On Compromise and Being Compromised

Journal of Political Philosophy 20 (1):1-22 (2012)
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Compromise arises in contexts where irreconcilable claims must nonetheless somehow be resolved. Ordinary people in everyday life, politicians and artists, doctors engaging in research, humanitarian workers providing aid in the midst of war – all of them will have faced situations where compromise appeared to be the only reasonable option, and yet will have felt that there was nevertheless something deeply wrong with it. The aim of this paper is to help make sense of that sentiment. The focus of this paper will be on some aspects of the morality of compromise. Its lynchpin will be to construe compromise as a joint action, in particular, a joint wrongdoing – taking part in, and sharing responsibility for, the doing of things that are wrong from the point of view of those who are the parties to the compromise. The question of ‘what is wrong with compromise?’ is thus recast as a question of ‘what is my part in the wrongs being done as part of the compromise?’ It is tempting to suppose that a compromise serves to dilute personal responsibility, parsing it out among parties to the compromise. Viewing a compromise as a joint action, in contrast, will help us to see how a compromise actually increases responsibility among parties to it. They are now jointly collaborating in some action that each of them sees as wrong, at least in part (albeit in differing parts). Discussions of compromise traditionally prioritize the inter-personal aspect – compromise, in the transitive form of ‘compromising with’ someone. But I argue that the intransitive form – ‘compromise of’ – deserves pride of place. The reason for prioritizing the intransitive ‘compromise of’ is simple: that is what is involved in the intra-personal calculation that must, of necessity, go on inside one's own head in the process of deciding whether or not to agree to a 'compromise with' someone else. In this paper I shall concentrate specifically on compromises of principles, or (more precisely) on ‘matters of principled concern to the compromising parties’. Not only is that the most troubling and morally problematic sort of compromise, it is also logically the most central case. I demonstrate that that is so by shifting the focus from inter-personal compromise to the more fundamental intra-personal process underlying it – the compromise we are involved in when adjudicating among our own conflicting values, to decide whether or not to agree to a compromise of the inter-personal sort. This is the subject of the first section of the paper below. Compromise involves resolving conflicts of principles through mutual concessions that are accepted and undertaken by all parties. Doing so may be on-balance desirable, not only from some larger perspective (of social peace, or whatever) but also from each party's own perspective. Nevertheless, from each party's perspective, compromise necessarily involves interacting with, and sometimes contributing to, wrongdoing. Morally, something is lost, even if more is gained on balance.



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Chiara Lepora
University of Denver

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