On the Virtue of Compromise

Compromise is the guiding principle of social life.

Posted Jan 25, 2012

All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter. - Edmund Burke

The word compromise is used in two different senses, one typically positive and the other typically negative. The good sense of compromise is finding a common ground with another person, as in reaching a mutual agreement about a difficult course of action affecting both of you. The bad sense is being untrue to your core values and beliefs, as in selling out to achieve some short-term goal.

In recent political discourse in the United States, compromise in both senses has become a dirty word. If you hold some position, whether or not it reflects your core values and beliefs, you should never move from it lest you become a flip-flopper. And if others hold a different position, you should never try to find a common ground or meet them halfway. Indeed, if others hold a different position on Matter X, you should also never try to find a common ground or meet them halfway on Matter Y or Matter Z. Goodness, you might even rethink your positions on Matters Y and Z if they remotely resemble the positions of those who disagree with you on Matter X; that apparently does not make you a flip-flopper.

The others after all are your enemy, and you should give no quarter to your enemy.

This would be all well and good if the human condition entailed a bunch of disconnected individuals engaged in a constant war of each against all. Kill or be killed is what matters, and there is no possibility that more than one of you can live. Oh sure, you might find allies along the way, as long as they agree with you on everything and disagree with you on nothing.

My sketch sounds like a caricature of what is really going on in politics, local, state, and national, and maybe it is. I leave it up to you to decide how accurate this portrayal might be. To be honest, I hope that I am wrong.

What I intend to write about here is compromise, and I want to praise it as the guiding principle of social life, which is to say, life as most of us know it. Do you compromise with your spouse about things? Of course you do. How about your siblings? Again, of course. People at work? Those on your weekend softball team? Your neighbors? People with whom you share a sidewalk or highway? Compromise with all of these people is good and necessary.

I study the psychology of character and virtue, and among the moral strengths valued in most times and most places are tolerance, flexibility, open-mindedness, cooperation, and teamwork - all of these come to bear in compromise. So why are politics different?

One possible explanation is that positive compromise (finding a common ground with others) is nowadays construed by politicians and their most fervent supporters as negative compromise (being untrue to one's core self). And sometimes it should be, depending on the issue. But it is neither plausible nor practical nor, indeed, moral to define one's core self as never finding common ground with anyone else.

Not all political issues are of equal importance*. Some reflect truly crucial matters, and others do not. Is HR 849, AKA the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act, all that critical given other pressing national issues?  I think debating about light bulbs is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. At best, we will have a good view of the disasters that await us.

The original meaning of the word compromise deserves consideration. It comes from a 13th century French word meaning mutual promise and was used to describe the agreement of two parties in conflict to abide by the decision of an arbiter. The parties did not agree to like the decision, only to abide by it. They certainly did not expect it to result in a win-win solution, a cliché that promises a pain-free result, wonderful if it happens but not in the spirit of authentic or typical compromise.

Compromise as a virtue means winning a little and losing a little, and what's wrong with that? It allows life to go on. That's a core value worth supporting.

So who's the arbiter in politics? All of us, if only we have the will to support elected officials willing to compromise for the greater good.

*Political opinions expressed or implied in this essay are solely those of Christopher Peterson and are not meant to imply endorsement by any organization or entity with which he is associated, besides the human race.