The Chronicle Review

Does One 'Compromise' Fit All?

The bumpy tale of a bipartisan concept

Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle Review

March 21, 2010

"Listen, Jeff, please, and try to understand," veteran Senator Joseph Paine implores newbie Jefferson Smith, pleading with him to go along with Capitol Hill business as usual in that classic Hollywood fable of principle versus practicality and perniciousness, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

"This is a man's world, Jeff," explains Paine, "and you've got to check your ideals outside the door, like you do your rubbers. Thirty years ago, I had your ideas. I was you. I had to make the same decision you were asked to make today. And I made it. I compromised."

Would Barack Obama, 20 years from now, be giving that talk if he hadn't won a quick promotion? Or would Obama be the kindly president of the Senate in Frank Capra's tale who encourages young Smith to stick to his principles with a smile of solidarity here, a helpful ruling there? Hard to say, just as almost everything connected to the concept of "compromise" threatens philosophical confusion.

Is compromise a good or bad thing? Imagine trying to teach a young person whether the word "compromise" is positive or negative. Would you point to the cascade of newspaper editorials bemoaning how Republicans and Democrats can't cooperate on health care? Seems it's a positive word. What about the editorials suggesting that the demand for high integrity among public officials can't be weakened, the rights of so-called enemy defendants before U.S. courts can't be narrowed, the just entitlements of occupied people can't be denied? Seems it's a negative word. Certainly it drives one back to fundamental political and moral beliefs, one's bedrock sense, as Senator Paine says, of how "things are."

The dictionaries tell us that "compromise" etymologically arises from the notion of mutual promising, an act of cooperation, though that sense now registers as "obsolete" or "archaic." Its primary contemporary meaning as a noun is "a settlement of differences in which each side makes concessions" (American Heritage), an "adjustment of opposing principles, systems, etc., by modifying some aspects of each" (Webster's New World). That sounds neutral, or even presumptively positive, on the logical assumption that any agreement, by definition, satisfies both parties. Yet pejorative senses—"a concession to something detrimental," "a weakening, as of one's principles"—follow right afterward.

We find the same split in the collected wisdom of the centuries. On the positive side, no less than conservative icon Edmund Burke famously declared, in his Speech on Conciliation With America (1775), that "All government—indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act—is founded on compromise and barter." Eleanor Roosevelt, hardly a direct ideological descendant of Burke, shared that spirit ("All big things in human history have been arrived at slowly and through many compromises"), as did a loyal Republican named Dwight Eisenhower ("Things are not all black and white. There have to be compromises. The middle of the road is all of the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters.").

Yet the strain of condescension and condemnation toward compromise also boasts a long lineage. "Compromise makes a good umbrella but a poor roof," observed 19th-century poet and editor James Russell Lowell, adding that it amounted to a "temporary expedient, often wise in party politics, almost sure to be unwise in statesmanship." Andrew Carnegie thought: "The 'morality of compromise' sounds contradictory. Compromise is usually a sign of weakness, or an admission of defeat. Strong men don't compromise ... and principles should never be compromised." German novelist Günter Grass voiced the familiar idea in aesthetics that artists do as they please in their work: "Art is uncompromising and life is full of compromises."

The conflict on compromise plays out especially in American political history. Was the "Great Compromise of 1787," which settled the battle over representation between large and small states while also preserving slavery, a triumph that enabled the fledgling United States to survive, or an embarrassment that ensured its moral shame until emancipation? Charles Sumner, the intrepid 19th-century antislavery senator from Massachusetts whose rigidity about "principles" makes Jim Bunning seem like a wimp, complained that "from the beginning of our history, the country has been afflicted with compromise. It is by compromise that human rights have been abandoned." Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison declared, "I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice." To Frederick Douglass, the semantics of compromise was clear: "The opposite of compromise is character."

What to do? With compromise out of fashion in both domestic and international affairs, Avishai Margalit's new On Compromise and Rotten Compromises (Princeton University Press) catches the eye. Historically, few philosophers or political theorists focus on the word. Pundits on domestic affairs prefer to speak of partisanship or bipartisanship. International analysts talk of "intransigence" or "diplomacy." Might some direct attention by this well-known emeritus professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, now George F. Kennan Professor at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, help us decide whether we should or shouldn't—compromise, that is?

Margalit explains that he's mainly concerned with a specific question about political compromise that concerns him as an Israeli: When is it acceptable to compromise on claims of justice in order to secure peace? Nonetheless, his insights into the larger concept enlighten.

He dubs the kind of compromise that no one should ever make a "rotten compromise," and defines it as "an agreement to establish or maintain an inhuman regime, a regime of cruelty and humiliation, a regime that does not treat humans as humans." Margalit justifies its rejection "at all costs" on the ground that inhuman regimes "erode the foundation of morality," the very assumption of shared humanity that we need to get along with one another.

