On Compromise and Rotten Compromises

Dec 15, 2009

Compromise can be a political virtue, especially for the sake of peace. When is political compromise acceptable, and when is it fundamentally rotten? What if a rotten compromise is politically necessary? Are there moral limits to acceptable compromise, and what are those limits?


JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs. On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to welcome our members, guests, and C-SPAN Book TV. Thank you for joining us.

Today it is our privilege to welcome one of the world's most renowned philosophers, Avishai Margalit. He will be discussing his latest book, entitled On Compromise and Rotten Compromises. These essays were originally delivered as part of the 2005 Tanner Lectures on Human Values which are given in recognition of uncommon achievement and are meant to advance and reflect upon the scholarly and scientific learning relating to human values.

When we talk about compromise, we often use this word to mean a meeting of the minds, striking a balance, finding a happy medium between two extremes, or meeting someone halfway.

However you may choose to express this notion, whether as a verb or as a noun, you may find conflicting views of what the word "compromise" entails. In political life, compromise is often used in the context of furthering one's goals. But knowing when to negotiate, when to be accommodating, and when to resist can have far-reaching consequences.

In Compromise and Rotten Compromises, Professor Margalit has turned the spotlight on the morality of compromise. Using a wide range of historical examples, particularly those arrangements made with the great tyrannies of the early and mid-20th century, he introduces new and compelling distinctions about the subject. He considers such questions as, when is political compromise permissible, and when is it something we should never permit, even for the sake of peace? At what point does peace secured with compromise become unjust?

At the center of this book is a tension between peace and justice. Professor Margalit writes that he is particularly interested in the moral status of compromise made for the sake of peace at the expense of justice.

Our speaker is universally respected for his analytical skills and moral acumen. He was born in Jerusalem and began his academic career in the Department of Philosophy at the Hebrew University. Since then he has been a visiting scholar at Harvard, Princeton, and Oxford. Currently he is the George F. Kennan Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

As the author of several books maybe some of you have read—The Ethics of Memory, The Decent Society, or Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, a book which he coauthored with Ian Buruma—if you have, you will understand how with each one Professor Margalit has transformed philosophical perspectives on a range of political and societal issues.

In 2001, he received the Spinoza Lens Prize, awarded by the International Spinoza Foundation for making a significant contribution to the normative debate on society, so it is not surprising that he is one of the founders of Peace Now, the Israeli peace movement that has called for the recognition of the rights of Palestinians to self-determination in their own state alongside Israel.

At this time I ask that you please join me in giving a very warm welcome to a very special guest. Professor Margalit, we're very happy to have you here.


AVISHAI MARGALIT: Thank you so much for your generous introduction.

On September 29, 1938, Hitler, Chamberlain, Daladier, and Mussolini met in Munich and reached an agreement to transfer the Sudetenland, a narrow strip of land populated by ethnic Germans, from Czechoslovakia to Germany. In return, Hitler promised not to make any further territorial demands on Europe.

In March 1939, the German army seized all of Czechoslovakia. The rest is history—horrendous history.

The Munich Agreement became the symbol of a rotten compromise, a compromise one should not sign under any circumstances. "Appeasement" became the label for the policy that led to the Munich Agreement. Since the agreement was perceived as rotten, the term "appeasement" went through a total reevaluation. It lost its positive sense of bringing calm and peace and came to mean surrendering to the demands of a bully just because he's a bully. An "appeaser" became a term synonymous with "delusional," or, as in the saying attributed to Churchill, "one who feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last."

But is the Munich Agreement a clear case of a rotten compromise? My answer in the book is that the Munich Agreement is a rotten compromise, but not predominantly because of its content. If the content of the agreement is not shamefully rotten, what is? It cannot be the motive for signing the agreement that makes it rotten. There was nothing shameful in Chamberlain's yearning for peace as a motive for signing the agreement. Even Churchill, not a great fan of Chamberlain, recognized his sincerity. I quote: "No one has been more resolute and uncompromising struggling for peace than the prime minister."

So the purity of Chamberlain's motive for peace was never in dispute. The agreement cannot be rotten just because it was based on an error of political judgment, putting Britain's trust in the hands of a serial betrayer. That is an empirical blunder, not a moral sin.

