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The Morality of Compromise
Editors’ Note: Does how we negotiate reflect or shape our character, or both? Does choosing to negotiate have moral implications? What are the ethical and moral implications of making the assumption that negotiation is inappropriate? Here, Menkel-Meadow notes that not all negotiation is based in the idea of compromise, and discusses the ethical and moral underpinnings of our choices in negotiation–choices we may ignore we are making, but cannot avoid making. Compromise, in some cases, may be more moral and appropriate than not to negotiate at all.
The art of compromise,
Hold your nose and close your eyes.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, The Room Where It Happens, lyrics from Hamilton: The Musical (2015)
The compromise process is a conscious process in which there is a degree of moral acknowledgement of the other party.
Martin Goldin, The Nature of Compromise, at 16
You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.
The Rolling Stones, You Can’t Always Get What You Want (1969)
All government—indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act—is founded on compromise and barter.
Edmund Burke (1775)
Introduction: The Meanings and Measures of Compromise
Why does compromise in law, politics and philosophy have such a bad name, when in family and relationship settings we are told that compromise is a good thing? Compromise is a concept with different and often conflicting definitions and value valences in different settings. For those in philosophy and politics, compromise connotes a giving up of pure principle and commitment to rights and truth, demonstrating weakness or lack of integrity (Benjamin 1990; Luban 1985: 411). In contrast, in relationships we are told to compromise to consider the needs and interests of the other. We give up something to someone else because we value something beyond the particular issue or dispute we are having about something, such as the relationship itself or an agreement, policy or decision. The “morality” of compromise requires a consideration of when it is “good” (right, correct, just, or fair) to compromise and when it might be “wrong” to compromise (Margalit 2010; Mnookin 2010). Different contexts clearly produce different assessments of the morality of compromise.
Compromise as a concept assumes that one is conceding something to someone else, usually in order to achieve some goal—any agreement (e.g. contract, treaty, legislation, policy, or decision of more than one person), or simply to end a conflict or dispute—a peace agreement, perhaps to preserve a relationship or to avert or end conflict. It has come to connote a relinquishment of something that one really believes in or values. Principles are philosophically “higher” and more valued than pragmatic decisions to forego something of value in order to agree to accomplish something else. Compromise is achieved when parties concede something to each other, either mutually and reciprocally or unilaterally or unequally. Compromises may or may not be symmetrical or equal in what is foregone, given up or traded, resulting in ethical concerns about power imbalances in the process that usually governs how compromises are made—negotiation (Menkel-Meadow, Schneider and Love 2013).
It is not a compromise when parties in conflict arrive at an agreement that meets their needs, either through a new or creative solution to their conflict, or by a fairly agreed to negotiation and allocation of their interests (Menkel-Meadow 1984). Sometimes agreements are reached that are contingent, to be revisited when facts or conditions change, or when an agreed to process is used to resolve conflicts—these situations also are not compromises, strictly speaking, because parties may gain from engaging in the negotiation process and come to a new understanding of what their interests are, as well as recognizing the value of reaching a jointly achieved agreement, as contrasted with reaching no agreement at all by insisting on their claimed principles (usually an....
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