Minnesota’s Question of the Year

A friend sent me an article about Minnesota’s Great American Think-Off, which poses a question for people to answer in essays of 750 words or less. Four writers will then debate the question, and the winner will receive a $500 prize (FYI: this post is not my answer).

This year’s question is: “Which is more ethical: sticking to your principles or being willing to compromise?”

While I love the idea of a “think off,” I don’t think the question is a very good one because, as in all things ethics-related, the answer turns on context. There are a thousand different examples we could come up with where the ethical thing would be to stick to your principles, and a thousand more where the ethical action would be to compromise.

One of my college professors, Steven Fesmire, wrote a book, John Dewey & Moral Imagination, in which he makes the analogy that being ethical is like playing jazz. Quoting Martha Nussbaum, he writes, “a responsible action is a highly context-specific and nuanced and responsive thing whose rightness could not be captured in a description that fell short of the artistic.” The jazz metaphor “spotlights and illustrates the empathetic, impromptu, and inherently social dimensions of moral composition,” by which he means, taking a moral/ethical action requires recognizing the social dimension of the problem at hand, understanding and empathizing with how all parties feel and what they’re trying to achieve, and then having the skill to add your own voice and interests in such a way as to contribute, build, and improve upon the general harmony of the moment.

To ask whether it is more ethical to stick to your principles or compromise is like asking whether it’s better to have a saxophone or trumpet in your quartet. The only responsible answer is to say, “Well, it depends.”

Ethics are not written in stone. Like jazz, they are improvisational while also aligning with received tradition and continuous feedback. You can’t write down a list of ethics. All you can do is develop your sense of empathy and add your authentic voice to the song that’s being played.