Compromise is the condition of peace and progress. But there are times when we should not compromise – when compromise would undermine integrity and amount to cooperating with evil.
The title of our show, “Bargaining with the devil,” is supposed to bring to mind the issues of bargaining and compromise. These are good things, involved in virtually all cooperative and productive behavior. Everyone has to bargain. Even dictators need to bargain with other dictators and heads of state.
But there are times when we shouldn't compromise because basic principles are involved; and there are issues that we shouldn't bargain about. Or so it seems.
Still, even when you are completely right about an important principle, can't the situation you are in force you to compromise? Bernard Williams imagined the following. You are an anthropologist in some country wracked by revolution. One group or another comes in to the village in which you work and rounds up all 15 males. The leader says they will execute them all. You protest. He says, “Fine. If you will shoot the first one we will let the other ones go.” He hands you the gun. What do you do? Surely, in some sense, it is wrong to bargain with murderers about who gets murdered. And it's completely contrary to your principles to kill an innocent person. But if you don't bargain, and act contrary to your principles, 14 extra innocent men will die.
Of course ethical theories may dictate one course or the other. The utilitarian says shoot. The Kantian, I assume, says not to. But recently philosophers like Avishai Margalit have suggested that instead of focusing on theoretical ideals, a useful ethical and political theory needs to start by considering the rights and wrongs of compromise; Rawls may tell us what an ideal group of reasoners in an original position would come up with as a just society; Nozick may tell us who would own what in the extremely counterfactual situation in which we could start with legitimate cases of ownership. But in the real world people have things; nations control territories; societies are ruled by various combinations of laws and principles; and the political actor is never faced with choosing an ideal but rather with making the best out of a messy and unjust situation.
History abounds with leaders who had to compromise with evil. Churchill refused to negotiate with Hitler. But he did negotiate with Stalin, agreeing to the forced repatriation of dissident Soviet refugees among other things. Our nation was founded on compromise. Many of our founding fathers, not only those from the northern states, but some of the slave-holding Southerners as well, knew that slavery was wrong, about as wrong as a thing can be. They compromised away the life, liberty, and happiness of millions of Afro-Americans, in order to have a union.
Margalit distinguishes between compromise and “rotten compromise”. Rotten compromises are those that institute or perpetuate truly inhumane regimes, and such compromises are morally prohibited. By that standard it seems to me the founders' compromise was rotten. And by that standard, I guess, we shouldn't compromise with the Taliban. And Churchill probably shouldn't have compromised with Stalin at Yalta. And I suppose we shouldn't be negotiating with North Korea, and possibly not with Iran either. Inhumane regimes are a fact. Can there really be a moral prohibition against negotiating with them? And doesn't willingness to negotiate imply willingness to compromise?
We will have some help from Carrie Menkel–Meadow, professor of law at the University of California, Irvine. She's the author of What's Fair: Ethics For Negotiators.