Compromise in Ethics

Ayn Rand wrote an article called "Doesn't Life Require Compromise?". It discusses an important aspect of morality. When you interact with other people, it's natural that you're not going to completely agree with each other on everything, so how do you cooperate? Ultimately, it means you have to be willing to compromise so that both of you get enough of what you each want that it's worth doing, even though it may not be everything you want.

So what's the nature of compromise? Rand breaks it up into two categories.

The first category is a kind of trade between two people. This is the kind of compromise where both parties gain, and it is in the interest of the parties to cooperate. If a friend and I intend to see a movie, we may disagree on which movie we should go to. But we both benefit from having someone go with us, and we're pretty flexible about where we want to go. So I'm willing to see a movie that isn't on the top of my list because I'd enjoy the selected movie more due to having company. I like being able to talk about the movie afterwards with someone. So this kind of compromise allows a win-win situation to occur.

A second kind of compromise happens when moral principles are in opposition. Imagine a thief breaking into your house and trying to steal all of your valuables. Now what happens if someone suggest you should compromise? Perhaps you let them keep some of it, but they don't get it all. That is a compromise between moral principles. You think it's wrong for them to steal from you, but they think it's right. Who wins by that kind of compromise? What value do you gain from making such a deal?

Objectivists often recite a particularly catchy quote Rand made. "In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win". When you compromise with evil, only evil wins. The good gains nothing from the compromise. When you let the thief take some of your property, you lose, and he wins. The fact that it's not a complete win doesn't change the nature of it. It's still a win for them, and a loss for you.

Why is this important? Because compromise is often seen as the way to get people to get along. The advantages of the first kind of compromise are obvious. But then it's generalized. If any two people who disagree will just compromise, they'll both gain from it, or so the thinking goes. And so compromise has turned into a primary social/ethical tool. Whenever there is conflict, compromise is the suggestion.

As you can see from the second kind of compromise, it's a disaster in practice to generalize the virtue of compromise too far. What happens when you try to compromise on fundamental moral principles? Essentially, you're sacrificing them. You're giving them up and acting against them, even if you only do it partially. But the point of the moral principles is to guide you to a successful life. If you sacrifice your principles, you don't gain anything but death in return. And when you willing compromise them, you get exactly what you'd expect. Nothing but pain and suffering.

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