8. The Morality of Compromise

One problem with our overly-partisan politics controlled by the ideological extremes is that it makes compromise difficult if not impossible. It is difficult for zealots of any kind to compromise. This is true of religious zealots, Marxist zealots, National Socialist zealots, and secular humanist zealots. When you know you are right and either God or inevitable historical forces are on your side, it is hard to compromise.

The Meaning of Compromise

The word “compromise comes from a Middle English term connoting a mutual promise to abide by an arbiter’s decision. The Middle English term derives from the Latin compromissum, which means to mutually promise, from com (with) and promittere (to promise). The art of compromise is the art of reaching a middle ground with an adversary and promising to abide for the time being with that proposed solution to the dispute.

The word compromise has at least two different meanings;

  • A set of meanings in which something is exposed or made liable to danger, suspicion or disrepute; and
  • An accommodation in which each party makes concessions.

The problem with compromise in political discourse is the fact that statesmen and stateswomen must have the ability to discern when a fundamental principle is being compromised in such a way that there will be long term hard to the polity and when the compromise is a pragmatic way of moving a problem towards solution. Ideologues of the left and right, by definition, lack this ability.

Political Zealots and Compromise

Humility is a requirement for compromise. Zealots left and right, religious and secular, are without the ability to compromise because they lack a fundamental requirement of wise public decision-making: the humility to recognize that the best of us are sometimes misguided and mistaken in their moral decisions, and the worst of us are sometimes correct and act with moral common sense. Zealots left and right, religious and secular, lack the sense of their own finitude and moral and intellectual weakness, necessary to effective compromise.

The second defect of zealotry in public decision-making is that it refuses to take small intermediate steps towards the solution to large and complex problems. I have already in a prior post reflected on how a kind of ideological perfectionism caused the Affordable Care Act debacle. The problems with the budget deficit are equally a symptom of the left and right refusing to take small steps to resolve (or at least begin resolving) a national problem. Some years ago, a bi-partisan group recommended a path towards a balance budget. President Obama refused to compromise as did the leaders of the opposite party, with the result that nothing was accomplished. The preference for ideologically pure policy solutions to the detriment of effective action is a barrier to wise compromise.

Democracy and Compromise

At the time Richard John Neuhaus wrote, The Naked Public Square, [1]  the religious right was at the peak of its power. At the very beginning of the chapter, he notes that some religious groups have difficulty with the give and take of democratic politics because of the assumption that they are in possession of a revealed truth that makes compromise equivalent to cooperation with evil or falsehood. [2] In what I think is one of his best observations, he puts the case for compromise as follows:

People who compromise know in accordance with the democratic process know that they are compromising. That is, they do not tell themselves or others that it does not matter, that there was no principle at stake, that there was not a reasoning that had been stopped short of its logical end. In a similar way, to forgive someone is not the same thing as saying that it did not matter, that there was no offense, if there was no offence, there can be no forgiveness. Compromise and forgiveness arise from the acknowledgement that we are imperfect creatures in an imperfect world, Democracy is the product not of a vision of perfection but of the knowledge of imperfection. [3]

Neuhaus is absolutely correct in his analysis of the necessity of compromise to a functioning democracy. Compromise is the art of seeking the common good where there is violent disagreement as to what is in the common good and what is the best course of seeking it. The more divergent the policy views of the participants, the more necessary compromise is to a functioning democracy. Hopefully with the passing of the modern world with its “isms” and the preference for large, radical, bureaucratic solutions, the problem of compromise will lessen. But, it will not lessen until and unless the current participants walk away from our currently excessive ideological and combative style of politics.

Complex problems by their very nature have complex and divisive solutions. It is the job of leaders to pick the most viable solution and implement it. One fundamental quality of a leader is the ability to address problems in an organization successfully. By this definition, our political system has been lacking in leadership for a long, long time. Some years ago, I was visiting with a religious leader about a problem that was tearing our organization apart. I was attempting to sell him on taking a small compromising step to keep that problem from damaging our organization. His response was the response of the anti-leader: “Yes, Chris it is probably going to happen, but not until after I retire.” He was correct, but the organization has sustained the loss of thousands of members in the past few years. Unfortunately zealotry triumphed because leaders would not compromise.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.” This week’s blog reflects upon Chapter 7, entitled, “The Morality of Compromise”.

[2] Id, at 114.

[3] Id.


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