about a half dozen issues I can think of that rise to that level, but this isn’t one of them, I explained. Principle just doesn’t make sense where parties are trying to settle a civil case and avoid the expense and unpredictability of a trial. There may be sound reasons for rejecting a proposed settlement, but principle is not one of them. If a dispute involves money or family discord, chances are it’s not a matter of principle. To elevate its status just makes it more difficult to resolve.
Too many in Congress now cite “principle” to justify an ideological unwillingness to engage in serious negotiations. A lofty concept becomes the excuse for failing to participate in the essential give and take of governance. It’s not a high road but an exit when used to frustrate the process.
One method of assessing whether or not to invoke principle to explain one’s conduct is the effect of that decision. Often a choice based on principle will have an adverse effect on the person taking that stand. It appears to be contrary to his perceived interests, yet he is willing to accept the consequences, given the issues at stake. “Profiles in Courage” by John F. Kennedy provided several examples of such righteous, high-minded behavior.
Principle should apply only in matters of consequence; there is little place for it in the routine, mundane aspects of daily life. It should be reasoned; it’s not a rationale one puts forward when logic fails. It should be difficult; if not, it may not be as high-minded as you think. It should be questioned, to make sure it is not simply an excuse.
When exercised properly, principle is thoughtful, strong, and virtuous, a decision grounded on integrity. It affirms interests beyond what is comfortable or popular. A principled decision assumes character, judgment, discipline, and, often, sacrifice, all qualities Donald Trump is so obviously lacking. With some justification, leading Republican office holders have been criticized for rejecting principle and endorsing Trump. Their explanations are transparently self-serving when measured against the risks of his being president. Obviously wary of Trump, US House Speaker Paul Ryan could have refused to endorse him, but to do so would likely have resulted in his losing the speakership, even an opportunity to be president. A principled stand would have come at a steep price. Unfortunately, ambition triumphed and Ryan, albeit reluctantly, chose to protect himself.
One can live a lifetime without having to assert principle as the reason for a difficult decision. It should be a last resort. When all else fails to achieve an important objective, and only then, should one resort to principle. Before asserting it, one should acknowledge and accept the harm, personal and otherwise, that may flow from the decision. If the personal consequences are not likely to be painful, perhaps the conflict is not a matter of principle.
I’m not against principle. In fact, I’m strongly for it, but in my career as a judge and now as a lawyer, I’m afraid it sometimes is used as justification for actions that do not rise to that level of importance. Most compromises, modifications, adjustments, and settlements are examples of sound judgment applied to difficult, often complex, problems. Principle misapplied undermines progress.
There may come a time to stand on principle, but carefully pick your ground.
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.