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Splitting the Difference.

Can something interesting still be said about a subject as old as the morality of compromise? Martin Benjamin and J. Patrick Dobel think so. I do not know that they ar right: in any event, I know they have not done it.

In one sense, both books are typically academic. There are no dramatic positions staked out here--no challenging arguments or surprising connections. Both writers concentrate on the problems of moral ambiguity, conflict among world views, disagreement. These are worthy goals and it is no small merit that Benjamin and Dobel handle their materials with skill and subtlely. But good philosophers compel our attention because, like poets, they see something of importance--because they show us something in a new light. A work of philosophy needn't include everything, give all issues equal treatment. It should address questions that move and excite us or, at least, come at us with a particular--even idiosyncratic--vision. But these books have no such vision, no compelling central insights around which they revolve. They are competent discussions of an important practice--nothing else.

Benjamin's argument revolves around the issue of integrity. Initially, he sees integrity as an individual's being true to "a substantive, coherent, and relatively stable set of values and principles to which one is genuinely and freely commited" (pp.51-52). As with much of this book, this conception is difficult to argue with. It is equally difficult to argue with his observation that integrity is not sufficient, since it is compatible with morally indefensible actions and values. And, finally, one must agree with his conclusion that we need a more complex theory of integrity, based on leading "a good and optimally integrated life in conjunction with others whom we regard as in some sense equals and whose commitments, values, and principles will not always be the same as ours" (pp. 73-74). This notion of integrity then ties in with his argument on Compromise and Ethical Theory (chapter four), in which he concludes that the large number of conflicting world views makes compromise necessary.

For Dobel, compromise is central to liberal democracy. It is justified and governed by the recognition that "personal integrity entails responsibility for all the means and consequences of action" (p. 40) and that the probable outcomes of conflicts are often ambiguous or problematical. In such circumstances, what is needed is a sense of the importance of prudence, of respect for others and a willingness to take their "efforts and positions seriously" (p. 82). Responsible compromise is thus a way of building trust and advancing the cause of civility. It is not the opposite of integrity, but its partner in the civic enterprise of democracy.

Is this all there is to say about compromise? I think not. For one thing, there are important problems that both writers either ignore or gloss over. Consider Benjamin's argument about integrity. Why must individual integrity be discussed as though it were an offshoot of individualistic morality? You needn't adopt the rigorously communal vision of MacIntyre or Sandel to ask why integrity cannot imply devotion to some degree of community with others, or why our manner of existence and development do not entail an identification of our selves as communal selves. Integrity for Benjamin has a communal point only in the sense that we ought not to live egoistically. He makes this point by discussing Tolstoy's "Death of Ivan Illych." But surely there is a difference between the egoistic disregard of others that Illych displays and a philosophy of self-interest mitigated by charity and occasional altruism. Is the latter enough? Can integrity be attained by doing charitable works? Perhaps. I prefer to believe that charity is not enough; that, as Hobhouse long ago insisted, we are entitled to justice; and that integrity counts as a minor virtue if it's separated from the passion for justice. But the point is that we need to ask whether there's a public or social content to integrity. The typical liberal exhortation to treat others equally--even shorn of its implication that that treatment is a moral obligation, rather than one forced on us by the equal power of others--does not respond to that question.

Or consider the problem of violence. It may be that disinherited groups must resort to violence merely to force society to take their interests seriously. Perhaps they have a claim on us that vitiates the obligation to compromise until their basic needs are met. Since both Benjamin and Dobel argue that avoiding violence is one of the most important reasons for compromising, these questions seem interesting ones for them. But they make less of them than they might. Benjamin practically ignores them, while Dobel treats them in a way that deprives them of force: violence and militancy are acceptable if they are measured and if their purpose is to "restore fairness to a power distribution or call attention to problems systematically ignored by citizens" (p. 179). But this isn't enough. It envisions civio disobedience, not class conflict or an intifada. It justifies demonstrations. Does it justify occupying college buildings to press the nation to give up a brutal war, or assaulting MPs on the golf course to dramatize women's right to vote?

Most suprisingly, neither book deals adequately with equality. In the face of inequality, Dobel argues that "liberal and democratic actors should seek to respect the legitimate interests of their opponents, even if the opponents lack the power to give them substance" (p. 84). The word "should" gives the game away. For if the ideal solution turns out--not surprisingly--to be ignored and powerless opponents are overwhelmed, what then? Dobel relegates this problem to a few pages in chapters seven and eight (pp. 157, 165). But he gives no special thought to the question whether the powerless have any obligation to compromise or to live up to their promises.

A book on compromise ought to ask whether there are elementary social conditions that make compromise justifiable. Some liberal philosophers--Hobhouse and Dewey come to mind--have argued that strong equality--not the formal equality of social compact theory, but social and economic equality--is basic to the very idea of practical accommodation and agreement. We might want to argue that, if agreement, accommodation, and compromise are the alternatives to arbitrariness and force, these practices must actually describe the arrangements made between the powerful and the powerless. Or we might want to argue that they can describe these arrangements where there is limited equality. Whatever one's view, this issue deserves to be raised seriously, not parenthetically or as a subsection of something else.

We need to ask another question as well. In a society, a compromise is not an agreement that is made between two competing groups. It is an arrangement that affects--or can affect--everyone, even those outside of the groups. In the debate over the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and Franklin agreed to give up their condemnation of slavery because of the overwhelming need to make a nation. But that need was not overwhelming to the slaves, who might have benefited more from our remaining a colony. The compromises that made the Constitution possible also made the destruction of Indian nations possible. How do we account for the range of compromise? Who should be a party to it? This is a difficult and troubling issue that cannot be resolved by invoking egalitarian arguments, but that cannot be resolved without them either. But neither author attacks it.

Finally, both writers ask us to evaluate compromises, and Dobel especially gives us maxims to help us along and examples to help us apply them. He deals, for instance, with Lyndon Johnson's temporizing on civil rights while a senator: Johnson was tepid on civil rights--so he said--to avoid being replaced by a racist. Suppose that to be true. That Senator Johnson's temporizing on civil rights enabled President Johnson to push the civil rights bill--limited in scope and modest in impact though they were--through Congress is justification enough for his earlier actions. But is this really a good example? How many compromises end in legislation this good? How many compromises are merely face-saving or guilt-alleviating gestures, manufactured without adequately taking account of the interests of others, especially the powerless?

The problem with these books is that they fail to raise issues like these. They are competently done, but it is questionable whether we learn anything from them.

Burton Zwiebach is professor of political science, Queens College, City University of New York, Flushing, N.Y.
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Author:Zwiebach, Burton
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1991
Words:1405
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