What is interesting is the ultimate human predicament, when serious principles, serious commitments are at odds, and there is no apparent way to compose them in sight, except for giving something up, or giving in—that will be a surrender of self. Why are we in these predicaments to begin with?…
I am not a great believer in philosophizing—by which I mean trying to get to the bottom of things—concerning current affairs. That’s because I think there has to be some calming distance and some extended thinking for unsettling events to reveal their stable shape. So I would like you to take me at my word when I say that my topic, compromise, is only coincidentally relevant to a contemporary condition of our civic life, which is generally agreed to have lost the will and the art necessary for compromise.
Compromise, as a term of speech and as a mode of conduct, has long interested me. I ask myself: Is compromise an act of prudence, and so a virtue, or a decision of the will, and so a trait of temperament? Does its framing require far-seeing wisdom or tricky calculation? Is it the condition for a prosperous life or the diagnostic of corrupt morality? Are these the right terms to ask about?
Well, the last either-or question is certainly suggestive. Consider the two opposite meanings of the verb “to compromise.” We say, on the one hand: “After an all-night negotiation, both sides agreed to make some sacrifices; they worked out a compromise, and so they avoided a financial earthquake. Thank heavens and such sensible leadership!”
But we also say: “He engaged in money laundering and other illegal practices and totally compromised himself and all the companies in which he had a stake. Lock him up!”
Or on a smaller, more personal scale: “I told a real whopper, but it was a white lie to save feelings and family peace. Now I feel compromised because I don’t really like to lie, and yet I’m glad I made a compromise with the bald and hurtful truth.”
The duality in the meaning of the term and its action poses a deep problem, or better a question. I am calling here on a distinction I came on long ago and have found really illuminating: A problem is a difficulty that goes away and becomes toothless history when you’ve solved it. A question is an incitement to wonder; it is never really resolved but only clarified, and a fairly lucid life is based on such clarifications. They are the purpose of education.
In fact, I’m hoping to contribute a little bit to yours with this clarification I’m proposing. It is, as I just said, not the sort of intellectual work that talking heads opining about current events, off the cuff and in a sound-bitten mode, can do. Let me put it this way: Genuine insights, to be sure, come suddenly and out of the blue, but only after long futzing around in a wilderness of confusion.
How shall I frame the question? The practical problem is how to calibrate the prevalence of the evil of a sacrifice, which is often a loss of principle, over the good of a profit, which is often the gain of liveableness. It’s a here-and-now calculation, and once you’ve made it, it’s too late; you may have to live with the consequences, but the problem itself has been outlived.
It’s the philosophical question that remains alive. And that’s what the rest of my assigned half-hour will be about: the theory of compromise, who we are such that the quandary of making a practical compromise and being morally compromised can arise.
First, let me be literal. What does the term compromise literally mean? Com is Latin for “together,” as in “common,” and the second part, “promise,” means just what we hear, “pledge.” When two together mutually pledge to be or do something, it’s a compromise, with the connotation, the implied meaning, that each must give something to get the other’s promise. And “giving something” usually means giving it up. So the willingness to give in on, give up on, something is a natural connotation, a related meaning of making mutual promises.
That transaction involves, as I said, a calculation. And again, it can be a very worldly, a practical calculation, based above all on my desires. What do I want more, to shut up my vegetable stand with my lettuce wilting in the heat or to come down on my price, even if I lose my margin of profit, so as to get rid of my produce for at least something? One might even say that every exchange of commodities involves a compromise. I give up my handiwork to get hold of yours, which you’re willing to alienate.
I’ll interject an opinion here that you may not often have heard. Whatever you may think of Marx’s effect on our world, he is, in his masterwork, Capital, the most enchanting expositor of what he calls “the fetishism of commodities.” If you haven’t read this brilliantly obnoxious exposition of what it means to be a made thing functioning in that community of things called the market, you haven’t given thought to the “thinghood,” that surrounds you and on which you spend much of your money.
But sometimes the calculation involved in the mutual promise, in the compromise, is not about worldly possessions but about transcendent goods, and then you stop calculating and begin to think, to contemplate, to theorize, to philosophize, and sometimes to pray. That’s because this non-practical thinking is deep and difficult. You can’t do it only here and now, when the occasion arises. You really have to have done it long and extendedly, and in that sense, you do have to do it here and now: Here at the school you’ve chosen for the long haul, now in the classes that you attend on schedule, and in the corridors of your dorms where you meet friends casually.
