165 – Don’t shoot the “rotten” compromise – it’s all we have! (Part I)

Posted on September 7, 2012 by

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This post is a conversation with Jovan after his post on compromises. His argument closely tracks a book by Avishai MARGALIT, where a case is made forcefully for the need to reflect on compromises – and “rotten” compromises[1].

To set out my position from the outset, this is my Amazon.com review of MARGALIT’s book at the end of 2009: “The concept of compromise is neither at center stage in philosophical discussion nor even on its back burner. One reason why compromise does not occur as a philosophical topic stems from the philosophical bias in favor of ideal theory.” (pg.5) says Prof. Margalit – and right he is. For having dared to state that the philosophical king has no clothes he should be much commended. So I stand fully behind his’ and Jovan’s view that compromises are what life (and political or diplomatic life in particular) is all about.

Striving for value – Plato’s “love” of virtue – is fine and easy, when there is only one value to strive for. The more virtue, the better (for a critical reflection on this, see my 161). The problem is when two or more values cannot be reconciled and compromises need to be made among them.

Compromises between values had a thoroughly bad press in the past. When confronted with them, the Greeks welshed and called in the Gods to solve the conundrum ad hoc. This intervention from on high even had a specific name – “deus ex machina” – the outcome was perceived as rickety affair (the “unsatisfactory” predicate still attaches to the term)[2] of no guidance for the future. Christians vaguely spoke of “higher” and “lesser” goods – one was to sacrifice the lesser for the higher. Jesuits practiced this philosophy with a vengeance – hence their slippery reputation. “Dispensation” is another term attached to compromise – no glory case either, as it was seen by outsiders as self-serving if not downright hypocritical. Minorities made ample use of dispensations and “mental reservations” in order to avoid persecution or to curry favor with the hostile majority.

MARGALIT says that we should compromise to our heart’s content (how he does not say) except – we should avoid “rotten” compromises. “Rotten” compromises compromise human dignity. “Compromises that cannot support humanity and human dignity must be avoided.”

Let’s give a closer took at the core of MARGALIT’s argument. His line is that we should not compromise on “human dignity”. Or put it in a different way, we should try to maximize “human dignity”. Formulated in this way, we recognize the analogy to John S. MILL’s “utility”. Welfare is improved when we maximize utility – here call it “dignity”.

We now see the difficulty with the concept, and one which has bedeviled “utilitarianism” ever since it was born, namely that is either trivial, or autocratic. The trivial case accrues when everyone can be immediately made “better off” – be it in “utility” or “dignity”. That’s what economists call “Pareto optimality”: in essence we eliminate waste, and thereby make the best of a material situation. True, and trivial.

What happens, however, if the proposed action lowers my “utility” while everyone else’s “utility” is improved? The economists have found sort of a way out: they compensate the losers for their loss out of the enhanced utility of the winners (I assume, for simplicity, that “utility” is fungible[3]). The core element is that our actions have allowed us to create “more” out of an existing situation – human ingenuity has created a bounty that allows satisfaction all around – some directly, others indirectly through compensation.

What happens is one person’s “human dignity” is reduced, and everyone else’s “human dignity” is improved? This is the Faustian question Dostoevsky addressed in Crime and punishment. What’s the “human dignity” of a grimy old lady – Raskolnikov argued – compared with the “human dignity” he could bring to humanity? Raskolnikov kills the old lady, and for her that’s it. You cannot compensate her out of the spring-well of future “dignity”.

Contrary to economics, where the material compromise rings in the “more” with which to compensate, there is no way of “compensating” an individual for the spiritual loss of dignity. At this point we have maneuvered ourselves into a tight corner. Either any loss of human dignity is inadmissible, in which case there is stasis[4]. Or we allow ourselves to offset losses in “human dignity” against increases elsewhere (they are usually painted to accrue in future). This is what all eutopian revolutionaries argue: kill a few today, and the next generation will be happy[5]. The decision is inherently autocratic (even is clad in majoritarian terms).  The “many” are free to oppress the “few”: it is no consolation to the “few” that the “many” use majority vote rather than letting the autocrat decide in their favor.

