“Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour.
If at my convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?”
“Ideology knows the answer before the question has been asked.
Principles are something different: a set of values that have to be adapted to circumstances but not compromised away.”
“There are perhaps many causes worth dying for, but to me, certainly, there are none worth killing for.”
This morning I said to a business friend “oh, I won’t turn down a project” … then I hesitated … and said “well, let me take that back … I need to believe there are ethical guardrails and the place has a soul.”
And then later in the day when I had a minute I went to a website called WarontheRocks … a site I love but maybe visit once a month at most. And they had just published an auricle called “A Moral Guide to Serving in the Trump Administration” <by David Barno and Nora Bensahel>.
Principles and principled actions are a tricky topic. Tricky in that while a principles ‘are statements denoting fact or generality which are universally or widely considered to be true and fundamental’ they, in fact, have a great range of meaning. While ‘principles’ most often refers to the elementary, or fundamental, basic proposition of some system or of conduct, it can also be tied to some specific designation, i.e., religion, government, business, education, etc.
It would be much nicer if we actually referred to ‘principled behavior’ as an axiom. While an axiom is a derivative of ‘principle’ it is more tightly tied to ‘one agreed upon as the basis of truth … a truth so self evident as to be indisputable’.
Principles, in theory, are an axiom … unfortunately, in practice; they are more a theorem <a proposition>.
That may sound a little strange but, in my eyes, truly good ideas are not a dime a dozen and more good ideas die from negligence, ignorance or malpractice than … well … should.
And, yet, at exactly the same time I made a decision, long ago, to not be blinded by the idea and take a job in which my principles are compromised.
This is a trickier decision than one may think. Mostly because … well … a couple things.
Not everyone wears their principles on their sleeve. And depending on how junior you are you may never even have an opportunity to see the sleeves of the main people driving the culture & behavior of an organization.
Suffice it to say I have got it wrong several times. And it is painful. You have one of two choices … carefully step on to the slippery slope of ‘compromise my principles as little as I can’ <and, yes, it is a slippery slope> or you can stand fast and stubbornly maintain your principles in the face of encouragement to behave another way <this, by the way, creates friction & conflict>.
Let’s just say … you can ask good questions and you can have your eyes wide open and you can still get this wrong.
You may actually be doing what you love and are passionate about. It is a great job from a responsibility and tasks standpoint. Awesome in fact.
Every day you can walk in to an office where you can do what it is you have always wanted to do … tactically. But then … all of a sudden … you start noticing that your good work is being used for some ‘not-so-good’ purposes or being utilized in a slightly perverted way from what you had actually intended. Technically you are doing the right things and enjoying what you are doing but in a larger view you are contributing to behavior which doesn’t meet your principles.
Here is one thing I know for sure. This is a Life truth.
I am not sure there is a worse feeling than looking back and wishing you had been more principled.
In a business world where sometimes jobs are tough to get, and good jobs you would enjoy are even tougher to find … and good jobs you enjoy and get paid a lot of money are even tougher to find … we often put principles aside when job seeking or thinking about what job we want.
Maybe we do so because we begin at the starting line assuming ‘principled behavior’ is … well … an axiom.
We would be wrong.
They are a theorem.
Every day we are asked to compromise in some way. Sometimes it is simple ‘tradeoffs’ <do this or do that> and sometimes it is ‘a no good choice’ decisions <all choices are bad … which is least bad> and sometimes it is an actual ‘right versus wrong’ choice.
These are not difficult choices in our minds. These are difficult choices in reality.
You have a job to do, you have accepted responsibility to do that job and everyone around you is counting on you to do that job <and you do not get paid if you do not do your job>.
On the teetering scale of business what I just wrote weighs … well … a shitload. It tips the scale heavily.
Unfortunately, principles, which should hold the weight of the world, far too often are placed on the scale with the weight of a feather. I am not suggesting this is easy. All I am suggesting is that everyone should at least think about it.
While the authors at WarontheRocks wrote this from a public servant standpoint I am not sure I could have written anything better for the business world. They offer seven questions that someone should consider as they search for their own individual answers.
My favorite line? … this will not be a one-time choice. It will be an ongoing calculation throughout the entire administration, a decision that must be revisited repeatedly, week after week as new policies and decisions unfold.