This might be a first question: It arises in most do-or-die moral situations. Wasn’t there a way to avoid the stand-off, especially when it involves more than bragging rights or material goods? Well-instituted institutions have all sorts of clever devices to avoid those compromising situations that involve the compromise of a sense of rightness. In families, for example, a large éclair is to be divided between two siblings; how to avoid complaints based on a compromised sense of fairness? Well, the mother says to elder: “You divide it,” and to the other: “You choose first.” And behold, you never saw such an effort to achieve a minutely equal division from an older sister and such a sense of uncompromised equality from the kid brother.
Or in the nation, imagine a Representative of our House who feels driven, for the sake of party unity, to vote for a bill he considers morally wrong. The Speaker can take him aside: “Vote your conscience; we’ve got the numbers.” Neither the Speaker nor the Congressman is compromised; it’s a system that’s procedurally problem-solving—more squishily reasonable than rigorously rational.
Our Constitution was meant, I might argue, to do just that—to take the moral agony out of compromise, to make its extremities unnecessary. Its classical defense, the Federalist, which functions in the realm firmly fixed in the middle of down-and-dirty politicking, and high‑and‑pure political theorizing is, to my mind, simply the greatest text on defanged compromise, compromise freed from moral principle. It abounds in inventions of prudence, which do just that—bypass pure morals, for the sake of prosperous peaceableness.
Having got this far in my meditations, I searched for a model case of political compromise in the absence of a device-rich constitution. I found it in Lincoln’s speech of 1854, given in Peoria, Illinois, on the Missouri Compromise. The speech consists of forty pages of closely reasoned lawyerly argumentation backed by detailed reference to historical fact. Lincoln says at the beginning that he will not question anyone’s motives, fraught though the issue may be; yet he objects to the introduction of moral right on the pro-slavery side later on. It’s exhilarating reading. But imagine a contemporary audience standing or sprawling for the hours it took to deliver. An aside: Truly these Peorians had not only attention spans but also intellectual discernment no orator dares to impute to us nowadays.
The Missouri Compromise, you may recall, was an agreement that territories seeking to become states of the Union were to be matched, a free for a slave state, so as to preserve the balance of 1820. Its repeal induced a crisis, and Lincoln argues for its restoration. But although he himself explicitly finds slavery morally repugnant, he sticks with a morally neutral prudential argument. Indeed, this is the very heart of Lincoln’s political thinking: Give practical priority not to your most passionately held moral principles but to the grounds, the conditions on which these principles might be realized. Thus for him, the Civil War was fought first for the preservation of the Union, because that was the condition for the abolition of slavery—a compromise of principle for the sake of the principle.
I am still in the realm of worldly practicality here, but what I want to lay before you is the inner, the psychic ways of compromising. That kind of inquiry has a name that may be unfamiliar to some of you: phenomenology. It means attending closely to the description and meaning of the way our experiences appear, are phenomena, of our soul. Look within yourself and ask: What happens when I engage attentively in the mutual promise that is a compromise of the sort which involves more than material tit-for-tat?
Let me take a minute to introduce a helpful distinction. I’ve used the word “principle” a number of times. I’ll give you a formula; it doesn’t always work but it has much clarifying force.
Some people live by explicitly formulated rules. The most famous ten, formulated in Exodus and Deuteronomy of the Bible, are mostly prohibitions: “Thou shalt not…” Or a company commands its workforce “Don’t be evil”—a formula, I’ll say, whose moral matter is clearly zilch. But the rule can be a positive principle: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This one isn’t so different from the éclair principle—practical mutuality. One name among philosophers stands out for devising a sort of hyper-principle, the notorious “categorical imperative,” the absolute commandment that tells you how to frame moral principles for yourself. They must be such that if everyone were to act in accordance with them it would continue to be a livable world. The set of such principles, articulated universal rules of conduct, may be called a morality. Its enforcer is the will, a rational capacity that understands the content of commands. There is an alternative conception which goes by the name of ethics. Instead of principles, it follows the desire for certain elevated goods, and its directors are the virtues, individual traits of character. It seems fair to say that those who betray their goods feel ashamed, while those who breach their principles feel self-compromised.
I think these two reactions, being ashamed and being compromised, have a different feel, so to speak. Shame colors our whole inner being and then appears externally as a facial flush; it feels like a taint on our essence. Being compromised feels more like an imputation on one’s cleverness, a failure of the ignoble acuteness needed to get away with it. A compromised person is apt to ask himself: How’d I get into this? And the answer is: You weren’t thinking straight.
