Philosophical Studies

, Volume 176, Issue 11, pp 2855–2875 | Cite as

In defense of unfair compromises

  • Fabian WendtEmail author


It seems natural to think that compromises ought to be fair. But it is false. In this paper, I argue that it is never a moral desideratum to reach fair compromises and that we are sometimes even morally obligated to try to establish unfair compromises. The most plausible conception of the fairness of compromises is David Gauthier’s principle of minimax relative concession. According to that principle, a compromise is fair when all parties make equal concessions relative to how much they can gain from an agreement and relative to how much they would lose without an agreement. To find out whether reaching a fair compromise sometimes is a moral desideratum, I discuss several paradigmatic cases in friendships, economics and politics, and I try to show that even when the parties have moral reasons to refrain from trying to maximize utility in the negotiations, they do not have moral reasons to aim at a fair compromise. My second claim is that we are sometimes morally obligated to try to establish unfair compromises, in particular when we are dealing with parties that try to establish morally very bad political arrangements. In such cases, we should try to concede as little as possible to achieve an outcome that is morally acceptable. Fair compromises, in other words, are morally much more dubious than is usually appreciated.


Compromise Fairness Bargaining David Gauthier 


  1. Barry, B. (1989). Theories of justice. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  2. Bellamy, R. (2012). Democracy, compromise and the representation paradox: Coalition-government and political integrity. Government and Opposition, 47, 441–465.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Braithwaite, R. (1955). Theory of games as a tool for the moral philosopher. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Carens, J. (1979). Compromise in politics. In J. Pennock & J. Chapman (Eds.), Compromise in ethics, law, and politics (pp. 123–141). New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Ceva, E. (2016). Interactive justice. New York: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Dworkin, R. (1986). Law’s empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Gauthier, D. (1986). Morals by agreement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Gauthier, D. (1993). Uniting separate persons. In D. Gauthier & R. Sugden (Eds.), Rationality, justice and the social contract (pp. 176–192). Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf.Google Scholar
  9. Habermas, J. (1990). Discourse ethics: Notes on a program of philosophical justification. In J. Habermas (Eds.), Moral consciousness and communicative action (pp. 43–115). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  10. Harman, G. (1988). Rationality in agreement. Social Philosophy and Policy, 5, 1–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Jones, P., & O’Flynn, I. (2012). Internal conflict, the international community and the promotion of principled compromise. Government and Opposition, 47, 395–413.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Jones, P., & O’Flynn, I. (2013). Can a compromise be fair? Politics, Philosophy & Economics, 12, 115–135.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Kalai, E. (1977). Proportional solutions to bargaining situations: Interpersonal utility comparisons. Econometrica, 45, 1623–1630.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Kalai, E., & Smorodinsky, M. (1975). Other solutions to Nash’s bargaining problem. Econometrica, 45, 1623–1630.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Kappel, K. (2018). How moral disagreement may ground principled moral compromise. Politics, Philosophy & Economics, 17, 75–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Margalit, A. (2010). On compromise and rotten compromises. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  17. May, S. (2005). Principled compromise and the abortion controversy. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 33, 317–348.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Nash, J. (1950). The bargaining problem. Econometrica, 18, 155–162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Rostbøll, C. (2017). Democratic respect and compromise. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 20, 619–635.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Scanlon, T. (1998). What we owe to each other. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Schelling, T. (1960). The strategy of conflict. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Simmons, A. J. (1979). The principle of fair play. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 8, 307–337.Google Scholar
  24. Sugden, R. (1993). Rationality and impartiality: Is the contractarian entreprise possible? In D. Gauthier & R. Sugden (Eds.), Rationality, justice and the social contract (pp. 157–175). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  25. Van Parijs, P. (2012). What makes a good compromise? Government and Opposition, 47, 466–480.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Weinstock, D. (2013). On the possibility of principled moral compromise. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 16, 537–556.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Wendt, F. (2016). Compromise, peace and public justification. London: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Wendt, F. (2017). Compromise and the value of widely accepted laws. In C. Rostbøll & T. Scavenius (Eds.), Compromise and disagreement in contemporary political theory (pp. 50–62). London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Smith Institute for Political Economy and PhilosophyChapman UniversityOrangeUSA

Personalised recommendations