Principles In Conflict
January 1971

“Principles In Conflict,” Ensign, Jan. 1971, 64

Principles In Conflict

All of his life, George had been taught to tell the truth, to be honest. He had also learned that it was wrong to offend any of God’s children. George had been married nearly a year when the incident occurred. One evening his wife met him enthusiastically at the door with, “Come into the living room, dear, and see the new lamp I bought today. You’ll just love it.” There on a stand in the living room was an ancient, grotesque lamp. In high anticipation, she asked, “How do you like it?” He thought it was ugly, but he restrained himself, knowing his wife would be disappointed by his reaction.

George recalled the words of Robert Louis Stevenson: “To tell the truth is not just to state the facts but to convey a true impression.” In this case, George was not sure just what was the right thing to say. Should he say he liked it, thereby avoiding offense to his wife, or should he tell her the truth?

It is easy to dismiss such a dilemma as a “gray area” and to do what impulse prompts, but this can be deceiving and is not really helpful in applying the gospel to real life. Determining what is right can sometimes be very difficult. A frequent source of this confusion is the phenomenon of “principles in conflict,” that is, two righteous principles confront a person in such a way that if he is to obey one principle, he will be forced to violate another. These are really difficult kinds of decisions that cause loss of sleep, guilt feelings, and worry. Decisions in which one alternative for Sunday activity is clearly right (attend sacrament meeting) and the other is clearly wrong (go to a movie) are not the real problems in life. The difficult decisions may be both right and wrong, no matter which action is selected.

Recognizing them for what they are, principles in conflict, helps in conducting ourselves in keeping with the Master’s teachings. There is evidence that when the prophet Lehi said “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Ne. 2:11), he may in part have been referring to this concept of principles in conflict and that possibly this is part of the Lord’s plan to make us spiritually stronger. Physical bodies are designed to place muscles in conflict with each other or with gravity. The dynamics of resistance (conflict) builds strong bodies. If all decisions had but two alternatives, one clearly marked “right” and the other clearly marked “wrong,” our personal development in spiritual muscle-building would not be nearly so strengthening. Quite conceivably, the Lord recognized that man would gain much more learning and experience through dealing with conflict than with simple, clear-cut alternatives, and he therefore provided for this in our mortal period of life. If it is not so, why did he place a set of principles in conflict before Adam and Eve in the very beginning? The first mortals were commanded to multiply and replenish the earth and at the same time not to partake of the fruit of the tree of good and evil. To obey one command required the violation of the other.

We constantly face conflicts similar to these examples:

1. An eighteen-year-old desires to be baptized, but his parents do not approve. Principle a: “repent and be baptized.” Principle b: “obey your parents.”

2. A father promised his Cub Scout son that he would attend a pack meeting. A government official calls the father to meet with the governor at the airport to translate conversations with a foreign dignitary. Principle a: a father should keep his promise to his son. Principle b: he should be responsive to duty to community and country.

3. A business executive must lay off employees to reduce costs during a slump in sales. A man with nine children will be put out of work. Principle a: do not cause people to suffer, or be unkind to them. Principle b: preserve stockholders’ profits at 5 percent or better as instructed by the board of directors.

4. A young man faces the enemy on the battlefield. Should he kill? Principle a: “Thou shalt not kill.” Principle b: he should defend freedom.

5. A fifteen-year-old boy meets a new friend at school. The friend has a few bad habits and comes from a broken home. Should the parents encourage or discourage their son in this friendship? Principle a: avoid bad company and bad influences. Principle b: love your neighbor; be friendly to the friendless.

6. At a chance meeting at the clubhouse, the general superintendent of a corporation is asked by the president, “Is your vice-president a good manager?” The general superintendent honestly believes that the vice-president is a poor manager. What should he say? Principle a: be loyal to those over you. Principle b: be honest in what you say.

Here are steps that may provide a start in handling the problems created by principles in conflict.

1. Clarify exactly which principles may be in conflict.

2. Arrange a priority of principles. That is, we know that some principles are more important than others. For instance, there is no conflict in “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”

3. Choose to obey the higher law when two principles are in conflict. This is exactly what Adam and Eve did when they elected to eat of the fruit, what Nephi did when he slew Laban, and what the Savior did when he forgave the adulteress. And one of the important keys to obeying the higher law is to approach the decision with prayer.

When attempting to apply this concept of principles in conflict, the agony is not removed from all decision making, but it will aid in selecting better alternatives. When the principles involved are wide apart in priority, the decisions are easier. As the principles are more nearly aligned in priority, the more difficult it becomes to identify the higher of the two. For example, a man works for a store whose owner decides to do business on Sundays. The man can get another job, but it would mean a 20 percent cut in pay. It would be difficult, but the family could manage on the lower salary. Here is the principle of Sabbath observance versus available money for such things as education, music lessons, and vacations. What should he do?

It is easy to rationalize, to do what is most comfortable, but the Savior did not promise that his way would be easy.

There are some who may say that one cannot live by hard and fast principles. They contend that the circumstances at any particular time will determine what one should do. Under social or economic pressures, rationalizing is often mistaken for reasoning.

It becomes a matter of placing priority on alternatives, in selecting ones that, in our judgment, are most consistent with gospel principles. Those principles will be best served in the spirit of humility, guided by prayer and fasting. Elder Marion D. Hanks has said, “Never let things which matter most be at the mercy of things which matter least.” The choices are sometimes difficult, but then living by principle has never been the easy way.

  • Dr. McKay holds a special professorial chair, the David L. Tandy Professor of American Enterprise Management, at Texas Christian University. He is also a consultant for various government agencies, private corporations, and educational institutions in the United States. His offices in the Church have included those of bishop, missionary, and teacher. He is currently Sunday School superintendent of the Fort Worth Stake.

Art by Merrill Gogan