Compromise should therefore be shunned with inhuman regimes. His examples of rotten deals include Neville Chamberlain's Munich appeasement of Hitler, the 19th-century toleration of King Leopold of Belgium's enslavement and brutalization of the Congolese, and the agreement of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin at Yalta to forcibly repatriate Soviet soldiers and citizens to the Soviet Union. Margalit thinks "rotten compromises should be prohibited in all circumstances. Other compromises should be evaluated on their merit, case by case."

Easy to say, one might respond. Don't we already know that it's precisely disagreement about which matters rise to fundamental principle, to the extreme case, that creates obstacles to compromise?

Margalit wouldn't disagree, but he's way ahead of the critic who thinks the logic of compromise is simple. His point, as he marshals real-world examples, thought experiments, and game-theory strategies, is that the realm of politics in which we should and can compromise is much greater than we think. In turn, the arena of so-called principle, where absolutism must prevail, is narrower. As he so niftily remarks at the outset, his book seeks "just a peace" rather than "a just peace."

Given that pragmatic aim, and Margalit's hard-core conclusions about Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, it sometimes surprises when On Compromise starts reading like Robert Nozick writing Anarchy, Two States, and Utopia, outlining the enduring logic of Margalit's title concept with a dovish tilt. He spends plenty of time pursuing technical lines of reasoning, complete with unappealing hypothetical conceits, such as the two states of "Overdog" and "Underdog," which are unlikely to convince anyone who does not begin with a taste for analytic political theory and fundamentally liberal premises. (That's a respect in which he resembles John Rawls more than Nozick.)

Yet there's a strain in Margalit's observations that packs a realist punch. Recognizing that we are "forced by circumstances to settle for much less than we aspire to" on issues of justice, we ought to be "judged by our compromises more than by our ideals and norms. Ideals may tell us something important about what we would like to be. But compromises tell us who we are."

In taking that line, Margalit shines light on a truth about real-world justice that few theorists acknowledge: It's impossible to correct all the injustices done in this world since time immemorial, let alone all injustices that might be open to correction. We lack not just means of implementation—we lack data on the uncountable injustices that have ever taken place. Meanwhile, life rolls on. A Wall Street Journal correspondent recently reported on how Zurich's appointed attorney for animal rights had brought a case for a fish treated badly while being caught. The writer dryly ended her article by noting that the litigation came too late for the fish, which had already been eaten. If perfect justice can't exist, might we compromise on the rest? Margalit says his book is meant, among other things, to send "a word of warning against a bloody-minded uncompromising cast of mind—the mind of the sectarian."

Margalit further illuminates "compromise" by his distinction between what he labels politics as economics and politics as religion, the latter pulling in the idea of the holy and the taboo. In the economic model of politics, anything can, in principle, be exchanged for anything else, widening the space for compromise. Under the religious model, the holy and the sacred not only can't be "exchanged" for something else, but even to think of doing so might be sacrilege. Religion, to the extent that it implies holiness, shrinks the space for compromise and sets "severe limits on the ability of humans to negotiate."

Finally, Margalit reflects on the psychological dimensions of compromise, one of which is that we "tend to regard our own concessions as real sacrifices and minimize the concessions of the other side." He essentially sketches a two-pronged approach to progress in social disputes. First, we need to understand the logic that controls the Janus-faced, positive/negative ambiguity of compromise: It's good to engage in it regarding "nonholy" matters that don't empower inhuman regimes, and it's bad to engage in it if that means sacrifice of absolute principles necessary to protect against inhuman regimes. Second, we should realize that we exercise more philosophical control than we think over supposedly absolute principles or goals—for example, when we recognize, by careful thinking, that the goal of perfect justice may be practically unachievable. Once we understand our pragmatic ability to shape the putatively absolute, compromise becomes more possible.

To be sure, what leaders regard as unbendable principle remains inconsistent, and some may see either-or choices where others detect multiple options. Margalit, who criticizes former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir for bringing about the "horrendous" 1973 Yom Kippur War, doubtless remembers her much-reprinted Yiddish-inflected remark to The New York Times the following year, apropos Israel's existence: "To be or not to be is not a question of compromise. Either you be or you don't be."

Close readers of On Compromise, though, are more likely to be reminded of a current leader, far less confrontational than Jefferson Smith, though equally lanky. That professorial fellow insists on ferreting out possible lines of agreement, reserving "absolutism" for only the most important principles, and seeing the ability to compromise in policy matters as strength, not weakness, in a democracy.

Mr. Obama Goes to Washington? In the multiplex of the mind, it lacks the drama of Capra's classic. But after absorbing Margalit's shrewd points, the story line seems philosophically right.

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania.