Compromise—A Certain Choice but with Clear Moral Losses

Some choices may be clear to see and feasible to make but involve a heavy loss regardless. A may be better than B or C but the choice itself may still involve bad things. Losses may involve matters of principle, material interests or humanitarian impact. These choices are frequently posed and solved as moral compromises. In humanitarian action, they often emerge in judgements and decisions around political and operational association. So, for example, it is common in humanitarian politics to trade independence for access in areas where there are powerful government or armed group authorities. In many armed conflicts, humanitarian agencies choose to compromise complete independence of action by accepting operational restrictions from authorities that have very clear vested interests in the way aid is distributed. Agencies compromise because the choice is between restricted operations or no operations at all. This kind of choice is a common feature of humanitarian action. It was the case when working with the Ethiopian government and rebel groups in the Ethiopian civil wars of the 1980s. It has also been the case with the government of Sudan in the civil wars in South Sudan and Darfur, and is also the case for humanitarian agencies working in Rakhine state in Myanmar today. This kind of compromise has also happened when agencies cooperated with NATO counter-insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Compromise is also usually at the heart of relationships with government donors. Agencies often have to tilt their programmes towards donor priorities in order to win funding.

Tony Coady, Australian philosopher, defines compromise as follows:

A compromise is a sort of bargain in which several agents who see advantages in co-operative efforts of some sort agree to proceed in a way that requires each of them to surrender, perhaps only temporarily, some of their ends, interests or policies, in order to secure others. There is nothing immoral in compromise, as such.2

In their excellent book On Complicity and Compromise, MSF doctor Chiara Lepora and philosopher Robert Goodin usefully distinguish between three types of compromise: substitution, intersection and conjunction.3


Where one party wants a,b,c,d and the other party wants e,f,g,h. They opt instead for a third possibility x,y,z. This kind of compromise is based on finding a jointly acceptable new option.


Where one party wants o,p,q,r and the other wants q,r,s,t, they will settle for q,r. This kind of compromise is possible when you can trim your own prefer?ences and find overlap with the other party’s preferences, so creating an agreement from existing options.


Where one party wants o,p,q,r and the other wants not-o, not-p, not-q, not-r. Both parties settle for o,p and not-q, not-r. In this situation, each party agrees to settle for something it wants and something it certainly does not want. This is usually the worst kind of compromise because it involves not just diluting preferences but actively including unacceptable ingredients.

In many compromises, the main purpose of the choice is to opt for non-ideal but acceptable common ground, or opt for the so-called “lesser evil” in a decision between two options.4 Compromises are always made to secure an “on balance good” and are characterized by being voluntary, negotiated and essentially fair and proportionate so that no one side does obviously worse than the other. Every compromise leaves people feeling some sense of moral discomfort, hence the difficult sense of “being compromised”. But overall, a good compromise is essentially acceptable because it enables other goods. However, a compromise that is forced and distinctly disproportionate against one side is coerced. This kind of compromise is rightly felt to be a “rotten compromise” in which one has paid too high a moral price and in which an excess of bad things has come about. A rotten compromise is, therefore, usually a wrong decision, or was never a proper choice because of coercion and duress.

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