On Compromise and Rotten Compromises
Princeton University Press, $26.95, 232 pp.
Hegel famously observed that the owl of Minerva takes flight only at dusk. Among Hegel’s dicta this one stands out as being not just importantly correct but broadly comprehensible (two qualities not often combined by the German master). Because the goddess Minerva symbolizes wisdom, Hegel was suggesting that philosophical thought properly begins only after the day is done—that is, only in reflecting on what has already occurred. Were philosophy’s goal solely to make sense of the world retrospectively, that would be good enough. But we also turn to philosophy in the hope that it might make our behavior more morally responsible, our institutions more just, our political decisions more legitimate, and so on. We seek from it not only a coherent account of the world we’re in now, but a set of principles, ideals, and guidelines that will help us make good choices for the future.
The best political theory (and this includes Hegel) brings together these two goals—the retrospective and the prospective. Avishai Margalit’s On Compromise and Rotten Compromises is in this respect exemplary. Margalit wants to clarify issues in political morality that have tremendous urgency today, and he seeks to do so partly by reflecting on events in our past. His book is an uncommon example of philosophical argument informed by acute historical awareness.
Margalit’s main interest is in establishing when it is and isn’t appropriate for one political community to compromise with...