Doesn’t the rejection of a compromise presuppose a reasonable alternative?

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.

6 Replies to “Doesn’t the rejection of a compromise presuppose a reasonable alternative?”

  1. Since I’m here… The allies agreed to the Munich agreement because they were further behind in their own military build-up, and the correlation of forces was more favourable the longer they could make him wait for the big war. Which is why he kept upping the stakes – because he didn’t want to wait.

    But in principle, there are some things where you don’t compromise, even in the absence of an acceptable alternative: better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.

  2. @grahame:

    “there are some things where you don’t compromise, even in the absence of an acceptable alternative: better to die on your feet than to live on your knees”

    – that makes death an acceptable alternative in those circumstances, doesn’t it?

  3. Great write-up of the lecture. I too thought your question was a good and interesting one. It will be interesting to see just how he deals with this issue. I came accross a video of the more or less same lecture by Margalit given in late 2008 in Princeton. see (At the end of the lecture somebody in the audience puts to him a similar question regarding Stalin.) Also more interestingly I think is that in this lecture as opposed to one in Amsterdam he clearly states that in his opinion the constitution was a rotten compromise.

    PS As death is the negation of existence doesn’t that disqualify it as a viable alternative let alone an acceptable one?

  4. @Martin: Thanks for he link – I’m downloading it, interesting that he apparently changed his stance on the US Constitution – though the rejection of it as a rotten compromise must certainly have caused a lot of hefty opposition in the USA, where he gave the other lecture.

    About death: you’re certainly right that death itself is not a true alternative; however choosing a course of action which will probably lead to ones death is.

    My point was more that Grahame’s remark about not compromising in certain circumstances avoids the debate in a sense: the alternative for the Western powers after WW II to Yalta might have been a new war; this choice would mean more death and devastation in Eastern Europe, which makes it an unacceptable alternative to Yalta. Deciding it’s preferable to die than live in chains is in some ways an easier decision than to decide for others that it is better to die than to live. So Grahame’s remark in some ways blunts the dilemma: either Yalta or more terror on Eastern Europe. He sketches an acceptable alternative: fight on, even if it means death. I’m interested in those cases where there is no real acceptable alternative.

  5. so yes, death is an acceptable option. Agree with that. From that sense, when it is not an option?

  6. @Grahame: “…death is an acceptable option. Agree with that. From that sense, when it is not an option?”

    I guess the situation that comes to mind first is starting a war. Suppose the only alternative to Yalta would have been to start a war against the Soviet Union in 1945, which would have meant hundreds of thousands more deaths in Eastern Europe: would that have been an alternative to the rotten (or at least lousy) compromise of Yalta? Is it up to you to decide for others whether it’s better for them to die or live in chains? My point of view is that at that time, peace + Yalta was better than more war (if we assume for the sake of argument that a better compromise than Yalta was not feasible).

    Likewise in Iraq: no doubts about Saddam, he was an inhuman dictator. But how many lives is freedom worth? I think it’s clear by now Bush’s invasion was a bad idea, but it is not necessarily a bad idea to intervene for humane reasons in all circumstances (think Rwanda).

    Margalit’s point of view is that the rejection of a compromise should be taken on grounds which are solely derived from the nature of the other party. If this is an evil regime, like Hitler’s, Margalit thinks the compromise should be rejected. I doubt if this holds *without looking at alternatives*.

Comments are closed.