Friday (April 17, 2009) I attended Avishai Margalit‘s lecture ‘Comprise and Rotten Compromise’ at the Amsterdam ‘Nacht van de Filosofie‘ (Night of Philosphy). Margalit, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the most interesting living philosophers, so this lecture was a must-see.
Margalit argues that compromise in politics in general is a good thing – even, in his own words, ‘shabby, sodden compromises’ can be good because they avoid a worse outcome. Yet not all compromises are good – the exemplar of course is the Munich agreement, in which Chamberlain’s Britain, France and Italy allowed Hitler to annex the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland, in return for promises for peace. Why, Margalit asks, are some compromises never good – or, rotten. His answer lies in the nature of the other party. Hitler was evil, and therefore any compromise with him would be a rotten compromise. Hitler in 1938 was not the Hitler of 1945, but still, the nature of Hitler’s Third Reich was clear. If the other party’s regime is inhuman, a compromise with the other party will be rotten. Rotten compromises, according to Margalit, should not be agreed to, ‘come what may’.
If we look at the Munich agreement, of course the dictum ‘rotten compromises must be rejected, come what may’ easily holds. If Britain had rejected the Munich agreement, the Second World War would have started earlier, and since the military build-up of the Third Reich had not been completed at the time, the Second World War probably would have ended sooner, with less casualties and suffering. And even if not, the War would have come anyway. But what if we look at the Yalta agreement, where the Allied powers split up Europe in a Western and Eastern sphere of influence? Stalin, the other party in this compromise, was clearly running an inhuman regime – an evil one. So this must have constituted a rotten compromise. But what was the alternative to the Western powers? Should they have rejected the compromise, and marched on to Moscow and Stalingrad in 1945, unleashing another devastating war on already war-torn Eastern Europe? To phrase it differently, doesn’t the rejection of any compromise, rotten or not, presuppose a reasonable alternative?
I posed this question to Margalit after his lecture. Margalit qualified it ‘a very good question’ and noted he took three chapters in his upcoming book to answer this very question. So, he said, he wouldn’t be able to fully answer it in this session, without summarizing his entire book. Yet he did provide ‘a short answer’. There he used the acute metaphor of a cockroach in the soup – if there is one, we do not take it out and say ‘the cockroach was bad, but the soup is still good’. If, on the other hand, there is a fly in the ointment, we can take out the fly and say ‘the ointment is still good’. At Yalta, according to Margalit, there was ‘a very big cockroach in the soup’.
Still, though this may settle Yalta, I’m looking forward to the larger answer in his book to the general question: doesn’t the rejection of any compromise presuppose a reasonable alternative? Generalizing from compromises, this boils down to question whether politics should take a pragmatic or idealistic stance. Margalit’s outright denunciation of rotten compromises is an idealistic component in a pragmatic political framework. I’m curious whether his book will answer whether this is still tenable when a reasonable alternative is not on the horizon.
Update: Margalit’s lecture is online now. My question is at the end of the interview with him.