So what is rotten in the Munich pact? My answer: The one with whom it was signed, and not what was signed, makes it rotten. A pact with Hitler was a pact with radical evil, evil meant to eradicate morality itself. Not recognizing Hitler as radically evil was a moral failure, on top of a bad error of political judgment.

It was Isaiah Berlin who initiated me into the topic of compromise and rotten compromise, both by conveying to me a strong sense of the importance of the spirit of compromise in politics and also by conveying the formative experience of his generation, the Munich Agreement, as definitive rotten compromise. We were discussing once the Suez affair and I complained indignantly of the misuse of the Munich Agreement by paranoid politicians, those who see Chamberlain's umbrella as the symbol of defeatism everywhere. Berlin admitted that much and added a story.

A man was seen hitting fiercely on top of a whistling, boiling kettle. "What are you doing?" the man was asked.

"I can't stand steam locomotives."

"But this is a kettle, not a locomotive."

"Yes, yes, I know. But you have to kill them when they are still young."

I suspect that the often-used analogy of appeasing Nasser as "Mussolini on the Nile," as Eden called him, or Saddam as "Hitler on the Tigris" was of the kettle-as-a-young-locomotive kind. As much as I want to use the Munich Agreement as the paradigm case for a rotten compromise, I'm acutely aware of its obnoxious role in political propaganda.

Now, two pictures:

The idea of political compromise is caught between two pictures of politics: Politics as economics and politics as religion. Roughly speaking, in the economic picture of politics, everything is subject to compromise. Compromise is not always desirable or prudent, but it is always possible.

In the religious picture, there are things over which we must never compromise. The religious picture is in the grip of the idea of the holy. The holy is that which is non-negotiable. Crudely put, one cannot compromise over the holy without compromising the holy. Conversely, in the economic picture of politics, compromise is at the heart of politics, and the ability to compromise is highly praised. That politics is the art of compromise is a tired cliché.

Economic life is based on the idea of substitution. One commodity can be replaced by another, and this enables exchanges in the market. Exchange leaves room for negotiation, and where there is room for negotiation, there is room for compromise. Compromise has an internal relation, a central relation, to what is exchangeable and divisible.

The economic picture serving as the model for politics makes it seem as if compromise is always possible. Not so with religion. True, religions, by which I mean religious institutions, make political compromises all the time. They routinely develop elaborate justifications and techniques to carry out their compromises. But ideally, the logic of the holy as the core notion of religion is the opposite of the idea of compromise.

The two pictures, the religious and the economic, evince two different sets of motivations to explain political life. The economic picture explains human behavior in terms of satisfying preferences, where the religious picture brings the willingness for self-sacrifice into the picture. A key mistake in political thought lies in disregarding the workings of either of the two pictures, in the belief that only one of the pictures sustains politics.

Let me dwell on one feature of compromise which bears on my concern with compromise for the sake of peace. It is the element of recognition involved in political compromises.

A clear case of a full-fledged compromise suggests rather than implies recognizing the point of view of the other. Compromise may be an expression of such recognition. It confers legitimacy on the point of view of the other side. Full-fledged compromise may even involve a measure of give-up from the strong side, not driving as hard a bargain as it could to get what it desires. The point of such give-up is indeed to confer recognition on one's rival and to dispel an image of domination. By meeting the other party halfway, one may suggest a semblance of equality between non-equals.

The practice of political compromise suggests that one key form of compromise takes place when one recognizes the other side as a legitimate partner for negotiation. Sometimes recognizing the other as a legitimate side for bargaining is harder than reaching an actual agreement. Recognition of the armed Basque separatists, ETA, by Spain or the Shining Path by the government of Peru or the Kurdistan Workers' Party in Turkey as partners for negotiation is more difficult for Spain, Peru, and Turkey, respectively, than any concession they may be required to make in order to reach an agreement.

Dubbing the other part a "terrorist" organization is tantamount to regarding them as illegitimate partners, as extortionists who should be resisted. Removing an organization from a terrorist list and making it one side of negotiations is usually a major concession by the party that confers legitimacy. The legitimizing side expects in return a major concession by the former terrorist organization. Compromise may take place in the way of recognizing the parties in the bargaining.

Recognizing a mortal enemy hitherto unrecognized as a legitimate party of negotiation may play a transformative role in humanizing the enemy and acknowledging the enemy as holding legitimate concerns. It calls for empathy and attentive effort to understand the enemy's concerns from the enemy's point of view. It calls for empathy, not for sympathy—namely, identification with the enemy's concern.

