On the Issues: Stand Firm or Compromise?

I have been accused by more than one of this column’s readers of forsaking the conservative cause because I dared to mention the dreaded word “compromise.” I was informed once that compromise is little less than “dancing with the devil.” I was further told that the best way to achieve conservative goals is to use an all-or-nothing approach. I beg to differ. Please hear me out. (Click on the above title to continue if necessary.)

I noted in an earlier column that, in McLean County, Republicans, Democrats, and other voters (I will call them Independents) each make up about one-third of the electorate, with Republicans slightly outnumbering Democrats. Given this makeup, a political party can’t win elections unless its candidates appeal to independent-minded voters. Appealing to Independents, a party can reach the majority vote required to win on the candidates and issues. Compromising on the issues to win Independent votes is the only way of winning – short of cheating or a revolution. While compromising means we won’t get everything we want, half a pie is better than none. A failure to compromise means we will receive just that – nothing.  

I first learned about moderating one’s position as a youth. I learned from the 1959 movie Journey to the Center of the Earth that all-or-nothing situations can be dangerous for someone attempting to achieve a goal. One of the antagonists with the rescue party (a real pain-in-the-rear guy) ran across a deposit of diamonds along the party’s way to the supposed center of the Earth. The problem is the diamonds were located near a sleeping pre-historic monster. The antagonists insisted on stuffing his pockets full of diamonds, but he wasn’t satisfied with what he had, even with the approach of the woken monster. Going after the couple more hands full of diamonds, he delayed his departure and was eaten by the beast. This was to me – an impressionable six-year-old kid – an all-or-nothing moment that taught me a valuable lesson. Trying to get it all, one can readily lose everything. This lesson taught me not to be too greedy. The moral is to take what one can get now and live for another day when one might have the opportunity to get more. So, I believe it is in politics.

Sometimes, compromise makes sense; at other times, it does not, and I understand the distinction. When the odds are in your favor for winning on a political issue, then compromise doesn’t make sense. However, conservative viewpoints do not always win the day when a third of the electorate is sympathetic to a more liberal position. The only way to appeal to moderates is to avoid an extremist position. In so doing, one compromises – not one’s principles but one’s position.  

Compromising one’s position has definite benefits. It de-escalates rather than exacerbates a problem. Compromise means that both sides of an issue can claim victory – one side claiming progress has been made, while the other claims that it has held fast to the basic principle behind an issue. There is the other side of the coin, too. Compromise can also make people unhappy. Politics is the art of compromise. 

Compromise can be difficult. To arrive at a compromise, we must examine both sides of an issue and decide what we can tolerate and what constitutes an absolute. This requires us to engage our intellects and not merely our emotions. Intellectual work is hard work, and not everyone is willing to embrace it. Tolerance of an ambiguous position for the sake of gain is a thinking person’s position.  

Perhaps you have heard it said, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” These famous words are generally credited to Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, but he didn’t write them. Karl Hess, Goldwater’s speechwriter, put them in the Arizona senator’s convention acceptance speech when he accepted the Republican nomination for president. While these are appealing sentiments, can such extreme positions be accurate?

Religiously and philosophically speaking, there are moral absolutes. These are rules that may not be broken without dire consequences. Moral absolutes generally encompass the following:

  • Do not murder: Numerous ethical frameworks contend that deliberately causing the death of an innocent individual is fundamentally morally unacceptable.
  • Do not steal: Valuing the possessions of others and recognizing their right to own property is a widely shared moral principle.
  • Do not lie. Adherence to truthfulness and honesty is frequently deemed virtuous, while intentional deception is regarded as morally unacceptable.
  • Do not commit adultery: Certain ethical frameworks highlight the significance of loyalty and dedication in interpersonal relationships.
  • Do not harm others without justification: Refraining from causing harm to others without a justifiable reason is commonly viewed as a moral absolute.
  • Do not treat others with disrespect: The concept of recognizing the intrinsic value and dignity of every individual is a fundamental principle in numerous ethical frameworks.

These moral absolutes are more or less enunciated in the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament and the Golden Rule of the New Testament. The argument is that if God says so, it must be the case “because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived” (CCC 156). In addition, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) made an excellent argument for not lying under any circumstance. According to Kant, lying is always wrong, regardless of the consequences.

But are there no non-negotiables in the political arena? From my prior writing, it should be clear that I don’t believe this to be the case. Without violating moral absolutes and one’s conscience, political leaders may compromise when the compromise forestalls even greater evils. For example, consider choosing the lesser of two evils. In an earlier On the Issues essay dealing with Virtue and Vice, I chose the topic of abortion. In this op-ed, I pointed out that it is licit to agree to a partial ban on abortion if a total ban cannot be achieved. This is the well-known “principle of double effect.” The principle effectively states that one may tolerate evil (but not do evil) to achieve a greater good.

Given this presentation, I hope my readers can find their way out of conundrums that might prevent some from taking a stand on the issues and voting for the better of two candidates, even if the choice is between bad and worse. It is okay to vote for a flawed candidate if the goal is to prevent a worse candidate from winning. It’s not the ideal solution to problems often presented by politics, but it is tolerable until a better candidate can be chosen. To neglect civic responsibility on issues that contain moral dimensions and that call for prudential judgment is morally impermissible. Failure to act in these odious cases can constitute a “sin of omission,” just as bad as a sin of commission.

Politics is filled with issues that have moral dimensions: religious liberty, marriage and divorce, abortion, transgenderism, social welfare, human trafficking, hate crimes, gun rights, hate crimes, drugs, and addiction, weaponization of government agencies by political parties, social justice, hate crimes, national defense, foreign policy, immigration and border security, Israel, climate change, Islamic terrorism, pornography, military spending, political corruption, and on and on…

As responsible citizens, we must inform ourselves about the issues and vote – even if it means choosing the lesser of two evils. To remain ignorant of the challenges facing our society and doing nothing to minimize perceived evil leaves one morally culpable. We should stand firm in our beliefs, never compromising our principles. Still, we should compromise if that’s the only way of achieving greater good and avoiding greater evil.

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