- Hardcover: 240 pages
- Publisher: Princeton University Press; First Edition edition (November 1, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0691133174
- ISBN-13: 978-0691133171
- Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.9 x 8.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 5 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,315,355 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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On Compromise and Rotten Compromises First Edition Edition
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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 Back Cover
"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
Top customer reviews
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.
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. He treads gingerly on the subject, arguing that the Founding Fathers mostly expected slavery to wither away - thus absolving them from the crime of having been knowingly silent partners to infamy. Rather he damns them for allowing the importation of slaves for further 20 years - more than "the horizon of a living generation."
Prof. Margalit may be forgiven for not knowing the 'three-fifth rule' that ensured the political dominance of the south in early America The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860; and the ban on imports, which he praises as a step in the right direction, did nothing toward the emancipation of those held or born in bondage in America. Regrettably, he skips the essential moral question: if (as he argues) the US Constitution was based on a "rotten compromise" - should the Founding Fathers have rejected it? And what should have they done instead? Done nothing? After all, the Articles of Confederation could have remained in force - a rickety structure, but at least one that would have absolved the non-slave states from abetting it (let's forget for a moment their indirect involvement through food and shipping Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World). His later distinction between the consequentialist 'theory of the good' and morality-based 'theory of the right' (pg. 126) seems further to weaken his own 'dogmatic' position. Prof. Margalit's difficulty with coming to grips with this 'rotten compromise' significantly weakens his argument.
Was the collaboration with Beelzebub (aka Stalin) morally acceptable in the joint fight against the Devil (aka Hitler)? Prof. Margalit spends much of the final chapters arguing that Hitler was inherently worse than Stalin - because he undermined morality itself by "dismembering the idea of shared humanity" (pg. 182). The difference being that Stalin's victims were punished for their beliefs, rather than for their ethnicity - one might be able to change one's beliefs, not race. This to me seems rather theoretical: Stalin's and Pol Pot's victims were certainly not given a chance to convert. For the victim (individually if not as a group) the totalitarian experience was (and is) one of wilful destruction of personality and inherent freedom - which to me is 'denial of shared humanity'.
But it also somehow feels wrong. The target of Stalin's terror was an unbound set, ever arbitrarily replenished from the ranks of the whole population as the 'enemies of the people' were disposed of. There was no way Stalin could have ever stopped finding new victims. Hitler's victims were a bound (i.e. predetermined) set - conceivably after a successful bout of ethnic cleansing Hitler could have reverted to moral politics. To put it differently, on a scale of murders a perpetual killing machine would seem to me worse than an extermination campaign. What made Hitler so uniquely evil and politically dangerous was his supremacist view - the 'winner take all' idea that the 'Aryan race' would dominate the world.
In another vein, Prof. Margalit opines in 'comparative statics' - he does not conceive of compromise as (exploratory) process - though in most cases it is one. If extremism is the child of isolation and ignorance, contact with 'the other' will over time change the participants; small compromising steps may lead to familiarity and mutual understanding. This after all was the strategy behind the Oslo Process: a network of small, temporary or technical compromises as prerequisite for the Big Compromise. So what looks at first like a "rotten compromise" turns benign in later iterations.
Placed somewhere between the Scylla of casuistry and the Carybdis of indeterminacy - the rational study of the morally unambiguous compromise is a most difficult undertaking. Yet compromising is what we somehow seem to perform day in and day out. We live by pragmatic (if not moral) compromise, sometimes navigating by heuristics, sometimes by simple intuition, or mere chance. We balance more contradictions on a hairpin than there is room for angels. Rather than speculating of what we ought to do, systematic observation of what we do might yield further insights.