A certain business leader, perhaps among the most publicized during the last two decades, once Severely lectured me on my unswerving and uncompromising behavior. He charged that I saw things only in blacks and whites. He argued 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. He really wanted me to be more agreeable to his middle-of-the road political theories.
The compromising attitude is exalted by many and deplored by only a few. Most current discussions are tempered with concepts of compromise and expediency….
[Llet us make the reckless assumption that most of us are committed to the Biblical injunction “Thou shalt not steal.” This is based on the moral principle that each person has the right to the fruits of his own labor. The point I wish to make — my major point — is that this as a principle defies compromise. You either take someone else’s property without his consent, or you do not. If you steal just a bit — a penny — you do not compromise the principle; you abandon it. You surrender your principle.
By taking only a little of someone’s property without his consent as distinguished from taking a lot, you do compromise in the physical sense the amount you steal. But the moral principle, whatever the amount of the theft, is surrendered and utterly abandoned.
If all the rest of mankind is in favor of passing a law that would take the property, honestly acquired, of only one person against his will, even though the purpose be allegedly for the so-called social good, I cannot adjust both to the moral injunction, “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 as an inconsistent, unprincipled person rather than a rational, reasonable, logical one….
The Ten Commandments are admonitions derived from the religious experience of an ancient people. In terms of their origin, the Commandments are cast in the form of intercepts of the will of God; in terms of their application, they are imperatives admitting of no dilution. They were expressions of principles at least to the ones who received them, and have been adopted as such by countless millions. Their acceptance springs from the studied deductions of the wiser among us, confirmed through centuries of observation and experience….
To me, “Thou shalt not steal,” is a principled injunction, not alone because some sage of antiquity said so, but largely because my own experience has compelled me to adopt this as a principle of right conduct which must be adhered to if I am not to destroy my own integrity, and if I am to live peacefully with my fellow men.
To those of opposite judgments, who believe that they should gratify their personal charitable instincts not with their own goods, but with goods extorted from others by the police force, who fail to see how thieving damages integrity, and who accept the practice of political plunder as right and honorable to them, “Thou shalt not steal” must appear wrong in principle….
Intellectual integrity simply means to reflect in word and in deed, always and accurately, that which one believes to be right. Integrity cannot be compromised. It is either practiced or not practiced.
Certainly, there is nothing new about the efficacy of accurately reflecting what one believes to be right. This principle of conduct has been known throughout recorded history. Now and then it has been expressed beautifully and simply. Shakespeare enunciated the principle when he had Polonius say:
This above all: To thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. Edmund Rostand had the same principle in mind when he wrote for Cyrano:
Never to make a line I have not heard in my own heart.
The Bible announces the penalty of surrender — what it means to abandon the truth as one sees it:
The wages of sin is death.
Whether the wages of sin be mere physical death, as when men shoot each other over ideological differences, or profound spiritual death, as in the extinction of integrity, character, and self-respect one needs to make but casual inquiry to verify the rightness of this Biblical pronouncement. Abundant testimony is being provided in our time. Nor is the end in sight.
All the world is filled with examples of surrendered principles: men who know practically nothing about themselves trying to play God, attempting to control and forcibly direct the creative actions of others; the glamour of popularity and shallow earthly fame rather than the concepts of rightness directing the policies of nations; expediency substituting for the dictates of conscience; businessmen employing “experts” to help them seem right, often at the expense of rightness itself; labor leaders justifying any action that gratifies their lust for power; political leaders operating on the premise that the end justifies the means; clergymen preaching expropriation of property without consent in the name of the “common good”; teachers not explaining but advocating coercive collectivism; aspirants to public office building platforms from public opinion polls; farmers, miners, and other plunderbundists uniting with the police force to siphon unto themselves the fruits of others’ labor; arrogance replacing humility; in short, surrender of principle appears to be the distinguishing mark of our time.
If we were suddenly to find foreign vandals invading our shores, vandals that would kill our children, rape our women, and pilfer our industry, every last man of us would rise in arms.
Yet, these ideas born of surrendered principles are the most dangerous vandals known to man. Is the Bible right that the wages of sin is death? Observe the growth of domestic violence. Note the extent to which the organized police force — government — promotes and enacts plunder rather than inhibits it. Scan the last sixty years of war, hot and cold; wars to end wars, each serving only as a prelude to larger wars. And, today, we worldlings, in angry and hateful moods, stand tense and poised to strike out at each other, not with shillelaghs, pistols, hand grenades and cannons, but with mass exterminators of the germ and atom types, types that only a people of surrendered principles could concoct.
Perhaps it is timidity that prevents many a man from standing squarely on his own philosophy and uttering nothing less than the highest truth he perceives. He fears the loss of friends or position. Actually, the danger lies in the other direction, in settling for less than one’s best judgment.
Does it take courage to be honest? Does one have to be brave to express the truth as he sees it? Indeed, it is not dangerous to be honest, but rather a mark of intelligence. Being honest and adhering to principle requires intelligence more than courage. Courage without intelligence makes men blusterous and cantankerous with their views; they offend with their honesty. But, the villainy in that case is their cantankerousness, not their integrity.
Finally, some may contend that even if everyone were a model of intellectual integrity, by reason of the great variety of judgments, differences would still remain. This is true. But differences lead in the direction of truth in an atmosphere of honesty. Honest differences are livable differences.
Life in a physical sense is a compromise, a fact that need not concern us. But when vast numbers of people surrender living by what they believe to be right, it follows that they must then live by what they believe to be wrong. No more destructive tendency can be imagined.
Honesty — each person true to his highest conscience — is the condition from which revelation springs; from which knowledge expands; from which intelligence grows; from which judgments improve. It is a never-ending, eternally challenging — a thoroughly joyous — process. Indeed, it is living in its highest sense.
Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder and president of The Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. This excerpt is taken from his book Having My Way, published by FEE in 1974.