When you take a job … even if you gaze into the ‘principle crystal ball’ it is never a one time choice nor is it an unchanging choice. Business is ever changing and the leaders of a business are constantly being challenged and responding in an ever changing way. Business has a nasty habit of challenging a leader’s character almost more than it does his/her skills. Principles and principled behavior needs to constantly be assessed … and judged.
Read the 7 things they ask someone to think about. While most of us are not in the unenviable position of having to navigate the moral compass of serving in a Trump administration we all, every time we look for a job, navigate the same construct of thinking & decision making.
… Trump’s wide array of troubling comments mean that every responsible public servant should think about just what level of affront to their principles would simply be too much to tolerate — when choosing to serve or remaining on the job means becoming an enabler to policies or actions that they find deeply unethical or immoral. And this will not be a one-time choice. It will be an ongoing calculation throughout the entire administration, a decision that must be revisited repeatedly, week after week as new policies and decisions unfold.
There are no easy answers to these incredibly difficult questions, and we do not presume to tell others where those personal boundaries should lie. What we can do, however, is identify seven questions that public servants should consider as they search for their own individual answers.
- Do you believe that your service will help improve policies and decision-making? No appointee or civil servant wins every argument all of the time, of course. But do you believe that you will help make things better on balance or at least prevent some truly bad decisions from happening? Will your presence lend an informed contrasting voice to what otherwise might be an echo chamber of groupthink?
- Do you believe that the policies or values that you find objectionable are rooted primarily in the new administration’s inexperience and lack of knowledge or in its core ideology? If you believe the former, then the case for serving is stronger, since you can help educate the new team. But if you believe that the administration is operating more from an ideology that fundamentally violates your deeply held beliefs (such as promoting torture or indiscriminate bombing), then the moral decision bends the other way.
- Who specifically will you work for? Do you believe that person is guided by ideals and values that you respect? Will that person stand up to their bosses for the principles that you deeply believe in? Will they act as a bulwark of decency, shielding you and your colleagues — and maybe even the country — from the worst of politics going on above your pay grade?
- Are the people you most respect choosing not to serve for a principled reason? Or, if later in the administration, have they resigned for cause? In each case, do you know what factors shaped their decisions? How does their logic align with or differ from your thinking? Understanding their experiences can serve as useful guideposts.
- When would choosing to serve (or to remain in government) do more to advance the ideas and values you believe in most? Declining the opportunity to serve or leaving the civil service at the outset of an administration runs the risk of being seen as presumptive rather than principled, assuming the worst before the new administration arrives. Moreover, as Benjamin Wittes (who was early to this debate) writes, “resignations in response to illegal orders are far more powerful than preemptive resignations.” The same logic applies to moral and ethical principles as well.
- When would choosing not to serve (or to leave government) do more to advance the ideals and values you believe in most? How will you carry your commitment to principle into action from the outside? If you elect not to serve now, what might change your mind? Who would you find sufficiently principled to work for that might convince you that serving is the right thing to do?
- If you choose to serve (or to stay), how frequently do you plan to reassess your decision? Failing to do so runs the risk of the “boiling frog” syndrome, where every small uptick in the water temperature, or new policy that modestly erodes that which you deeply believe in, becomes slowly, inexorably acceptable until the whole is invisible and no longer objectionable.
Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University.
We all have to work. And some of us, like me, actually love to work. That belief system does not make the business world any less challenging.
While I am not a public servant and am not challenged by the service of my country versus service to a morally flawed leader dilemma I am a business person who views this through a similar lens.
I have taken jobs knowing that my principles did not exactly match the principles of the leaders <but most likely not as far a stretch as say … well … my principles versus Trump’s> but I did so with eyes wide open believing that if I hung I there, was smart enough in my articulation, my ‘doing it the right way and still winning’ principles would stem the tide of less than stellar principles.
I have learned that ‘stemming a tide’ is like asking the ocean to sit still and never ebb & flow again.
But as the article ended … that is a worthy goal for all of us who work …
That’s the grandest prize for a guy like me who would kill to work on any good idea.
As always … I would step back and say … ‘would it kill my principles?’
Because, in the end, I am not sure there is a worse feeling than looking back and wishing you had been more principled.