Holding Fast to Principles—Costs and Benefits

March 21st, 2014
Jim Thomas

For the individual, holding fast to a principle, conviction, standard, or value often carries both costs and benefits. It can cost one a friend, a sale, a contract, a client, a patient, a job, a promotion.  On the other hand, steadfast integrity preserves the one asset no one no one can afford to lose—one’s self respect.

Consider this incident from the 1970s at the Environmental Protection Agency. [Names are disguised to protect confidentiality.]The EPA was in the market for a new scientific instrument capable of measuring light and chemicals in water. John Doe was an EPA Area Director with responsibility for reviewing proposals submitted by vendors competing for the contract.

As it turned out, a company in Washington DC, owned by A. Jones, Doe’s long-term friend and professional colleague, was among the competitors. Their friendship dated back to Johns Hopkins University, where the two men shared housing while working on their PH.ds. Their friendship and professional contacts continued across the years.

When Jones’s company submitted its instrumentation proposal, EPA researchers found it contained a minor flaw. It failed to measure photosynthesis in water to the required levels. Doe had to make the final judgment rejecting it.  He received a phone call from Jones. Invoking their long-standing friendship,

The contractor appealed to Doe to approve his instrumentation. In addition he reminded Doe they were dealing with public money only, not each other’s private funds, and he, Jones, “needed some of it.”

Doe declined to budge. Said he; “I would have helped my friend any way I could. But the standards for measurement were the standards. The instruments either met them or it did not. It was a close call, but Jones’s instrument failed the test.  I was at peace with the decision.”

From that day forward, Doe never heard from Jones. When their paths crossed at professional conferences and meetings, Jones refused to speak and broke all further contact with his old friend.

Doe lost a friend but kept his self-respect. Said writer Brad Blanshard:

What above all else puts power into our ideals, what sets the drive wheels of the  moral engine in motion, is not a schedule of dogmas of first and last things, but the picture in one’s mind of something one has to be if he is to keep his self respect. It is the most powerful of motives, for it is what no one can afford to lose.



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