Compromise: A Good or Bad Idea?

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Compromise is a word striking the same chord as the word traitor. It’s hard to find anything reputable about it, though in politics it seems to find an acceptance niche.

It usually seems to stand in stark contrast to conviction or steadfastness, which are admirable qualities. It smacks of weakness, and of willingness to give in before the strength of a different opinion or position. A weakling is one who compromises, and is willing to change position when confronted with a contrary opinion. A frequently cited instance of compromise is the capitulation of Arthur Chamberlain, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, by signing the Munich Agreement with Hitler, at the beginning of the Second World War. Nonetheless, most of us probably compromise at one time or another, and feel ashamed about it.

On the other hand, its opposite is found to be not much more appealing: stubbornness or the intransigence of “bullheadedness”. This is the stance of one who never changes his/her mind, and brooks no opposition to his/her position. It’s the position of “my way or the highway”. Perhaps the example of Harry Truman comes to mind when we think of the sign on his desk: “the buck stops here”. While we may like to deal with the compromiser because we often get our way with such a one, we hate to negotiate with the stubborn person because we seldom win before one who never gives in.

Compromise is usually the stance taken before two lines of action: seemingly, one better, the other worse. A compromiser doesn’t like to think he or she is backing off from a good position and allowing something less desirable to happen. However, backing off a good position doesn’t necessarily mean we are adopting an evil one. We may try to maintain that compromise entails a less than good option. We prefer the word “negotiate”, while critics may call it giving in, or succumbing, or backing off—a cowardly thing.

But supporters say: not so fast, because they see it as a way of preserving at least a segment of the good, if not its entirety. Is it not a mistake to achieve no good at all rather than gain at least a token of something good? One may counter by saying that one’s integrity and honesty have been preserved provided that doesn’t smack of a kind of selfishness or self-satisfaction enabling one to say: “I avoided any semblance of evil”, but, should this be at the price of achieving no other good whatsoever?

So some say the only way to get something good done is to compromise and give in. But others reply; that’s too steep a price to pay. Shading the truth to save a life, stealing medicine to help a sick person, injuring one person to protect another, keeping a promise that will cause more harm than good, engaging in a just strike that hurts the businesses of others, harboring a refugee in violation of the law. When is the good I try to do not good enough to avoid being or doing evil?

How much good should I strive to do? How much evil must I seek to avoid? Can I compromise on either?

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Author: CPP

We are a community of laymen and laywomen who, with vowed Passionists, seek to share in the charism of St. Paul of the Cross through prayer, ongoing spiritual formation, and proclamation of the message of Christ Crucified.

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