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On Compromise and Rotten Compromises Hardcover – November 1, 2009

ISBN-13: 978-0691133171 ISBN-10: 0691133174 Edition: First Edition

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; First Edition edition (November 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691133174
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691133171
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.8 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #695,759 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


Avishai Margalit, Winner of the 2012 Ernst-Bloch-Prize

Winner of the 2012 Philosophical Book Award, The Hannover Institute of Philosophical Research

"In a provocative book, Margalit--a professor emeritus of philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the George F. Kennan Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton--claims that 'rotten compromises are not allowed, even for the sake of peace.' Focussing on the political rather than on the personal, he defines a rotten compromise as 'an agreement to establish or maintain an inhuman regime.' Such compromises can be rotten as a result of the terms themselves--such as the provisions in the United States Constitution that allowed for slavery--or as a result of the wickedness of those who determine the terms, as in the case of Hitler and the Munich agreement. 'We should, I believe, be judged by our compromises more than by our ideals and our norms,' Margalit writes. 'Ideals may tell us something important about what we would like to be. But compromises tell us who we are.'"--The New Yorker "Books in Brief"

"The work of Avishai Margalit provides a refreshing and instructive contrast to much that has become conventionally accepted in recent political thinking, particularly about the moral conflicts that arise in pursuit of peace."--John Gray, New York Review of Books

"Margalit's book is an inquiry into the limits of justifiable compromises, not in ordinary democratic bargaining but at times when agreements call on us to accept inhuman regimes for the sake of peace. . . . Provide[s] grist for thinking through the difficulties of compromise in [foreign policy], from tragic choices at desperate moments of history to the routine nastiness in American public life today."--Paul Starr, The New Republic

"Yet there's a strain in Margalit's observations that packs a realist punch. Recognizing that we are 'forced by circumstances to settle for much less than we aspire to' on issues of justice, we ought to be 'judged by our compromises more than by our ideals and norms. Ideals may tell us something important about what we would like to be. But compromises tell us who we are.' In taking that line, Margalit shines light on a truth about real-world justice that few theorists acknowledge: It's impossible to correct all the injustices done in this world since time immemorial, let alone all injustices that might be open to correction. We lack not just means of implementation--we lack data on the uncountable injustices that have ever taken place."--Carlin Romano, Chronicle Review

"Through historical examples and analytic precision, Margalit succeeds in revealing a moral basis and its implications for the often overlooked but crucially important political and individual activity of compromise. Margalit's exploration into the conception of compromise features lucid distinctions and engaging language, creating a book that is capable of speaking to nonacademics and academics alike. . . . [T]his book is valuable for anyone seeking an insightful account of the interrelationship between the political and moral and serves as a starting point for further philosophical study regarding compromise."--Choice

"Margalit's work provides a useful tool for those who may walk into environments of potential compromise in the future, to assist them to make the best possible decisions with the information available to them at the time."--Amanda Stoker, Book Review Queensland Library

"The best political theory (and this includes Hegel) brings together these two goals--the retrospective and the prospective. Avishai Margalit's On Compromise and Rotten Compromises is in this respect exemplary. Margalit wants to clarify issues in political morality that have tremendous urgency today, and he seeks to do so partly by reflecting on events in our past. His book is an uncommon example of philosophical argument informed by acute historical awareness."--David McCabe, Commonweal

"Margalit concludes that we should be judged not according to the norms and values that we affirm, but based upon the compromises we accept. It is a proposition that informs the extremely eloquent and thought-provoking argument he presents in this very welcome analysis of an important topic."--Shaun P. Young, Political Studies Review

From the Inside Flap

"Avishai Margalit has turned a fierce spotlight on a neglected but important area of ethics, when compromises are morally acceptable. He introduces new and compelling distinctions and illuminates a number of major issues in contemporary and recent historical events."--Kenneth J. Arrow, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics

"This book will stimulate wide discussion because compromise--when to make them, when to resist them--is a vital subject in political life, and because Avishai Margalit is universally respected for his analytical skills and moral discernment. The examples give the book historical depth and importance, and the writing is sprightly, precise, and accessible, with memorable turns of phrase. The book reeled me in and held my attention for the duration."--Michael Ignatieff, author of The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror

"This book is tremendously important for its introduction and treatment of a fundamental but neglected topic in political philosophy. It also stands out for its writing, with examples and anecdotes introducing rigorous and detailed argumentation without in any way interrupting the narrative flow."--Arthur Ripstein, University of Toronto

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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Sceptique500 on December 23, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"The concept of compromise is neither at centre stage in philosophical discussion nor even on its back burner. One reason why compromise does not occur as a philosophical topic stems from the philosophical bias in favor of ideal theory." (pg.5) says Prof. Margalit - and right he is. For having dared to state that the philosophical king has no clothes he should be much commended. What makes both personal as well as political life so difficult is not living in accordance with this or that value, but striking compromises between incommensurable values, and struggling with the material context in which our choices are inevitably made.

