Bargaining with the Devil

Sunday, October 24, 2010

What Is It

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.  How do we distinguish between when are we 'bargaining with the devil' and when are we simply trying to be tolerant of alternative lifestyles and political positions?  Is it OK to 'bargain with the devil' in the name of peace?  When we refuse to compromise on moral grounds, are we imposing our values?  Ken and John negotiate the terms with UC Irvine Law Professor and professional mediator Carrie Menkel-Meadow.

Listening Notes

Is negotiation is morally prohibited under certain conditions? If so, in what circumstances is it unethical to attempt to compromise? John and Ken discuss the ethical implications of compromise, wondering whether it can ever be acceptable to negotiate with the representatives of inhumane regimes, a form of compromise that political philosopher Avishai Cohen calls “rotten.” But some historical agreements with oppressive governments seemed necessary at the time, including Churchill’s negotiations with Stalin during World War Two. Other agreements have had truly evil consequences: the compromises that led to the ratification of the Constitution allowed the institution of slavery to perpetuate, for example. Is there a clear-cut system for deciding what sorts of compromise are allowed and what ones are forbidden? 

Carrie Menkel-Meadow joins the discussion, offering the pragmatic viewpoint that there are no situations in which we are categorically prohibited from negotiating. Instead, she argues the decision to negotiate should be made on a case-by-case basis, observing that both sides often stand to gain from discussing their interests openly with one another. After all, listening to one’s opponents does not entail sacrificing one’s own ideals. Ken notes that some people prefer to take the so-called “clean hands” approach in these situations, preferring to keep their consciences clean by avoiding having anything to do with those that they deem evil. Menkel-Meadow respects this point of view, but points out that engaging with one another is necessary for real change; avoidance can make matters worse.

In order for negotiation to be successful, there must be a balance of power between the two sides. In the political realm, such a balance is typically achieved by having a third party mediate the talks, preventing agreements from being forced upon the weaker side. Another important ingredient for successful cooperation is trust in the other side to uphold their end of the bargain. When this trust breaks down, our willingness to compromise is undermined, as has arguably happened between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. As Menkel-Meadow holds, however, negotiation is all the more necessary in such situations, since the potential benefits are so great.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 4:30): Molly Samuel interviews residents, business owners, and public officials in San Benito county about the controversial development of solar farms in Panoche Valley. Complicating the issue is the presence of the endangered blunt-nosed leopard lizard, whose habitat may be threatened by the project. Fundamental differences of opinion make compromises both more difficult and more necessary to reach.
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (seek to 44:49): Ian Shoales discusses one of history’s most famous deals with the devil. The accusations against seventeenth-century French priest Urbain Grandier inspired Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Lourdon and Ken Russell’s film The Devils with Vanessa Redgrave.


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