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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Ethics of Compromise
distributed 10/4/13 - ©2013

"Compromise" is a big word in the United States this week. With the federal government shut down by congressional budget fights, some sort of political compromise looks like the most viable way out. (This week's headlines are just the starting point for today's Notes. We're going beyond US politics, so stick with me!)

A negotiation where neither side gets to claim a complete win is the most expedient way to get federal employees back to work, but there are partisans from both parties who like the idea of holding out until their opponents capitulate.

Watching the legislative gymnastics from my vantage point as an eco-justice advocate stirs up my thinking about how to balance principle and pragmatics. Questions about when and how to compromise are a common part of everyday life for all of us, and they are sticky strategic issues as we work for a just and sustainable society.

Is compromise good or bad, or -- let's compromise! -- somewhere in the middle?

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My primary audience is made up of pastors and church members, so let me get my scriptural research out of the way. The word "compromise" does not appear at all in most English translations of the Bible -- which is an interesting finding.

The New Jerusalem translation is the exception, using it twice. "The temple of God cannot compromise with false gods, and that is what we are -- the temple of the living God." (2 Corinthians 6:16) And in Galatians 2:5, there is a phrase about "the truth of the gospel preached to you might have been compromised". According to Paul -- and implicitly in other texts -- truth, purity and principle are not up for negotiation or change.

The "no compromise" approach seems perfectly clear when it is my vision of truth and principle that are being defended. When somebody else is doing it, though, then I tend to see their convictions as fundamentalism and absolutism.

Six years ago, an Eco-Justice Notes titled "Absolute Zero" looked at the need for uncompromised values and standards, with case studies ranging from "zero waste" goals for urban trash systems, the abolitionist movement's demand for the immediate end of slavery, and dramatic stands about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I wrote:

Developing laws and public policy is all about compromise. It requires legislators to turn away from absolutes, and find enough common ground among diverse constituencies so that legislation can be passed. ... But in the broader society, it is also necessary to have bold leaders who will (in the words of an abolitionist) 'promulgate the true doctrine ... till it forms one of the foundation principles and parts indestructible of the public soul.'
Uncompromised values are part of the setting in which decisions are made. They need to be voiced boldly and clearly, and they need to be taken seriously as part of our shared community life.

But there are roles and settings where compromise is built into the structure of the relationship, whether it is a marriage or the job of passing legislation. The question there is not about whether negotiations should happen. They must. The moral issue is whether the work of coming to a compromise is done honestly and fairly, with participation by all sides, and whether the outcomes meet reasonable standards of justice.

Those ethical values of participation and proportionality are not all that hard to understand. A cartoon shows a white-wigged British judge at a desk talking to two Australian aborigines: "How about a compromise? We keep the land, the mineral rights, natural resources, fishing and timber, and we'll acknowledge you as the traditional owners of it."

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There is a practical aspect of compromise that is different from philosophical or strategic ones. No matter what issue being negotiated, there are realities about how "meeting in the middle" work out.

I heard an advocate for wilderness preservation do the math. She spoke about a situation where some folk want to keep a swath of undeveloped land intact, and others want to do something that will destroy the wilderness quality of the tract -- such as a ski area or a mine. She told of a request that she had heard often in such cases: "Let's compromise. We'll only use half of the land for our development, and you can preserve half."

If the preservationists make that deal three times, they're left with just 12% of the original parcel, and the wilderness can't be reclaimed through another round of negotiations. Some compromises involve permanent loss on one side. That creates a very different situation than, for example, a real estate investor who negotiates rents and purchases of lots of properties. The investor's compromises turn out with gains sometimes, and losses on other occasions. But wilderness is gone forever.

It is appropriate to demand more stringent standards for compromise where there can be no going back or recovering of the loss. When a piece of tropical rainforest is at risk, filled with species found only in that place, then it isn't just a real estate deal about a fair price for the land. The threatened creatures and the needs of future generations for that biodiversity must be brought into the process.

And there are settings where negotiation and compromise make no sense at all. It is Bill McKibben, I think, who often has reminded us that "nature does not negotiate." Scientists tell us that 350 parts per million of CO2 is the "safe" level, and some economists say that we need to go to 650 ppm to keep the economy going, but the natural world isn't going to settle for a mid-point of 500 ppm as a workable compromise. No matter what we want, the rules of physics and chemistry define the way temperature, precipitation and ocean acidification will play out at various carbon levels.

An economic and political world based on making deals and compromise may think that everything is open to negotiation, and that meeting somewhere in the middle is always fair. But nature doesn't care about the way we do business. The health of the biosphere isn't something that can be bartered. The negotiations about how to maintain Earth's health have to start with the realities of real and permanent impacts from our pollution.

Compromise is an essential part of living in community. Sometimes we negotiate about trivial stuff (toilet seats or the official state wildflower), and sometimes they are matters of ultimate importance (whether violence is ever acceptable, in a marriage or in international relations). Compromise is hard, and sometimes painful, but we can define principles that help us know when the process of getting there is fair, and whether it recognizes the realities of loss, permanence, and natural laws that may be involved.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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