On effective compromise
Compromise is not always a good thing. For example, an unknown company compromised one of my credit cards at 3 o’clock this morning. I’m on a bit of a working vacation just now, with iffy Internet (a new provider just took over in this area on Monday), no cellular signal, and no land line (the house phone here is an Internet phone). So the compromised card took longer to resolve than it normally takes, and of course this is never fun.
Now I’m not complaining (who, me?). Yesterday my wife and I were out sailing on Lake Champlain, renewing the skills of a visiting son and his wife…with the wind gusting unpredictably up to 25 mph. That was tricky and also great fun. But it is an instance of when compromise can be good—as in compromising on a steady 15 mph wind, instead of varying between 5 and 25. In this case, God Himself apparently chose not to compromise—or to interfere on our behalf with what we might call the conditions on the ground (or on the water). God is happier with us when we recognize our own limitations.
Of course, the refusal to compromise can also be bad. As a case study, let us take the story of the good Samaritan in Luke 10. The good Samaritan did not compromise in his care for the man who had been beaten, robbed and left by the wayside. But neither did the priest and the Levite compromise on their decision to ignore his needs. So compromise is like anything else: You have to decide when compromise is appropriate based on a firm grasp of clear moral principles. Sometimes we cannot compromise our own tendencies, but at other times we simply will not, and there is a huge difference.
This does not mean there are no pragmatic considerations involved. Take the case of a politician who faces a vote on a bill which will legalize abortion in a place (say Malta) which has not yet permitted it under the law. Let us suppose this bill is sure to pass, but that there are enough votes to have it amended so that it has some restrictions. In principle, of course, no politician with sound moral principles can vote to legalize abortion, but he or she can, in principle, vote to amend such a bill so that it legalizes abortion in a smaller set of circumstances.
And yet even this pragmatic approach is morally risky, because such rear guard actions may be taken as support for abortion under a set of enumerated circumstances—which is immoral. If we could see the future—that is, the consequences—such pragmatic decisions would be easier to make. Supporting the amendment so the bill would be enacted in a less harmful form could be (and certainly will be by some) interpreted as support for abortion in some form. We have here a tactic which might limit damage, but might also negatively impact the moral fiber of the citizenry and, going forward, simply open the floodgates.
Politics is the art of the possible for the commonwealth, but what is possible in our personal lives frequently depends on our willingness to sacrifice. Each of us faces challenges to our principles in our families, workplaces, and among our relatives and friends (I hope not our closest friends, but certainly our acquaintances). We can be directed to keep our moral principles secret in order to retain our jobs; we can be persuaded to live to some degree in a moral cocoon in order to avoid hostility among relatives; and we can slip-slide along to avoid being shunned by the “dominant culture” which has infected our gatherings, our associations, and our news sources.
The human person typically finds what we might call “conceptual isolation” to be extremely unpleasant. This reaction is so prevalent that the great majority have always simply parroted the ideas of the dominant opinion-makers, often completely unaware of how they are reaching their conclusions. Each new immorality approved and embraced becomes a kind of moral progress, based on what “everybody knows”, which makes it “obvious”. Few look back and say: “Ten or twenty years ago I thought X was very wrong. Why, I wonder, do I accept X as something to be supported and approved today?”
It was, I believe, Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” It rhymes nicely, but so does Lewis Carroll’s beloved nonsense poem, “Jabberwocky”. Of course, the opposite is true: Thinking and behaving morally demands sound analysis based on consistent principles, principles to be discarded not in accordance with cultural fashion but only if genuinely mistaken, principles which the human person is obliged by his very nature to embrace and consistently apply because they are true—that is, because they are instances of the mind’s conformity with reality.
It is not enough to throw up our hands and say we simply cannot know the truth, because we can. But we humans typically abhor isolation, and nothing makes us feel more isolated, and more worthless, than being shunned by the in-crowd, a condition we now frequently refer to as being on the wrong side of history. This expression arises from the modern myth of historical progress, in which each new conception of the dominant culture is taken to be an improvement upon earlier ideas for no better reason than that it has become popular among the self-regarding elites of our own time. Sadly, as Chesterton pointed out, “Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.”
The problem of novelty
It has been a long time since we enjoyed a traditional culture, and the constant change of “fashion” and “progress” appears to us to be normative today just as tradition used to appear to be normative a thousand years ago. But neither human tradition nor human novelty can be taken for granted. Made in the image of God, and therefore possessing both intellect and will, we are all obliged to do our best to embrace what is true both through critical examination and, as creatures of a loving Father, through prayer. Old ideas are not to be rejected simply because they are old, any more than new ideas are to be embraced because they are new. Truth does not consist in timing.
Which brings me back to this whole question of compromise: By its very nature, compromise is voluntary. Enduring a less-than-perfect situation is called suffering. Appropriate compromises in the face of conflicting perceptions of reality are extremely difficult. It is in fact impossible to compromise appropriately without the virtue of prudence employed in service to a genuine comprehension of reality, which is to say, in service to the truth. But these conditions can be created only through the development of self-control and discipline over our passions. The further difficulty is that these qualities are rare. They are only sometimes inculcated in family life today, they are frequently neglected even in the various forms of Christianity on offer, and they are more or less deliberately ignored in our prevailing forms of education.
We cannot have things all our own way in this world. But the question of compromise is a serious business. To compromise appropriately and effectively, we have our work cut out for us—unless we are willing to sell our souls.
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