On Rotten Compromises

In a recent article in the Emory Magazine, Emory University President James Wagner praises the Three-Fifths Compromise as a model example of political compromise:

Some might suggest that the constitutional compromise reached for the lowest common denominator—for the barest minimum value on which both sides could agree. I rather think something different happened. Both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared—the aspiration to form a more perfect union. They set their sights higher, not lower, in order to identify their common goal and keep moving toward it.

Maybe you’re now doing the same double-take that I did. Let me get this straight: Wagner is saying that the Three-Fifths Compromise, which traded on the view that slaves are not fully human, and thus cannot be citizens, but from whom slaveowners may nonetheless extract some political benefit for themselves – this reflects the virtue of political compromise? Wagner goes on to liken compromise of this sort to the kind of work that goes on in university settings:

The constitutional compromise about slavery … facilitated the achievement of what both sides of the debate really aspired to—a new nation.

Something like this process occurs every week on a university campus. Through debate, through questioning, through experimentation, we aim to enlarge the sphere of knowledge and refine the exercise of wisdom, to do the hard work of opening others’ minds and keeping our own minds open to possibilities.

There are lots of problems with this. First, it isn’t clear how “debate,” “questioning,” and “experimentation” in university settings involve compromise. Wagner rightly says that the business of a university is to enlarge the sphere of knowledge and to refine the exercise of wisdom. But these are non-rivalrous goods: my engagement with the goods of knowledge and wisdom doesn’t prevent others from doing the same. You can’t use up knowledge and wisdom. So, why would you need to compromise?

But more to the point: if universities like Emory aim, as Wagner says, to “contribute to human well-being … in the twenty-first century,” then how is the Three-Fifths Compromise a good example of that work? In his book On Compromise and Rotten Compromises, the political theorist Avishai Margalit defines a “rotten compromise” as

an agreement to establish or maintain a regime of cruelty and humiliation – in short, an inhuman regime, in the literal sense of inhuman, unfit for humans (Princeton: PUP, 2010, p. 89).

Margalit has in mind the various compromises world leaders made with Hitler that ultimately promoted the Holocaust.

On Margalit’s definition, the Three-Fifths Compromise is a prime example of rotten compromise. That’s why it is a bad example of political compromise. No compromise is good that undermines human flourishing, even if the compromise aims at a higher good that promotes it.

In our divisive political climate, there has been renewed interest in compromise as a political virtue. It’s a good idea, I think, to promote compromise. But any discussion of compromise has to include an awareness of its limits. My view is that the theological category of the imago Dei contains possibilities for making sense of healthy political competition as well as both the necessity and limits of political compromise. Compromise should end right where a resulting policy would deface the image of God in persons affected by it. The Three-Fifths Compromise was rotten because it did just this.