So recognition is an important element of compromise.

But what is a rotten compromise? I see a rotten political compromise as an agreement to establish or maintain an inhuman regime, a regime of cruelty and humiliation—that is, a regime that does not treat humans as humans. I use "inhuman" in the sense of an extreme manifestation of not treating humans as humans. Inhuman in the sense of cruel, savage, and barbarous behavior conveys only one element of my sense of inhuman. Humiliation is another element. Humiliation, in my view, is already not treating humans as humans. But humiliation intensified by cruelty equals inhuman. So the fusion of cruelty and humiliation is what an inhuman regime consists of.

The idea of an inhuman regime as a regime of cruelty and humiliation guides my idea of rotten compromise. The basic thing is that we should beware of agreeing, even passively, to establish or maintain a regime of cruelty and humiliation—in short, inhuman regimes.

Many bad things dropped out of Pandora's box. Choosing the inhuman regime among the bad things coming out of the box as a thing to avoid at all costs calls for justification. The inhuman regime erodes the foundations of morality. Morality rests on treating humans as humans. Not treating humans as humans undermines the basic assumption of morality. Morality is about how human relations should be, in virtue of being human and in virtue of nothing else. Morality, by its very nature, is based on the category of belonging to humanity, in the sense of belonging to the human species. Assault on humanity by treating humans as non-humans undermines the very project of morality, the project of telling us how relations among human beings must be.

For the sake of defending morality, we end up with a stern injunction: Rotten compromise must be avoided, come what may.

Now a tough question: Was the great compromise a rotten compromise? The institution of slavery is a case of humiliation and cruelty. Slavery based on racism is doubly at fault, for one is degraded as a human being both on account of being a slave and on account of one's race. So let me deal with compromises involving slavery as a test case for my account of rotten compromise as a compromise that consists of establishing or condoning the infliction of cruelty and humiliation.

It looks ridiculously anachronistic to charge the Mesopotamian King Hammurabi for adopting slavery some 4,000 years ago. But there is nothing anachronistic in holding Jefferson accountable for his acceptance of slavery. Abolition for him was a live option. A live option is not necessarily the preferred option. It is an option which is on the horizon of its members, especially if a significant number of members in the society or in their immediate vicinity opt for it. There is no question that during the formation of the Union, abolitionism was a live option.

In my view, a historical society is morally accountable relative to its live options. This does not mean that the wrongness, say, of slavery is relative, but only that the moral accountability is. So asking whether the United States was founded on a rotten compromise in accepting slavery is not an anachronistic question. The issue here, unlike the issue in the case of the Munich Agreement, is the content of the compromise rather than who signed it. As a matter of fact, the agreement was signed by exceptionally remarkable individuals, who were also, many of them, noble people.

What enabled the formation of the Union and the acceptance of the American Constitution by its framers was the Connecticut compromise, hailed as "the Great Compromise." The two thorny issues that the compromise was meant to settle were political representation and slavery. The sticky issue for us is the compromise on slavery. Slavery was recognized, though Madison succeeded in keeping the word "slave" out of the wording of the Constitution. The Constitution did not ban slavery.

Moreover, it did not empower the Congress to do so. The importation of slaves was authorized until 1808.

The U.S. Constitution, Article IV, Section 2, is particularly hideous. It orders the return of slaves who succeeded in escaping to free states to be returned to their slave owners. This was a situation that the fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison faced. He said, "The compact which exists between the North and the South is a covenant with death and an agreement with hell."

For Garrison, the Constitution was a pact with the devil, a rotten compromise if ever there was one. Garrison had the sublimity of language, the fearless independence, and the spiritual nobility of a biblical prophet. But was he right? Was the Union based on a rotten compromise, enabling the Constitution to be accepted at the price of recognizing a political order that is systematically cruel and deeply humiliating to a distinct group of people?

The Union was perceived by its adherents as a moral idea of great moment—forming "a more perfect union," a political order that would be not just more efficient, but morally better. Even I as a child in faraway Jerusalem understood, as we read in class Stephen Benét's classic "The Devil and Daniel Webster," that when Webster keeps asking from his grave, "Neighbor, how stands the Union?" it was an echo of the belief that the Union is something much higher than mere political arrangement.

