The terrible nature of expedient principles
Tuesday, November 05, 2019
The word “principles” is bandied about often, as in, “It’s against my principles to do XYZ,” or, “My life is built on solid moral and ethical principles.”
Principles are good. They are a guideline how to live your life consistently to the standards you profess to espouse. Not having any principles is typically not good; they’re indicative of someone who will do anything, without regard to others in order to “get ahead” or make more money or obtain more power.
It’s fairly easy to discern the principled from the unprincipled people, and you can easily choose which group of people you’d prefer to associate with. What’s tricky is discerning the people with expedient principles.
That’s perhaps the hardest to do and has the most at stake. A person with expedient principles can lead you astray, betray your trust, and hurt you personally and professionally.
With expedient principles, a person only abides by those proclaimed principles as long as it’s convenient. When the person is inconvenienced, or stands to lose something by upholding those principles, then they can justify abandoning them.
A person with expedient principles can justify to themselves (and attempt to justify to others) why there is a valid reason to exempt themselves from adherence.
For example, I can claim to live my life on the principles of honesty and integrity. But at work, I can justify taking home a ream of my employer’s copy paper because I need it, and the company won’t miss it. Expediency.
As an employer, I can expect my employees to behave with honesty and never cheat me or my customers, but I can cheat on my taxes. Expediency.
Principles are moral and ethical standards by which to live, personally and professionally. Not one or the other.
You can’t have one set of principles for work, and another set for your personal life. You’re the same person. Character does matter because it pervades your persona and guides all your thoughts and actions —not some.
You can attempt to justify why your actions, despite being contrary to your stated principles, are necessary, but your friends, family, and co-workers will not accept your rationalization. Your hypocrisy will be on display.
And when others see your hypocrisy, you lose credibility and trust.
Benjamin Franklin, when asked about this subject, quipped that an empty sack cannot stand upright. Without principles, you buckle in the face of adversity.
Unwavering adherence to principles means that you are willing to sacrifice convenience, money, or power in order to stay true. It’s not easy, but you recognize that the price you pay is worthy of the principle.
I worked for a company quite a few years ago that was an expert in expediency. Its professed beliefs and principles were only valid until they became impractical, costly or demanded some kind of sacrifice.
Then, those professed beliefs were quickly discarded with complex justifications for exempting themselves. I had a choice: to keep my well-paying job and remain silent in the face of expedient principles, or resign to avoid being a co-participant in hypocrisy. I resigned, and yes, I took a financial hit.
Some years ago, I spoke with an academician who railed against the animal industry and argued passionately for a cruelty-free lifestyle. However, he confessed that he himself was not vegetarian because he enjoyed the taste of meat, and he continued to buy leather products because they were more stylish.
If he had believed in what he was saying, then his actions would have been consistent with his professed beliefs. But they weren’t. And his hypocrisy was on full display.
Not only did I not believe what he was professing, but I didn’t believe anything else he said on any other subject. Why? Because it was clear that his words were meaningless and changeable, according to expediency.
Actions are always better indicators of a person’s principles than the words spoken. Recognize that once you broadcast what you believe in, people will judge your actions accordingly.
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