A Matter of Principle
“Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.” ~Alexander Hamilton
Have you ever heard someone say, “It’s the principle of the thing?” A principle is a fundamental truth, law, or deeply held belief on which your philosophy of life is based. It usually involves a sense of right and wrong, good and bad. Examples of basic principles include: compassion, fairness, faithfulness, honesty, justice, liberty, loyalty, patriotism, respect, and trustworthiness.
Some people are serious about sticking to their principles even in the face of adversity, while others tend to be more wishy-washy. Of course, having principles doesn’t mean much unless you are willing to put them into practice as guidelines for living. If you haven’t internalized firm principles to stand on, your ethical decision-making can become ruled by emotions and selfishness.
A person who follows his or her principles is said to be a person of integrity. True integrity is unbroken by altered circumstances. It means always trying to do what’s right even in tough situations, and not compromising your principles by giving in to temptation. You hold on to your principles not for pride or gain, but because your character and conscience demand it.
Standing up for principles is not always easy. It can mean turning down a profit, risking negative criticism, facing ridicule or contempt. It takes a lot of courage to do what’s right when there is disapproval or negative peer pressure. What is right is not always obvious, and the principled person often goes against the accepted norm. Standing on principle can mean standing alone.
While standing up for your principles can be difficult, giving up on your principles is worse in the long run. If you don’t stand up for what you believe in, you may end up regretting it later. You will never be happy or at peace with yourself if you have a troubled conscience.
Do you sometimes feel like you are being taken advantage of? Are you aware when something doesn’t seem fair? Were you ever asked to agree to unreasonable demands? Has there been anything you just haven’t had a good feeling about? Even a relatively minor incident can become a major challenge to one’s basic principles.
As you come across situations where your principles are on the line, your instinct should be to fight. Have you ever fought over a principle? How do you decide whether an issue is important enough to confront? There are times when it is worth fighting over principles and there are times when it is not. This is because even if you are totally in the right, the cost of engaging in the fight may be more than the issue is worth.
When determining whether or not to fight for a principle, you must first calm down and clear your head of emotions. This way, your response will be based on facts and not feelings. Ask yourself the following questions: What principle is at stake? How important is this issue in the grand scheme of things? Are the risks proportional to the benefits? What do I hope to accomplish? Will pursuing the issue be worth the time, emotions, and resources required?
If you are motivated by pride, stubbornness, a bruised ego, or simply a desire to put an offender in his place, it’s probably best not to bother making a big deal about it and taking a chance on making things worse. But if it’s illegal, immoral, disrespectful, damaging to your reputation, likely to be repeated, or if there is a chance that someone may be hurt, it may be necessary to stand up for your principles.
Did You Know…? The Ten Commandments, written more than 3000 years ago, are fundamental principles that still serve as the cornerstone of a fair and just society.
1. What are some principles that are important to you?
2. Do you always try to stand up for what you believe to be right, even when you have to stand alone?
3. What do you think stops people from taking a stand against something they know is wrong? How do you feel about people who are not willing to stand up for their beliefs?
4. Did you ever go along with the crowd even though you knew it was wrong? How did it make you feel?
5. Have you ever stood up for a principle? What was the principle and what happened?
6. Did you ever take a stand that was unpopular? Did it cost you anything? Did any good come out of it?
7. Have you ever stood up for someone else such as a friend who was being picked on or treated unfairly?
8. How much are you willing to risk for your principles? Would you risk being criticized or losing popularity? Are any principles worth risking your life?
9. Do you think it’s ever acceptable to compromise on your principles in order to get ahead or gain certain benefits?
10. Is being thought of as a person with integrity important to you? How would you feel if someone accused you of not having any principles?
Moral Courage, by Rushworth M. Kidder. (What causes someone to put a higher principle ahead of his own needs and opportunities? Standing up for values is the defining feature of moral courage. This timely and thoughtful book explains how to turn ethical reasoning into practical action. A must-read for everyone trying to do the right thing.)
The Book of Virtues and The Moral Compass, by William J. Bennett. (Anthologies of classic stories about moral principles that are the basis of strong character.)
Ethics: An Early American Handbook, by Benjamin B. Comegys. (Published by WallBuilder Press, this reprint of an 1890 textbook on ethics contains timeless lessons that parents once used to instill moral principles in the hearts and minds of their children.)
www.character-ethics.org/articles/standing.htm (“Standing on Principle” online article.)
www.theconnection.org/shows/2000/04/20000407_b_main.asp (“The Principle of the Matter,” an archived radio show on the internet.)
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These pages are a continuous work in progress.