Expediency (April 4)


“No man is justified in doing evil on the ground of expediency” (Theodore Roosevelt).

EXPEDIENCY IS AN UNUSUAL WORD IN THAT IT’S OFTEN USED IN TWO DIFFERENT SENSES, ONE NEGATIVE AND THE OTHER POSITIVE. In addition to their denotation, or explicit meaning, many words also have a connotation, a more indirect meaning consisting of a positive or negative “aura” or “atmosphere” that surrounds the words. “Expediency” has two basic meanings, but these two meanings have two different connotations. One is negative, and the other is positive.

The first meaning of “expedient” is “serving to promote one’s interests,” and this meaning does not give us a good feeling. This kind of expediency is the kind that we associate (whether rightly or wrongly) with politicians. Pontius Pilate, for example, apparently decided to go ahead and have Jesus of Nazareth executed because it was politically expedient. But as Theodore Roosevelt argued, “No man is justified in doing evil on the ground of expediency.” And with regard to this kind of expediency, William Morley Punshon summed it all up this way: “Cowardice asks, Is it safe? Expediency asks, Is it politic? Vanity asks, Is it popular? Conscience asks, Is it right?”

But the second meaning is “appropriate to a particular end or purpose,” and this meaning not only has a positive connotation, but it contains an idea that’s very valuable for us to think about. Used this way, the word “expedient” means that which is fitting, proper, beneficial, or helpful. And in this sense, we ought to consider the expediency of every action that we contemplate engaging in. Whatever the decision, the crucial question for an honorable person is not simply “Is this permissible from a legal standpoint?” but more important, “Will this help? Will it do good? Is this the very best that I can do?”

Laws are important, and we can’t do without them. But laws are no more than a minimum standard for us to go by — within the law, we must also be concerned with what is expedient. The fellow who is willing to do “anything the law allows” is not the fellow you want for a next-door neighbor. But our neighbor shouldn’t have that kind of neighbor either! So we’ve always got to ask, “Is this beneficial?”

“‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up” (First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians).

Gary Henry – WordPoints.com