Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Is compromise always a good?

I have to take exception to this editorial, which tries to argue that (1) the mid-term US elections may make Congress more "polarized" and (2) "polarization" is bad. (1) is probably true. (2) is the one I have a problem with.

There's a tendency to think that compromise is always good, that there are always two sides to a story and the truth lies somewhere in between. I've blogged already on whether we have to listen to both sides before forming an opinion (see here). The short of it is that we don't. However, this doesn't imply that compromising between two extreme views isn't often better, only that we are not obligated to compromise.

So, the remaining possibility is that compromise may not be obligatory, but it is nonetheless better than alternatives. But why should that be so? There are certainly many obvious cases where compromise is highly irrational. 2+2=4, regardless of how "extreme" this position might seem. That is, we have a class of what might be called self-evident truths or axiomatic truths which should be adhered to regardless of considerations of compromise.

To these we can add a class of inter alia (or all things considered) claims which are carefully-articulated and -reasoned sets of judgements. Compromising on claims that one has already devoted a great deal of consideration to would require giving up something that one is convinced of, and has good reason for being convinced of. That is, if one has taken the time to articulate and defend a comprehensive universal healthcare policy, then one has an inter alia claim in hand: something that one can and should refuse to compromise on. (At least, without extremely good reason to change.)

In other words, it's not just the odd axiomatic cases where we can know with perfect confidence that we are right, but also the much more commonplace cases wherein a great weight of evidence has been marshalled in support of one's views. Which implies that it is only in the much-rarer cases where one is not sure what to believe that compromise is really a rational strategy.

Therefore, very often moderation and compromise are a result of lack of insight or depth of understanding. They are thus not good ends in themselves, but waypoints at which one can rest before gaining the ground necessary to support one's inter alia claims.

5 comments:

undergroundman said...

I certainly agree that compromise isn't always good, and libertarians agree too (no legislation is better than bad legislation).

"I've blogged already on whether we have to listen to both sides before forming an opinion (see here). The short of it is that we don't."

Your link refers to this post. My kneejerk reaction is that we most certainly should listen to both sides. Nobody has a monopoly on the truth.

undergroundman said...

That is, if one has taken the time to articulate and defend a comprehensive universal healthcare policy, then one has an inter alia claim in hand: something that one can and should refuse to compromise on.

The way you phrase this leaves one with the impression that one should refuse to compromise because they have invested so much thought on the issue rather than because of the strong reasoning behind it. And I think that's telling. People are very reluctant to give up on things they've worked on. Economists say ignore the sunk costs, but people are irrational and they don't do it.

Which implies that it is only in the much-rarer cases where one is not sure what to believe that compromise is really a rational strategy.

Perhaps it implies that. In reality, however, compromises usually happen when two sides want something done and neither of them is willing to compromise. They have clear inter alia claims. But they both need to do something. They can't sit around and they don't want to engage in outright violence. Thus we have the famous 3/5ths Compromise (slaves count for 3/5ths of a person for representation purposes), the slave trade being banned but current slaves still enslaved, and others like the civil unions instead of marriages. They may not be good, but they had to happen to accomplish something, and I feel that in each case both sides had inter alia claims (though, on the right-wing side in each case, dishonest and immoral claims).

ADHR said...

"I've blogged already on whether we have to listen to both sides before forming an opinion (see here). The short of it is that we don't."

Your link refers to this post. My kneejerk reaction is that we most certainly should listen to both sides. Nobody has a monopoly on the truth.


That's really not the issue. The issue is that in at least two classes of case, self-evident claims and inter alia judgements, the burden has shifted: it's up to the person who disagrees with them to make their case one that should be taken seriously. I (or anyone, really) am only obligated to seek the truth to a reasonable extent, not to any extent.

The way you phrase this leaves one with the impression that one should refuse to compromise because they have invested so much thought on the issue rather than because of the strong reasoning behind it. And I think that's telling. People are very reluctant to give up on things they've worked on. Economists say ignore the sunk costs, but people are irrational and they don't do it.

Maybe the phrasing isn't completely clear, but I think the use of "inter alia" makes clear what I mean: a judgement formed on the basis of all relevant evidence at hand is one that one can refuse to compromise on. Again, it's not my (or anyone's) obligation to shift once the evidence has been considered -- unless there is good reason presented to demonstrate that something new should also be taken into account (or, alternately, something old should be given more or less weight).

Perhaps it implies that. In reality, however, compromises usually happen when two sides want something done and neither of them is willing to compromise. They have clear inter alia claims. But they both need to do something. They can't sit around and they don't want to engage in outright violence. Thus we have the famous 3/5ths Compromise (slaves count for 3/5ths of a person for representation purposes), the slave trade being banned but current slaves still enslaved, and others like the civil unions instead of marriages. They may not be good, but they had to happen to accomplish something, and I feel that in each case both sides had inter alia claims (though, on the right-wing side in each case, dishonest and immoral claims).

It would seem, though, that in this kind of case we have a failure (on both sides) to fully appreciate what an inter alia judgement amounts to. It's not a certain judgement, only an "all things considered" judgement. Hence, I think, it's correct to say that failing to take new information into account -- such as that one is facing a strong opposition with an equal inter alia judgement in hand, and that, practically speaking, something has to give -- is a failure to discharge an epistemic obligation.

undergroundman said...

By the way, check this out: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/inter_alia

Needs to be corrected?

It would seem, though, that in this kind of case we have a failure (on both sides) to fully appreciate what an inter alia judgement amounts to.

Or a failure on my part to understand what it means. :) It means that the principle is somewhat flexible, then -- even though you say that these are things that one should most often refuse to compromise on, if the issue is something that needs to be taken care of and the opposition is extremely strong, then the compromise must happen.

ADHR said...

That's a literal translation of the Latin, which concords with what I understand the legal use to be. The philosophical use tends to be as a substitute for "all things considered".

And you're pretty much on the money. The idea is that my first epistemic obligation is to consider all the relevant information I have at hand, and then judge. After that, I'm not obligated to shift my judgement until the opposition is worth taking seriously. However, as a practical matter (so, moving from the epistemic to the prudential), I may need to compromise in order to get anything done. In that case, I have to weigh which is more significant: the obligations I have as a knower or the need (or preference, or whatever) I have to accomplish some goal. If being right matters more, I still shouldn't compromise; however, if the goal matters more, then of course I should compromise in order to get closer to it.