Having set himself the task of discussing the morality of political compromises, Prof. Margalit argues against "rotten compromises" that should be avoided, come what may (pg. 90). And a rotten compromise is "an agreement to establish or maintain a regime of cruelty and humiliation." (pg. 89) - the critical point being that the likely outcome of the rotten agreement should be perceivable ex ante (pg. 59).

Much of the book is taken up in loose fashion by a discussion of "rotten compromises" that states did in the past - Versailles, Munich, Yalta and more. Contrary to values, which are meta-historical, compromises are inevitably bastard children of context: as our knowledge of past (or present) context is inevitably imperfect, the discussion ends up indeterminate. This is the weakness of the book.

At pg. 54-61 Prof. Margalit tests whether the US Constitution was a "rotten compromise" and concludes that indeed it was - for it encompassed slavery - a "regime of cruelty and humiliation" if there ever was one.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By K. Kehler on March 20, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Margalit has written a very interesting and important contribution to political and social thought. He has chosen to treat the notion of compromise via a number of historically important, well known, compelling and complicated "read world" examples. Clearly, he believes that it is better to write a book that convinces many with its insights, humanity, and thoughtfulness than it is to write a detailed, boring and easily ignored tome that only philosophers would read. Consequently, he discusses his chosen examples of compromise, and he wishes them to resonate with his readers, who can draw on them to negotiate their way through the ups and downs of modern life. Compromise is indeed a crucial concept, because it is one of the bedrock features of modern liberal-democratic life that we have to consider the claims of others: we have to accomodate ourselves -- via compromising -- to the occasionally frustrating fact that our many different claims will clash. (This is true "intrasubjectively" too: we have various plans, principles and desires, etc., that clash, and so we also have to compromise with ourselves.)

However, though the book is learned, smart, and well written, and though the book treats a host of texts/writers with aplomb (the Bible, the Koran, Wilde, Thomas Schelling, Stalin, Hitler, Thucydides, the Constitution, to name some of them), it seems to me that it is marred by a minor flaw: the central notion of compromise -- let alone rotten compromise -- is never adequately defined. I'm not asking for a template of some kind, but clearly we are going to have to know how to go about differentiating good and worthy compromises from rotten compromises, and a number of examples -- while probably a vital starting point -- is just slightly thin fare.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Saralinda on December 23, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book has been formative for me, both in understanding and writing about international relations and in understanding and navigation individual relationships. The author is a political philosopher, and most of this fine meditation is about Big Issues, like the permssion of slavery in the original US Constitution, or the notorious Munich Accord of 1938. However, I find that Margalit's insights and metaphors are so outstanding that they are useful in much more minor negotiations and navigations in the ordinary world of human relationships. He does indeed define "rotten compromises" very carefully, and several times, as those agreements that lead to dehumanization. My only issue with this book is that I think rotten compromises also apply to the natural world (agreements that permit global warming), and to the world of sentient beings (agreements that permit whaling or animal cruelty). I'd love to sit down with this author and discuss my concerns, but that does not detract for my overall admiration for this excellent book.
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Margalit's book is ostensibly political philosophy but there is much more than a hint of moral philosophy embedded in the framework he creates for assessing the merits of compromise.

His focus is on international politics and it seems to me the framework he creates cannot be localized in all circumstances. The stakes in the central example he uses are incredibly high. And his discussion demands answers to profound questions of morality. Specifically, the main question examined is whether a lousy compromise with Stalin was justified during the latter part of the war to defeat Hitler's Nazi Germany.

Whether or not Republicans and Democrats can work out a budget compromise is unlikely to demand the level of contemplation undertaken here. However, Margalit's digressions on the merits of compromise, generally, are interesting and should be considered by politicians of every stripe.

As a writer, Margalit is quite good. He is able to clearly express complex ideas while still keeping the tone almost conversational. As a bonus, he also explains the basics of philosophy to ground his more high-flown arguments.
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