But that fatuous kind of self-compromise is not yet really interesting. What is interesting, at least to me, is the ultimate human predicament, when serious principles, serious commitments are at odds, and there is no apparent way to compose them in sight, except for giving something up, or giving in—that will be a surrender of self.
Why are we in these predicaments to begin with? Well, it seems to be because of the really astounding, the mystifying duality of our being. Regarded as a class or a species, we have what matters in common, we have commonality. As a class we have a common humanity—man the humane or merciful; as a species we are all genetically homo sapiens—man the sapient or wise. But see us one by one, as a least element of the class or a specimen of the species, “no [longer] dividable,” as an in-dividual. Then we differ in a myriad of ways; we are very particular, even hopelessly peculiar. Our commonality has receded in favor of our idiosyncrasy. That we should be so much the same conceptually and so much apart concretely, so uniform taken together and so distinct taken separately—is it by a malice of Nature or by the benefaction of the Creator? Who knows? But it has one pertinent consequence. It is surely the reason why compromise is necessary to us. As we are ultimately individual, in the sense of being the least, the atomic element of the human race, so we are individuals in the sense of being incomparably ourselves, like none other. That means that each of us has ultimately disparate beliefs and desires, incomposably antithetical, not capable of being melded or merged as is. For some beliefs seem, by their very essence, absolute—be they faithful or damnable. And some desires are, by their nature, insuppressible—be they satisfiable or ravaging.
Thus it seems to me that in the cases that really matter, compromise is really compromising. One might, consequently, claim that in countries like the United States, where religions, by and large, coexist peacefully, it’s because their adherents care, when push comes to shove, more for peace and prosperity than they do for doctrine and orthodoxy. That’s clearly thought-provoking.
Or maybe we are so made as to have another way to let others be, besides flabby concession. Let me give it a try.
In the last half-century we’ve all heard a lot of criticism of individualism as the cause of lonely selfishness. It comes largely from the social philosophers of continental Europe and is aped by our intellectuals. I’m writing this page of my talk during Hurricane Harvey, while the floodwaters are rising in Corpus Christi, Texas, and people, in a pinch, are proving the attribution to Americans of social atomicism and psychic selfishness spectacularly wrong. So I am encouraged to try laying out a vision of sound individualism that makes compromise possible.
You’ve probably all heard of a description of such individualism by Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America. He says that it’s “self-interest rightly understood,” that is, intelligent selfishness, the sort that foresees long-term, and so forestalls, unintended consequences. It is the aptest imaginable description of sound worldly self-regard, but it probably falls short when the needs of the soul are taken into account. A closer look at the individualistic soul is needed.
Let me collect what I’ve said so far as it bears on healthy individualism. I’ve distinguished the ethics of virtuous character from the morality of firm principles. I think principles don’t bear up under compromise. If you adhere, as morality requires, to universal and clear principles, then it’s all or nothing; the universality admits no exception and the clarity exposes them. So compromise is better underwritten by personal virtue, which is a little bit fungible, flexible. There are several such ethics to choose from. A good example is Aristotelian, where a virtue is, as it were, captured between its opposing vices. Thus courage, for Aristotle the most virtuous virtue, is caught between craven cowardice and rambunctious boldness. This way of finding goodness as a middle ground underwritten by sound-mindedness clearly has some give in it, such as rigorous principles enforced by an iron will don’t have.
Thus the ethics of virtue allows for saving tricks, for clever devices that allow a moral stand-off to turn into a soluble problem. If you follow Aristotle, you can navigate the moral spectrum and find the livable middle—but there are other non-rigid theories. One way to put this view of human well-doing is that it relies on prudence, the virtue of looking around, that is, on circumspection, and of looking ahead, that is, on prudence.
But perhaps the observation most relevant to my question is the one I made before about our curious double nature, as members of one common race, the human race with its sapient humanity and also as ultimately incomparable individuals, locked into the idiosyncrasies of being the least entities with the most differences.
I think that to recognize this duality in us, to be puzzled by it, to wonder whether we should try to limit our individuality in favor of our commonality or cultivate it in favor of our sovereignty—that is the beginning. What are we like such that self-knowledge can make us amenable to uncompromised compromise?
