Rob Cobb

When to sacrifice principles

Updated Nov 07, 2013

This post originally appeared as a column in The Diamondback

For certain political issues, Americans cannot accept anything less than perfection. When it comes to our national security, we will go to any length to ensure safety from outside threats. No sacrifice is too drastic, no measure too expensive — if we need something to bolster our national security, we must have it. For pro-choice supporters, nothing less than absolute freedom of access to health insurance-supported abortion will do; for those opposed, there is no middle ground when it comes to life.

This absolutist rhetoric on both sides of the political aisle is often presented as “principled leadership” or “common sense.” If an opponent disagrees with something so obvious to us, they must be stupid, mean-spirited or out to destroy us.

But these issues aren’t simple or clear-cut. The folks on the other side aren’t all stupid, nor do they hate you or want to destroy your way of life. They aren’t all racists, they aren’t all homophobic. and they aren’t unaware of the real problems facing the world.

This isn’t to say that the truth always lies somewhere in the middle; sometimes one side is correct and will be vindicated through the gaze of history. But being right is hard. These issues are complex and morality is unclear; intelligent, reasonable people disagree on even the most fundamental issues. Lots of times, we have to make choices that don’t seem right. Often, none of our options is clearly superior, and despite incomplete knowledge, we still have to choose.

Our emotional ties to our principles confuse things even more. It is difficult to face the prospect of a terrorist attack, children failing to meet educational standards or (fill in your worst nightmare about the legal status of abortion). It seems like we have to reject that bad thing with all our might. The idea of sparing no expense becomes real. But unchecked support for any ideology leads to bad results.

The law of diminishing returns kicks in quickly once we commit to doing everything we can to achieve 100 percent perfection on our issue. Often, the cost difference between 98 and 99 percent effectiveness is more than the cost to get from 20 to 98 percent. As long as it is not politically expedient to say “within reason,” no one will rein in ideology.

Consider end-of-life care: We spend thousands of dollars to prolong the final few months of life, despite poor quality of life and the inevitability of death. The issue is tricky because we are inclined to believe that we ought to spend everything possible to keep someone alive. In reality, we shouldn’t. There is a finite limit to what we should spend, and it is probably below what we actually practice. Those thousands of dollars could, and should, go to more effective care.

Regarding national defense, the U.S. accounts for nearly 40 percent of total military spending worldwide (about $600 billion each year) and allocated about $52 billion this year for intelligence. If we could wrap our brains around the possibility of loss and tolerate risk to our safety, then we wouldn’t spend so much, and we probably wouldn’t compromise our liberty so readily. However, nothing but total safety will do, even though some of those billions could go to other purposes.

In our culture, we encourage having principles we are unwilling to compromise. This sounds pretty from a pulpit or campaign podium but it leads to bad politics and worse decision-making. As individuals, we ought to pay attention when our real views aren’t as extreme as the ones expressed on TV. We ought to challenge ourselves to put a price on our principles. There ought to be a tipping point for every ideology — some weight sufficient for compromise.

🤓😽 Rob Cobb
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