One can sell his soul to the devil for personal gain and still be defended by Webster, but no one can betray the Union and be defended.

Well, then, was the tacit recognition of slavery in the Constitution a fly in the ointment, something that spoils but does not destroy the moral status of the Constitution, or was it a cockroach in the soup, something that destroys the moral fabric of the Constitution, rendering it rotten?

My short answer: It was a cockroach in the soup. For the more interesting and more nuanced answer, you can read more in my book.

Now for the tension between peace and justice. The tension between peace and justice is at the center of the book. Compromise is the go-between. I'm particularly interested in the moral status of compromise done for the sake of peace at the expense of justice. How far can we go for peace by giving up on justice? Quite a distance, I say, but not the whole way. This is the short answer. Here again, my long answer is the whole book.

Declaring the two terms our intention is often a way of muddying the waters and declaring them deep. Tension between peace and justice needs elucidation. We tend to view peace and justice as complementary goods, like fish and chips, whereas in actuality peace and justice tend to each other as competing goods, like tea and coffee. The tension is due to the fact of the possibility of tradeoff between peace and justice. To gain peace, we may be forced to pay in justice.

Levi Eshkol, a former prime minister of Israel and a hero of mine, had the reputation of being a relentless compromiser. A tall story had it that when asked whether he would like tea or coffee, he answered, "Half and half," the idea being that the spirit of compromise may blind one to the fact of competing goods from which one has to choose.

The tradeoff between peace and justice is no laughing matter. It can be tragic. The sense of this tragic choice pervades my book.

So here is the telegraphic message of the book: On the whole, political compromises are good things. Political compromises for the sake of peace are very good things. Shabby, shoddy compromises are bad, not sufficiently bad to be always avoided at all costs, especially not when they are concluded for the sake of peace. Only rotten compromises are bad enough to be avoided at all costs. But then rotten compromises are mere tiny subsets of a large set of possible political compromises.

Thank you.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: In a nuclear age, where peace is on the line, could one in any instance go for the enforcement of a rotten compromise? Particularly what comes to mind is Mr. Ahmadinejad and the North Korean regime, who have a record of suppressing people.

AVISHAI MARGALIT: First of all, it's a really tough question. I deal with it, but not sufficiently, not well enough, because it's really hard. What is hard for me in the case of nuclear weapons is that it's, tacitly at least—or maybe overtly—a case of coercion rather than a case that calls for compromise. What should you do in cases of coercion? By coercion, I mean when you get a threat and all the options after the threat are much worse than the status quo. Having a nuclear weapon, without even declaring it as a threatening thing, has the potential of being coercive.

Should you make deals with someone with a nuclear weapon if the one runs an inhuman regime? My answer in such cases may be yes. It depends, really, on the element of coercion or non-coercion. If it's coercive, you do what you do. I don't have a recipe for that. If it's not coercive, then you don't make a deal. So a great deal depends here on the facts, whether it's coercive or not. That's really a difficult case to decide.

In the case of Ahmadinejad or North Korea, a great deal really depends on the facts. I think the Pakistani nuclear weapon is immensely threatening to its neighbors and it was spread by Khan and others. How to deal with it? Very difficult to say. I don't have a wholesale answer, only on a retail basis, case by case. That's the best I can do.

QUESTION: In keeping with your philosophical thread on compromise and tradeoff, there's a third word, "concession." How would you use those three words to describe the unfolding consequences of our world? And how do you deal with Iran or North Korea or Venezuela, for that matter?

AVISHAI MARGALIT: Concession is when you have an initial position in bargaining and whatever you renounce is, for you, a concession that you make to the other side. Usually you try to enhance the concession; the other side tries to minimize the significance of it. That's part of negotiation and part of bargaining. So concession is obviously part of the vocabulary of compromises. I don't use it that extensively, but it's there.

What to do in particular cases—as I said, there we should really be very careful about the facts. Just more rhetoric here can be dangerous, as it was in the case of Iraq.

Namely, it blinds us from what actually happens. For example, Iran is not just Ahmadinejad. It's a very complex society. I wouldn't even define the rules of the mullahs in Iran as an inhuman regime. I don't believe that that's true. It's too trivial to say that I'm against. But that is, in my vocabulary, not an inhuman regime. It may now turn into an inhuman regime, being immensely oppressive. I think now, actually, is the real turning point.

