In defense of unfair compromises


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.

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  1. 1.

    Unlike others, I thus do not make a distinction between compromises and ‘mere bargains’ or ‘balances of power’. See also Jones and O’Flynn (2013, p. 120).

  2. 2.

    His account is based on Kalai and Smorodinsky (1975, pp. 1623–1630).

  3. 3.

    Of course, we might not know ex ante for certain what is feasible and what is not. This has to be ignored in the model.

  4. 4.

    Gauthier distinguishes the initial bargaining position from the non-cooperative outcome, because a Lockean proviso has to be recognized in the initial bargaining position (1986, p. 198). I do not invoke any such proviso here, but the above moral constraints on bargaining might have a similar effect.

  5. 5.

    Assume the parties in our picture settle on a compromise that give both A and B a utility of 30. The magnitude of B’s concession then is (42–30):(42–10) = 0.375; the magnitude of A’s concession is (47–30):(47–13) = 0.5, so it is not a fair compromise.

  6. 6.

    How much a party can gain and lose from finding an agreement may be related to how much the party contributes, and so the principle of minimax relative concession may reflect desert (see Wendt 2016, p. 58). Yet how much a party can gain and lose from compromising is also related to factors beyond desert.

  7. 7.

    Strictly speaking, the intrinsic fairness of a compromise is substantive, too. (It is not procedural). But for the sake of simplicity, I will simply speak of ‘intrinsic fairness’, not ‘intrinsic substantive fairness’. When I say ‘substantive fairness’, I always mean ‘extrinsic substantive fairness’.

  8. 8.

    It is certainly possible that there still is a conflict even when the friends’ altruistic preferences are taken into account. But the conflict is clearer in focus when their altruistic preferences are excluded.

  9. 9.

    See Bellamy (2012), Weinstock (2013), Rostbøll (2017), Wendt (2017) and Kappel (2018). The value of friendship (see above) also provides principled reasons to compromise, but I figured it would be better to introduce that terminology here.

  10. 10.

    Publicly justifiable arrangements may tend to be close to fair compromise arrangements when the negotiations take place among reasonable parties who represent considerable parts of the citizenry; but in other scenarios, public justifiability and fairness may heavily diverge.

  11. 11.

    I was mistaken about this (see Wendt 2016, pp. 205, 210–211, 215–216).

  12. 12.

    It should also be noted that while it depends on the parties’ subjective preferences whether a particular arrangement is a fair compromise or not, the parties can still be wrong about whether their compromise is fair or not. When the parties are unaware that the Pareto-best fair compromise is at a particular point, this does not change the fact that it is there.

  13. 13.

    Another alternative is offered in Braithwaite (1955).

  14. 14.

    Van Parijs suggests that when the parties agree about the fairness of a solution, ‘[t]here is no compromise, but rather a consensus’ (2012, p. 470). This is false, at least when the parties think some other solution would be best1. On fairness and the stability of principled compromises see Jones and O’Flynn (2012).

  15. 15.

    Of course, some terrorist blackmailing makes valid compromises impossible. The issue, then, is not between finding an ‘agreement’ or ‘not finding an agreement’, but between ‘giving in’ and ‘not giving in’. Take, as an example, the hijacking of the airplane Landshut by Palestinian terrorists with the goal of freeing RAF terrorists from the German prison Stammheim in 1977. In the end, the airplane was taken by force by a German special unit in Somalia.

  16. 16.

    I presented earlier versions of this paper at the University Vita-Salute San Raffaele in Milan (March 2017), the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Bielefeld (May 2017), the ASPP conference in Sheffield (June 2017), the University of Hamburg (November 2017), Virginia Tech in Blacksburg (February 2018), the PPE Society meeting in New Orleans (March 2018), and the University of Edinburgh (March 2018). I thank all audiences for very helpful discussions. Special thanks to Enrico Biale, Paul Billingham, Giulia Bistagnino, Chiara Destri, Erasmus Mayr, Michael Moehler, Mike Ridge, Elise Rouméas, Roberta Sala, Itai Sher, Nicholas Southwood, Steve Wall, Daniel Weinstock, Véronique Zanetti, and two anonymous reviewers for Philosophical Studies.


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Wendt, F. In defense of unfair compromises. Philos Stud 176, 2855–2875 (2019).

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  • Compromise
  • Fairness
  • Bargaining
  • David Gauthier