Lileks: Resolved: Compromise is humanistic, principles ... bad

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 10, 2013 - 9:00 PM

The annual New York Mills Think-Off, a Minnesota tradition that settles thorny philosophical issues by a town-hall vote, has announced its next topic: Is it better to stick to principles, or compromise?

I put on my thinking cap -- it's a Twins cap with HINK written in Sharpie after the T -- and settled the matter. In fewer than 750 words, too. We'll get to that in a bit.

First, consider the event itself. I attended a Think-Off many years ago and found it a delightful example of small-town America. The townsfolk streaming into the gym on a hot summer night, ready for some ol'-fashioned jawboning about Big Issues. Everyone listened, considered the arguments, then voted: The existence of God could not be proven empirically.

Then the good and true villagers, freed from the shackles of traditional morality, bricked up the windows of the churches and engaged in a night-long display of public debauchery that made Gomorrah look like Christmas at Disneyworld.

Boy, lots of red faces at the coffee shop the next morning! So the rules were changed: The winning argument was not ethically or legally binding. If they decide that life has no point, and is essentially a difficult interval between eternities of non-existence, a cosmic joke whose laughter echoes silently through an infinite expanse of nothingness, they're still expecting you down at the boat factory in the morning.

Nor are the professional philosophers required to accept the results. If the townsfolks voted YES to the proposition that things have intrinsic beauty regardless of whether a sentient being observes them, a bunch of guys in a Paris coffee shop don't have to stare open-mouthed at the news report and think, "Well, put that one in the 'solved' column."

They should pay heed, though. These are good, simple questions addressed with pith and resolve. Here's my entry on the subject of principles vs. compromise, written in a haughty, overblown style, because, y'know, it's philosophy. So then:

I believe in sticking up for principles, since the people who believe in something different are not as smart as me, or they would share my beliefs. It makes no sense to compromise a principle to accommodate people of lesser intelligence. Would you saw off your foot at the ankle so you could agree with people who say no one will ever break the current record for running the mile?

Now, one may say that the comparison is wrong, because compromising on an issue such as Social Security eligibility standards is not like sawing off one's foot, but if one admits the wisdom of compromise, then there is nothing to prevent one's opponent from asking you to cut off your leg at mid-shin later on. You have to take a stand, and that is impossible with half your leg gone. You just fall right over.

You may well ask: What are your principles? From which lofty plateau do you stand, arms akimbo, daring the world to test your mettle? I will not mince words. While I may bend to the wind of popular opinion when it comes to the trivial matters like paper vs. plastic or euthanasia, on one matter I am made of adamantine resolve: One must, when the situation demands, compromise.

This is my core principle, and I will suffer no argument. If I stand for one thing, it is the constant readjustment of my foundational precepts, should new evidence or dire expediency present themselves.

Do not think these are abstract assertions with no real-world application! Imagine a freeway, two lanes merging into one. I occupy the lane into which others endeavor to merge, and have been patiently waiting to advance for 10 minutes. Someone shoots up the empty lane and tries to barge in front of me. My principles say I must compromise, and let him in. But, to quote Sartre, he bugs me.

Therefore I must compromise my own principles, and stare straight ahead and pretend not to see him.

In other words: It is possible to take any position and remain absolutely resolute to what one holds out as an unshakable conviction. I believe, for example, that I can adjust whatever I've said above in order to win the Think-Off, and the grand prize of a lifetime of bacon, the existence of which is proof of a benevolent creator.

I believe that issue was settled conclusively in '99. No, that was Ginger vs. Mary Anne. 1998, then.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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