What to do with Iran? This calls for lots of factual discussions on what the options are.

What I try to devise is a moral vocabulary to deal with the moral aspects. That's basically what I took on myself and into account. I may be wrong in many historical judgments, factually wrong. The point is whether I provide the right vocabulary, and not whether I give the right historical analysis. I may be wrong about what formed the Union and what the nature of the compromise was there, what the options were there. But the point is, the test for me is whether I provided the right vocabulary, the moral vocabulary, to deal with those questions, even if I'm wrong empirically—namely, that I just got the facts wrong.

QUESTION: Do you see a distinction between a compromise and an agreement, specifically with respect to the issue of an agreement's underlying requirement, at least as I understand it, of trust, trust being an element either in terms of the morality of the bargaining power or the complexity of the bargaining power, as is the case that you cited with Iran?

AVISHAI MARGALIT: I make a distinction between anemic compromises and sanguine compromises. I was struck by one fact: In the books that deal systemically and mathematically with bargaining—namely, game theory—the word "compromise" is not there. I was struck: How come? "Concession," yes, but not "compromise."

You would have expected it to be part and parcel of the phenomenon.

What they say is every agreement is a compromise. You want to sell high, I want to buy low, and whatever we agree on is an agreement and a compromise between our initial positions and what we agree on. That's the anemic use.

What I try to describe is something more akin to our ordinary use of "compromise," when there is a deadlock, when there is more texture and more structure to the phenomenon than just mere compromise and agreeing on a deal. You won't say that if you go here and buy a pair of shoes and agree on the price, there was a compromise between you and the seller. Not even in the souk, when the bargaining is taken more seriously and more ritualistically, do you say, "We compromise."

So that anemic sense is not our ordinary sense of compromise. "Agreement" for me is the covering term for all the cases, the anemic and the sanguine. I describe what goes into the sanguine case. One element that I describe here is recognition as an element of the sanguine case of compromise.

QUESTION: Could you discuss the religious and economic motivations in the compromise between the Arabs and the Israelis?

AVISHAI MARGALIT: There are two conflicts. There is the conflict between Israel and the Arab states, which is an ordinary conflict among states about territories, water, security. That's more in the line of the economic model. There is another conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, which is an intercommunal strife where what is at stake is the identity of the two communities. They understand themselves through this conflict. Therefore, they make things holy or non-negotiable because both sides believe that it touches the very basic identity of the community.

It's true that the word "holy" was used by President Sadat in the Knesset when he came on his historical visit to Israel. He said, "The land of Sinai is holy and non-negotiable." He used twice this term—namely, the Holy Land.

Now you see, for example, in the Hamas, they declare Israel the whole Palestine waqf—namely, a religious endowment. A religious endowment is not for negotiation.

You can make truce. You can make temporary ceasefire. You can make all sorts of deals in time, but in principle you cannot. Both sides, both the Israelis—and not necessarily the religious; it's a fusion of nationalism and religion here—both sides, I think, created and changed the nature of the conflict from a nationalistic conflict that still could be resolved into a religious conflict that will be impossible to resolve, unless the two sides are too tired, like after 300 years of religious wars in Europe. Then you just give up because you are too tired. But as long you can keep the struggle, you keep it.

I think there was a major change. It was a continuous change. I think there was a constant change from a national conflict to a religious conflict. National conflict or all secular vision usually goes by five-year plans. In religious conflicts, the stake is much higher and the day of payment is postponed. I think that's basically the perspective that now we face.

Therefore, to answer your question, yes, the religious picture of the conflict took over between Israelis and Palestinians, I think, very much.

QUESTION: I have a question regarding recognition, recognition as part of compromise, maybe. My latest posting was in Ramallah. Among the European Union diplomats, we had a lot of discussion about recognition of Hamas as the legitimate winner of the election. But on the other side, of course, it is a terrorist organization.

What do you think about this? If we recognize a terrorist or inhuman regime or organization, will it become more human or less terrorist?

AVISHAI MARGALIT: I didn't say that—I don't advocate recognition in all cases. It depends on what to recognize. Sometimes the nature of the organization is such that there is nothing to recognize. You vehemently disagree on what they stand for. All I said was that there are cases when you can strike a deal and you can achieve something by recognizing. Then don't make it a taboo.