There is a hidden bias, in my view, in MARGALIT’s criterion. It addresses impending action, but fails properly to consider ongoing inaction. “Compromises that cannot support humanity and human dignity must be avoided” – he argues, and this is fine. Starving people in a concentration camp would qualify as “rotten compromise” in MARGALIT’s view. Close to one billion people live today at the edge of starvation, while we wallow in excess. Starving is starving. Does the fact that we have not caused the billion’s starvation absolve us from doing our most?

Fate is funny. I read at random as I write – it’s procrastination with an intellectual gloss. But it may be useful, as in this case. While straying from this text I came across an article by Ali MAZRUI[6], written in 1997. He compares Islamic and Western values. In a first round he shows that the perceived cleavage (then) was not as big as perceived. Then he goes on to argue: “Islam brings to the calculus of universal justice some protection from the abyss of human depravity. Historically, the religion and the civilization have been resistant to forces that contributed to the worst aspects of the twentieth century’s interludes of barbarism: racism, genocide, and (interpersonal) violence within society.” Indeed, as I scroll through my history knowledge – he seems to have a point. Islam may have been more the means than the purpose of conquest. Shortly after Islam ran over much of North Africa and Spain, Charlemagne was smiting the Saxons. His religiously motivated frenzy was such that the Pope had to plead to leave a few souls alive to become converts[7] and be saved.

MAZRUI has in any case a point: how do we compare such outcomes? To give a more recent example – one the MARGALIT would recognize as being close to his own concerns: When the Nazis created ghettos for the Jews, they put Jewish leaders in charge. These people thought they were doing their best under the circumstances – helping their own to sustain “human dignity” under most cruel circumstances. To use MAZRUI’s terminology: it was “humane” – if not “human”. Where would MARGALIT stand on this?

MARGALIT’s “human dignity” – whatever this might be in practical terms – seems to provide no certain guide in the impenetrable thicket of human action or inaction. So what to do? Until the next blog entry, I’ll leave the reader to ponder these issues. I promise no solution – I never to provide them. I’ll just try to clear the deck of a bit of wooly thinking.


[1]           Avishai MARGALIT (2009): On compromises – and rotten compromises. Princeton University press, New Haven.

[2]           Iphigenia is the classic case of intractable compromise. Should she bury her brother’s corpse, as sisterly love demands, or should she obey the city’s rule that had forbidden it? The Gods had to helicopter in to solve the case ad hoc. The spectators were not wiser than before – catharsis did not eventuate and the still feel that the outcome of the play in a dud.

[3]           It is not, and it is a discussion underlying much of development economics. Modernization brings more and new opportunities, but also destroys old ones. The hunter/gatherer who is made to settle down mourns his loss of “lifestyle” (I hate the term). His loss is nowhere offset by compensation society offers him in terms of benefits from sedentary life.

[4]           Well, except that the current distribution of “human dignity” is contingent and historical. Is the aristocrat entitled to his “human dignity”, which his predecessors obtained by pillage and violence? Conservatives have never been able to fully answer this argument.

[5]           Defenders of the status quo argue no differently, they just imagine another scenario. At best the US supported Pol Pot not because he was a saint, but because Washington feared the loss of “human dignity” from Vietnamese hegemony in the region. Japanese civilians were killed by the million in WWII to save GI lives (we hope it was for this reason), and prevent the Japanese army from marching down Main Street in the USA. We can always imagine a scenario which makes us worse off, so we fob off those whose human dignity is being trampled by our action with: “it could be worse”, or even “it will be worse”.

[6]           Ali A. MARUI (1997): Islamic and Western values. Foreign Affairs. Sept/October.

[7]           See e.g.: