The Allure of Compromise and Its Failure To Keep Its Promises

One friend’s teenage son complains that there ought to be some “middle ground” between the uber-healthy foods his mom provides, and the convenient, tasty, and unhealthy snacks he finds at his friends’ houses.  This idea of a “middle ground” has some serious problems, however, and it’s got me thinking this morning—and not just about food.

It’s an interesting notion–this idea that compromising on what is best is somehow the right and fair and proper and open-minded and moral and enlightened and normal thing to do. It is the idea that compromise itself is the best policy, and that those in their right minds should naturally practice compromise as a fundamental paradigm in life—as the default manner of reasoning. It is the fallacy that in every disagreement, there should be some “middle ground” to which both parties should rightly repair themselves. It is the fallacy that all opinions have equal merit, that all strategies are equally likely to end in good outcomes, that a thing and its opposite can somehow have equal value, or that a thing and a discounted version of the thing both have equal value.  It is the fallacy that the best thing to do is that which is not the best thing.

To be maintained as a way of life, however, such a notion is generally not stated as clearly as I have put it here.  Rather, it must remain fuzzy and unclear—not as a thing to be exhaustively proven and demonstrated, but quietly assumed and beyond questioning. Its primary purpose is to avoid the realities of diligence–to avoid the sting of reality:  that work is require in order to maintain what is right and best. It is a wish for a reality of a different sort–one that simply doesn’t exist—one in which no difficult decision need be made, and moreover, in which no difficult decision need be carried out in deed.

Those who employ such notion of compromise, however, do not do so consistently. Indeed, they do not want to do so consistently, for there are certain instances in this real world where compromise makes for flagrant failure.  Consider the following ridiculous scenarios:

  1. Lisa sits down to watch the big game, which she knows to be on channel 206.  When she turns on the TV, she sees that it’s on channel 82.  Being a devotee of compromise, she decides to find the “middle ground”, and tunes the TV to channel 144.
  2. Billy knows that it takes 3 gallons of gasoline to mow the field behind his house.  He drives to town and purchases 2.5 gallons for the task, thinking that this is a good compromise because “it’s good to compromise on everything”.  He knows he’ll have to come back for more gas later, but it just seems right to him not to go all the way—not to do things right the first time.
  3. Sally’s chicken pen has three holes in its fence, torn by debris blown by last night’s storm.  Sally is afraid her chickens will escape, so she sets out to repair the holes.  She patches two holes, and figures that this is a fair and proper compromise between what she ought to do and what she is willing to do.  As a result, several chickens escape and are eaten by various predators.

Most people would find compromises such as the ones in these scenarios to be foolish.   They (the people) are not entirely deluded about reality, and they readily understand that some things just don’t work unless they are done right.  Further, and more importantly, they have a motive to see certain things done right.  That is, they have decided to care about certain things enough to go to the effort.  In other areas, where they give in to the temptation to compromise, what is lacking is this level of care—this moral operation of applying oneself to do what is right and best.

Compromise is one-sided.

Have you ever noticed that compromise always gives less, and never more?  The way we think about it, it’s not considered a compromise to donate $10 when asked to donate $5.  We don’t call it a compromise to spend 30 minutes on the treadmill when the plan was for 20 minutes.  No, the whole idea that drives compromise is the avoidance of full exertion.  The point of it is to give less than what is needed, and not more.  It is an attempt to escape from responsibility—from reality.

Compromise promises us that life will be better under its influence than without it.  It promises that we will feel better having done less than what is best.  But this is the stuff from which regret is made.  And who among us feels that life is better with regret than without?  No one, of course.  Compromise is a liar.

I remember a college roommate who sleepily shuffled into the kitchen, removed the milk from the refrigerator, and sniffed it to see if it was still fresh.  At detecting a sour odor, he winced, put the cap back on the jug, and proceeded to put it back into the refrigerator—as if it might be better tomorrow!  He could just as easily have dropped the jug into the trash can, which was a mere step away, but the greater promise, as he perceived it, was in putting it back into the refrigerator, where it could continue to disappoint other roommates who would try the sniff test for themselves, and where it would still need to be thrown out.  He simply wasn’t thinking it through.  Otherwise, he’d have quickly realized that the best and most efficient course of action would be to dispose of the milk and be done with it.  His compromise, therefore, was in doing less thinking than the situation required.

And so it is with eating junk food snacks.  Ask anyone whether junk food is healthy to eat, and they’ll tell you “no”.  They certainly know better than to eat it, whether they actually eat it or not.  Thus does it generally come down to the question of whether we will do what we know is best.  But compromise is always there—always lurking about to promise us at every opportunity that life would be better if we would do less than the best.  It is the excuse that supplants personal diligence and discipline.  But who ever reaches the death bed, convinced that he or she was too diligent in life, and had made too few compromises?

The tug of compromise is as certain as the hold that inertia has on an object at rest.  Resting objects do not spring into motion without being acted upon by some force.  And so it is with our naturally ability to apply ourselves toward doing and thinking what is right and best.  It is a reality of this world in which we live that such operations require the deliberate exertion of energy, which exertion we will not always find convenient or desirable.

The way I see it, we have two choices.  We can sit around wishing that there were an easier way, or we can get up and do what needs to be done.  We can put all the lipstick we like on the pig of compromise, but at the end of the day, it’s still a pig.  And isn’t it interesting when someone actually goes to the trouble of putting lipstick on that pig?  I mean, if the point of the compromise is to shirk responsibility, then why volunteer to be responsible for defending the practice of compromise as if it were a good and proper practice?  Why not just do the work of diligence in the first place, rather than to do the work of pretending to justify the lack of work?

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