As to the Hamas, the Hamas is more complicated than just—there are three Hamas. There is the outside Hamas, led by Mashaal, there is the Hamas of Haniyah, the prime minister of the Hamas, in Gaza, and there is the Hamas of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, the military wing, with Dr. al-Zahar and others.

Instead of answering your question, I'll tell you a story and see if it works. When Israel left Gaza, two weeks before Arafat came from Tunisia to Gaza, at Peace Now we got a phone call from the Hamas people. I went to Gaza to talk to the Hamas people. I went with a friend. Now I know it was a crazy thing to do. I was utterly in their hands. But I did it. I met the one who is now what is called the foreign minister, Dr. al-Zahar. He was a doctor. We went to his house. We were well received.

There were a few people there from the Hamas, from the leadership. What's on?

He said, "Look, in two weeks Arafat is coming and he's going to slaughter us"—namely, the Hamas—"and we want people of goodwill to know about it."

I said to him, "So it's a humanitarian appeal."

"Oh, there is politics to it."

"What's the politics?" I said.

He looked, to me, utterly mystified and said, "What do you mean, what's the politics of it? Under Islamic rule, you Jews will be utterly secure, because you will be protected by us in an Islamic state. You are dhimmi. You are Ahl al-Kitab, People of the Book. And you'll be protected because that's the Islamic way. If you are worried about security, you will be secure."

He didn't hide anything. He said it in the worst of conditions—expecting Arafat to slaughter them. Yet when he said it, he gave the whole thing, the whole account.

Whether he represents Hamas or not—I doubt it. He is an element, an important element. But the Hamas is more complicated. And just to lump together the three factions of the Hamas and take the worst case as the most representative—that's easy for propaganda purposes. For politics, I think one should really be more nuanced.

QUESTION: At the end you said that, on the whole, compromise for the sake of peace is a good thing. Do you mean peace in the short term or in the long term, taking into account the Irish treaty early last century, where it achieved some sort of peace, but the rest of the century, there was not whole peace?

Just a quick question. Kosovo is being asked to compromise. Can freedom be compromised, a return of oppression? Or do you consider that a deal worth compromise?

AVISHAI MARGALIT: You ask me successive questions. Each one of them is a chapter in the book. It's almost as if you advertised the book, because exactly I'm dealing with those questions.

I'm talking exactly about compromise for the sake of lasting peace, the way Kant talked about peace, and against irredentism and against irredentist element—namely, revanchism, as it was called—as an option, and even if you have just claims for territories, giving them up for the sake of a permanent peace. I'm not talking about truce and not about ceasefire, but a permanent peace.

What is the difference? Obviously, the case of Kosovo was very much on my mind. All I can say now is, you have to read the book.

QUESTION: What I'm thinking of is the what and the who and how you began. How do we really ultimately appreciate who becomes evil and how they become evil? For example, when you open a question on the terrorists, for me they become a label. It becomes dehumanizing. How do we then recognize and deal with the sources, the history, that make the evil? Where is morality, in a sense, I'm asking, and where is justice? It's a hard and murky area to find the true cockroach.

AVISHAI MARGALIT: There are two approaches to the psychology of morality. One, morality is about shaping better human beings, working on their characters.

Another is that people don't have, really, characters. They don't have stable traits. That's just a lazy way of talking about people. What you have to shape is the environment in which they are. Scandinavians may behave better, not because they are better people, but because they have a better environment.

I'm all for the situationalists—namely, those who talk about the environment, not about characters. I didn't say that someone is evil by character. Which is evil—that's for Shakespeare to tell. But most people are not of that kind. Actually, it's an interesting question, whether it's a coherent idea of doing something because it is evil. Even Lucifer rebelled against God because he wanted to rebel, not because he wanted to do the evil thing, and that was a way of rebelling.

I am not assuming anything about characters or that there are evil terrorists because they have this character or they are suicidal or inhuman, and whether the others are—nothing of the sort. I don't assume it for a moment.

What I do assume is that there are different environments, and what we should do politically is shape the environments so as to create better behavior. I use the word "evil," not as a human trait or human character, but as behavior. I didn't try even to psychologize Hitler, for that matter.