Again let me recur to an easy way out, one that large swaths of Americans do in fact take. It might be called “religion-lite.” To me, it seems better than heavy-handed rectitude, but not really good. It depends on intellectual vagueness and emotional woolliness. People firm in faith don’t give in. They may save their life, they think, but they’ll have lost themselves. There can, however, be two opinions about this. I’m Jewish myself, and I’ve read somewhere that our Talmud advises compromise and cunning in forced conversions: Pretend to be converted and practice your true faith surreptitiously, because Jews need to live—hence the Marranos, underground Jews for generations. It is the uneasy way out.
So here’s the question, baldly stated: What are the capabilities of our souls, given to each of us by nature and realized by our efforts, that make it possible to live with each other as equally self-interested individuals?
I imagine you’ve all observed this weather phenomenon: The wind is making the withy branches of a willow stream in one direction, while the clouds high above are chasing across the sky in another. The winds tend to be roiled and short-lived down below, close to the earth’s surface but steady and long-breathed high up. Aren’t you aware of similar phenomena within yourself, except that it’s inverted? There’s the surface turmoil, close to the top of your consciousness, that dies down before long, but there are also deep streams of calm but enduring awareness way down, deep in your being.
The most emotionally significant example is being “in love,” a surface phenomenon which can be both tempestuous and short-lived versus “love,” a deep experience which is even-tempered and for good.
So I am implying that our psychic motions have something in common with our terrestrial weather: different levels, differently directed, with different tempos. The soul has been figured in multifarious ways. For example: By Plato, as a chariot that is drawn by a wild and a mild horse which stand for recalcitrant passion and persuadable reasonableness, respectively. Or by Freud, as a depth topography of different degrees of consciousness, from perception up front, through recallable memory, the Preconscious, down to an inaccessible hell of turmoil, the Unconscious that only an expert, a psychoanalyst, can approach. Or by cognitive scientists, who debate whether our mind is modular and has specific capacities for specific activities or whether mentation is always global so that the whole mind is involved.
Now I owe you a bit of phenomenology, an account of the inner appearances that I think I’ve observed. It seems to me that we do stream our inner experience on different levels, levels both of closeness to consciousness and of gravity in our life. Close to personal awareness, we are sometimes rather excitedly but really lightly, even shallowly, engaged. We intend and feel decent interest, sincere concern, and mild affection; we are mindful of and sympathetic toward extended family and friends, colleagues and coworkers, acquaintances and fellow citizens, and, on occasion, we flare up quite passionately about some particular object of attraction.
But the candid truth is that many of these psychic engagements are casual. We disengage easily and aren’t deeply preoccupied by the happiness or unhappiness of the life, the salvation or damnation of the spirit, experienced by these fellow humans. We are sympathetic and helpful but within limits. We are friendly and considerate but without urgency. This lightness of touch, which expresses, to be sure, the shallowness of engagement, also betokens a readiness to respect others’ antithetical individuality, by not being intrusively involved. Put it this way: We are morally compromised from the get-go by our all-too-muted care, but we are also socially vindicated by our leave-people-be tolerance. It is the stream in which compromise wafts by smoothly and is not very compromising. The thing is to know it, admit it, accept it. I think it is a very characteristically American way of being together.
But then there is the deeper current that flows gravely rather than lightly and where compromise is ineluctably compromising. The First Amendment of our Constitution, in guaranteeing our public psychic freedoms, protects us from the occasion for serious compromises, like forced conversions, ideological or religious. But it is in this deep stream of our private psychic life that compromise is devastatingly compromising. I think our multi-streamed soul gives us a chance to frame most compromises so that they float harmlessly on the surface, on the superficially roiled surface waters of normal life, where our flexible virtues and goods-directed ethics are at home.
This busy, distracted, semi-engaged life protects us from the knowledge, borne along in the deep flux of our souls, that our compromises of convenience practically always compromise us in our principles—a condition best described as a secular original sin. Our serious undercurrent in its submersion masks for us our ever-in-the-wrong condition. Social critics will regard this depth-displacement as our national sin: We are shallow. I think it’s an American blessing: We are un-mired.
So much for the vicissitudes of practical life. But higher education isn’t and oughtn’t to be that life. Now is the time to go deep, to think about such appositions as the two I’ve delineated: our human commonality and our ultimate singularity, our light-living surface and our tenacious depths. Now is the time to descend—or maybe ascend—to those realms where the very compromises that make life livable leave the soul compromised.
This essay was originally delivered as a lecture to the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University on October 27, 2017. It is published with gracious permission from the author.
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