Principal and Principles

Dedicated to Fox Stoddard — a man of principle

There is an old story in which a man asks a woman if she would prostitute herself for $100.00. Grossly offended and insulted, the woman responds, “Of course not, don’t be ridiculous.” The man presses his case further and asks, “How about a million?” The woman pauses and says, “Hmmm, I will have to think about it.” The man then delivers the crushing blow: “So we have established the principle, we are now just haggling over price!”

I’m wondering these days how low the price has dropped to exchange or violate a principle for a certain amount of principal.

First, let me clarify the terms. A principle is a noun and refers to a basic truth, law, assumption, or rule. It is a rule of conduct or a fundamental doctrine or tenet. Principal, on the other hand, can be used as an adjective meaning first or highest in rank, importance or value; or as a noun either as one who holds a presiding rank or position or as capital or property before interest.

In short, principles relate to personal values where as principal relates to financial value, position, and priorities.

It seems to me that what we have been declaring as most important has been denigrated by how easily we sell out for a quick buck or the easy way out.

As individuals, we are confronted with choices every day regarding principles and principal.

We might say, “Integrity is one of my most important values,” but then fail to make a commitment because a better opportunity comes along.

Title: Bargain Box | Author: Corey Coyle | Source: Panoramio | License: CC BY

Or we might claim that raising respectful children is a high priority, but reward our kids with TV time after acting rudely because the “price” of taking disciplinary action may seem too high.

Instead of pursuing a higher education in search of who we are and how we find meaning in our lives, many students are solely focused on what jobs will offer the higher salaries. Colleges and universities have responded to changing priorities and are trending toward trade schools. A recent study revealed a decline of 39% over the last 20 years in the number of institutions aligned with a liberal arts mission. Many institutions have dramatically broadened their offerings beyond traditional liberal arts fields to focus on professional and vocational programs. There is a shift in alignment from principles to principal.

In our working lives, we may work for organizations who are known for ignoring health, safety, or environmental standards but pay good wages and provide generous benefits. I know how this works. As a consultant, I have refused opportunities to work for Phillip Morris and Coca Cola, for example, because many of their products make people sick. On the other hand, I have accepted lucrative contracts with health care companies that gouge their patients with outrageous prices. I’m not claiming innocence here.

In the United States, our government has long touted moral superiority because it has been the champion of democratic principles. Indeed, in our Declaration of Independence, there is the famous phrase:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

That noble principle embodied in the Constitution was easily discarded when it turned out that Native Americans held valuable land that offered white people vast opportunities for creating wealth. The Native Americans’ “inalienable rights” were quickly sacrificed for the profits to be reaped. Apparently, we will rape principles in order to reap profits.

On the other hand, to their credit, Presidents Lincoln and Grant pursued the Civil War in defense of the equality principle even at the cost of 700,000 deaths and $7 billion dollars — almost bankrupting the treasury. They decided that there was no price too high to pay for defending that principle. Unfortunately, Jim Crow soon replaced Reconstruction as the South continued to oppress African Americans “freed” from slavery. Principal trumped principles very quickly.

Author: Brocken Inaglory | Source: Own work | License: CC BY-SA 3.0
Author: Brocken Inaglory | Source: Own work | License: CC BY-SA

And now, here we are in the 21st century still sacrificing principles for principal. Members of the Senate and the House spend most their time fund raising and pandering to big donors. Principles don’t seem to matter if it means amassing the principal they need for the next campaign. There are many concrete examples of how principal is trumping principles these days:

We say that character counts, but we elect a person so deficient in character he is a stain on our Constitution and an embarrassment to the world.

We say we want to protect the environment, but we cut back regulations, withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and open up federal lands and waters to drilling.

We say we value equal justice under the law, but we deport dreamers, mass-incarcerate blacks, and block immigration from Muslim countries.

We say we want equal opportunity, but we cut taxes for the wealthiest individuals and organizations while cutting back on benefits for the poorest and sickest among us.

We say we value public education for all, but we support private schools at the expense of public ones.

We say we value free speech, but we restrict access and suppress expression.

I could go on and on, but these examples are repeated ad nausea in the media every day.

Three questions that may be worth living in are:

  1. Which principles are most principal in our life?
  2. For what will we sacrifice our principles: More power? More popularity? More principal?
  3. What do we do when the Principal has no principles?

It seems to me that the story I shared at the beginning of this post needs to be altered somewhat given the conditions in which we are living, learning, and working. In today’s story the woman says to the man, “Will you prostitute yourself for $1.00?” The man says, “Of course, and I’ll give you a 25 cent kick-back in return for the favor.” The woman responds, “Hmmm, I guess when principles mean so little, any principal will do.”

I’m afraid there are very few principles these days that can’t be bought with a certain amount of principal. And I wonder how quickly we sacrifice our principles if it means being more popular, more powerful, or wealthier. What do you think?

Originally published at Perspectives & Possibilities.