QUESTION: I would find it instructive if you would revisit Munich, as to whether it was a rotten compromise. I follow your logic clearly. But it seems to me that the party that paid the price of the compromise wasn't invited to participate in negotiating the compromise, which, it would seem to me, would indicate a rottenness.

AVISHAI MARGALIT: That's very true. Most of the rotten compromises are at the expense of a third party. That's most cases. Here it was at the expense of Czechoslovakia. They even came to Munich and weren't allowed to participate or even present their case. So the compromise here was definitely at the expense of the third party. That's, I think, almost the usual case. But there are cases, of course, of compromises which deal only with two parties.

I don't know if that was your question or I missed something.

QUESTION: When you say "we should," could you identify the "we" and how you go about accomplishing that happy state?

AVISHAI MARGALIT: The way you do "We the people." We the human beings who care about morality. We the human beings who care about decent behavior. It's that way. I'm not speaking—who am I to speak on behalf of anyone? I can barely speak for myself. It depends on which day you ask me. But the "we" here is a fiction, but an important fiction.

There was a minister in Israel, a minister of education, very charismatic. He said, "I know that I'm crazy half of the week, but I don't know on which days."

QUESTION: The question I have goes back to the slavery issue. In a lot of what we have been talking about you have seemed—and I hope you won't get upset at this characterization—sort of flexible. But on the slavery thing, you said, because it's a moral issue, it's essentially non-negotiable. Is that what you said?


QUESTIONER: Suppose the issue had been, "Well, we can't solve it now, but the Union is very important. So we will agree that slavery will be abolished in 50 years."

You would still have these people that are being treated in an inhuman fashion, et cetera, et cetera. What would be your position on something like that?

AVISHAI MARGALIT: You can postpone. Sometimes you cannot implement something right away. The point is, what is the extent to which you can postpone a political solution? My claim is, it's what I call the "desert generation" test. I'm against moral futurism. This generation will pay. In your life, you won't see justice at all, but the next generation will live better. That was, I think, Lenin's line—moral utilitarianism. There will be a great deal of light in the future; now it's dark. But that's only a generation that should pay the price.

If a solution doesn't meet a prospect for a generation, at the end of the generation, to have a different life, then it's untenable.

In the case of the American Constitution, basically the idea was that in 1808, just about the end of my test, there will be a change. It didn't abolish, but there was a change. Had they said at that time there would be an abolishment, then I can see a very strong case for the Union. But this was the case.

So the main point is the desert. The "desert generation" phrase comes from the Bible. Namely, Moses wasted a generation in the desert because they were incapable, as slaves, to go to the Promised Land, but the next generation will go to the Promised Land. It's all right for a generation, for you and me, to say we are willing to work and sacrifice our lives for a better life for our kids. But it's not good for anyone to impose it on us. That's the claim. If immigrants come to this country and sweat in order to have a better life for their kids, it's their decision. It gives meaning to their lives. But if it were imposed on them—you will be oppressed, but your children will have a marvelous future—that's no good.

QUESTION: I was wondering what your thoughts are in regards to more national issues, particularly about human rights and the, one could say, compromise between gay marriage and, say, a civil union.

AVISHAI MARGALIT: I don't have a theory of everything. I have a view about the question that you asked me, about gay marriage and civil union. I think that the state has nothing to do with marriages. Marriage should be—sanctifying relations among human beings is a method for churches, synagogues, whatever. States should be concerned only with civil unions. It's for the people to decide what the significant civil unions are that they want, with whomever they want.

That's my position. I think people shouldn't fight for recognizing marriage. They should fight for universal civil union rather than universal recognition of marriage, which is, I think, a mixture of categories. The state has nothing to do with it. That's my position.

Another issue is, people who care greatly about family values should have adopted the gay marriage more than anyone else, because this is the ultimate affirmation of the institution of marriage, of family.

I always found it very surprising, the rate of people who get remarried—namely, those who were divorced once and get remarried—is the same percentage as the people who get married in the first place. How come people don't blame the institution of marriage and instead blame themselves in the failure and try it again? In most cases when you fail in something, you say, "The institution failed me. I won't do it again." Why in the case of marriage it's not like that? That's a real puzzle for me.

But then I said I don't have a theory of everything.

JOANNE MYERS: I thank you very much, Professor Margalit, for not compromising and sharing with us all your ideas.

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