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The Penalty of Surrender, Part 1

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These remarks, hardly more than a personal confession of faith, have their origin in an attitude or behavior commonly referred to as “compromising.”

The compromising attitude is exalted by many and deplored by only a few.

As an example of the way this attitude is exalted, a certain business leader, perhaps the most publicized one in the country, once severely lectured me on my unswerving and uncompromising behaviors. He charged that I saw things only in blacks and whites. He said that practical life was lived in shades of grays, actually in the shadows of these two extremes. He suggested that I had a nice chance of “going far” in the world if only I would become more pliable to the thoughts and actions of my fellows.

This criticism by so popular a person left me somewhat speechless. While it is true that I felt no sense of guilt whatever, nor even any unfaithfulness to those who thought differently than I, nonetheless, I found myself unable to do more than stammer in my own defense. Did you ever experience a feeling of rightness in the face of criticism, but were unable to explain your feeling? If so, you now know how I felt on that occasion five years ago.

Thus I was happy to accept this invitation to talk about “The Futility of Compromise.” Here was an opportunity for me to think this thing through, to give expression to something that had too long remained in the vague area of feeling. Here was the chance to say what I mean, to explain to myself and not, as you shall see, to impose my ideas on any other person.

Compromise, like many other words, has different meanings for different persons. After some reflection I concluded that it was a confusion in the meaning of words that was largely responsible for so much misunderstanding; that maybe it wasn’t compromise after all which deserved condemnation.

I want to use the term in this definition by Webster, one of several, “The result or embodiment of concession or adjustment.” I want to show that compromise is potentially good when applied in a physical sense and that it has no application whatever in a moral sense.

For example, you and your wife are spending what is hoped will be a happy evening at home. She chooses to listen to the radio and you elect to figure out what Toynbee is driving at in his Study of History. The scene appears peaceful as you sit side by side near this beautiful piece of furniture. But to you the furniture is making a lot of distracting noise.

Here are all the possibilities for turning a cheerful evening into one of disharmony. But compromise can come to your aid. Your wife can decrease the noise of the radio to the point where she can still hear it, and you can move to some remote corner where you can comprehend Toynbee just as well as anywhere else. Harmony can thus be preserved by compromise.

Compromise in this sense is an adjustment of physical situations. It is the process by which conflicts are reduced to the point most satisfactory to all parties concerned. When thought of in this way compromise is the great harmonizer, the attitude that makes living together social life a pleasure.

Indeed, the market place, where tens of millions of transactions go only daily, is one vast area of compromise. Buyers aim at low prices. Sellers aim at high prices. In a free market there is an adjustment of these diverse desires. Compromise establishes the price at which the mutual satisfaction of buyer and seller is at its highest level.

It is in this physical realm that most of our daily life is lived. In this realm compromise is good and it is practical. It begets harmony and peace.

How easy it would seem then, finding compromise so useful in such a vast segment of life, to conclude unthoughtfully that it has an equal place, a comparable value, in that phase of life which consciously occupies our thoughts so little: moral life.

But this is precisely the point where I believe many of us are victims of a confusion of terms. What is compromise in physical affairs, that is, in an adjustment of physical positions, is something entirely different when applied to principles and morality.

For example, let us make the reckless assumption that most of us are committed to the Biblical injunction, “Thou shalt not steal.” This is a moral principle. The point I want to make my major point is that this as a principle defies compromising. You either take someone else’s property without his consent, or you do not. If you steal just a teensy weensy bit you do not compromise the principle. You abandon it. You surrender your principle.

By taking only a little of someone else’s property without his consent, as distinguished from taking a lot of someone else’s property without his consent, you do compromise in the physical sense. You compromise the physical amount you steal. But the moral principle, whatever the amount of the theft may be, is surrendered and utterly abandoned.

If all the rest of mankind are in favor of passing a law that would take the property, honestly acquired, of only one person without due compensation, even though the purpose be allegedly for the so-called social good, you cannot adjust yourself both to the moral principle, “Thou shalt not steal,” and to the demand of the millions. Principle does not lend itself to bending or to compromising. It stands impregnable. I must either abide by it, or in all fairness I must on this point regard myself, not as a rational, reasonable person, but rather as an unprincipled person.

The question immediately arises as to what constitutes principle. Here again is a term with many meanings. I cannot derive the exact satisfaction I want from reading the several definitions; therefore, it seems necessary to define what I mean.

The Ten Commandments are principles, moral principles. They were principles at least to the ones who wrote them, and they have been adopted and held as principles by countless millions. They receive their validity as principles through the deductions of the wiser among us and through centuries of observations and experience. Actually, they are principles only insofar as they are revealed truth to particular persons.

What may be a principle to one is not necessarily a principle to another. It is a matter of revealed truth, that is, revelation, “the disclosing of discovering . . . of what was before unknown. . . .”

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This essay is from Volume I of Essays on Liberty , published by FEE in 1952. Copyright 1952 The Foundation for Economic Education. Reprinted by permission.

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    Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder and president of The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), 30 S. Broadway, Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.