“Compromise” seems to have become a dirty word in some quarters these days – especially in our politics. To some people it seems to be a sign of weakness and moral turpitude. Compromise for them smells of “appeasement” -- or worse, defeat. In this view, you may only be encouraging a Hitler, or you may be abandoning your principles for the sake of expediency. If you compromise you are selling out. Thus, for example, if a business owner gives in to a labor union’s wage demands, or if you give in to your teenager’s pleadings for some privilege, it will only encourage more of the same. We all know about “intermittent reinforcement,” thanks to the Behaviorist psychologist B.F. Skinner.
Of course, some people are less concerned about principles. They are simply obstinate and inflexible, either by temperament or by training (or both), and every social conflict is viewed as a personal test of character. Compromise is not an option. So the old cliché about settling for half a loaf only works some of the time. In all too many cases, our conflicts have to be resolved by our friends and family members, or counselors, arbitrators, juries, or (sadly enough) with violence – murders, riots, revolutions, and even wars.
Unfortunately, it is also true that many conflicts involve what game theorists call a zero-sum situation. One “player’s” gain is offset by another player’s loss. No compromise solution is possible without changing the game. When a hawk looking for a meal goes after a rabbit, there is no “win-win” solution. In other cases, both players may lose if the game continues. World War One is the classic example; everyone lost that terrible war in different ways.
On the other hand, there are also many situations where all the players can benefit if only they have sufficient information to make the right choice. So “education” (and maybe some innovation) may be the way to find a resolution. Thus, if a deal had not been struck at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 over such divisive issues as slavery and representation for the smaller states, we might have ended up with thirteen separate nations. All of this is well understood by game theorists, economists, marriage counselors and others in the conflict resolution business.
What is sometimes short changed in conflict situations is a deeper moral issue that may have very real psychological and practical/political consequences. Every stable social relationship involves at least a tacit (if not explicit) “social contract” that provides benefits and entails reciprocities for all the parties, or “stakeholders. And if we do not honor these contractual obligations, we may become exploitative – free riders or cheats who betray not only the interests and rights of others but also their trust. We violate their deep sense of fairness – not to mention the Golden Rule. We would almost certainly not want others to treat us the same way. And when we violate a social contract, we risk having other stakeholders abandon their obligations as well.
This, in essence, is the dilemma we face in our politics today. Our society represents a vast, complex social contract. We are all dependent upon many others to satisfy our basic needs and wants. And if some of us reject our mutual obligations, we cannot expect the other stakeholders to honor their obligations in return. The current Occupy Wall Street protests are thus only the tip of the iceberg – a growing sense of anger about a society that has become deeply unfair for many of us. In this situation, compromise represents the moral high ground, and a “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude is the road toward civil war. It is a dangerous moment in our history.