Social Psychology

Chapter 21: Compromise

Edward Alsworth Ross

Table of Contents | Next | Previous

RETURNING now to the conflict mode of advance, we note that often it is necessary, before a conflict has reached its natural termination, for a group to take collective action or to assume a collective attitude on the matter. These premature decisions, these ad interim attitudes, involve the phenomena of compromise.

Compromise occurs only in matters which call for collective action

Only in certain fields is it needful thus to anticipate the natural issue of a duel, to forestall, as it were, the social verdict. Occasion for compromise does not appear in the struggle between steam and sail, fashion and rational dress, homeopathy and allopathy, romanticism and realism. In such cases the issue is decided by numberless individual hesitations and decisions. But where collective action of some sort is imperative - whether it be the revision of its polity or creed by a church, the drawing up of its demands by a labor organization, the formulating of an opinion by a scientific body, or the framing of a policy by government - discussion will be fierce and compromise will be frequent, owing to the fact that the disapproving minority is bound by the group action as well as the approving majority. It is the anxiety of elements or sections in the commonwealth lest they be overridden by an undesired collective policy, that lends such heat and virulence to political discussion. It is their energy of remonstrance and reprisal in such event that makes compromise a charac-

(339) teristic form of political action. Thus, the equal suffrage principle is compromised by giving the ballot to women in municipal elections, or to tax-paying women only. The "saloon" or "no-saloon" issue is, after all, no impasse while there are such halfway houses as Sunday closing, early closing, and state dispensary. If debate and compromise are not so characteristic of non-political groups, it is because in these the aggrieved minority may withdraw or secede when the yoke of the majority is too heavy on them; whereas in political groups the minority has no such recourse.

Compromise sometimes breaks a social deadlock

Sometimes compromise is the only solution of an indeterminate discussion, i.e., a social deadlock. In a social club, a fraternal order, a trade union, a church, or a nation, so two parties may appear, either of which will secede rather than allow the other party to carry its point. The compromiser who in such a case finds some tenable middle ground and thereby averts the breakup of the group is justly hailed as "saviour of society," "great pacificator," "constructive statesman," etc.

Oftener, however, it indicates an unfinished social conflict

Oftener, however, the compromise is not a basis of final settlement, but merely a provisional arrangement pending the completion of conflict and the emergence of a real and definitive social decision. It is a means of securing instalments of truth, justice, or reform, when the full measure is not yet to be had. It is easy to justify it on the principle that " half a loaf is better than none." Nevertheless, compromises that yield no logical resting-place are satisfactory to neither side, and compromisers of this sort suffer much abuse. There is, in fact, a necessary and eternal feud between the agitator, reformer, or man of principle, who is the instigator of changes of opinion


Inevitable feud between compromiser and reformer

in the group, and the judge, chairman, moderator, party leader, or statesman, who is obliged to formulate a policy for immediate action. The latter, in undertaking to register the social will rather than the will of a party, is bound to reckon with many elements, and must often concede much in order to turn a minority into a majority, or a precarious majority into a safe majority. But the man of principle, who alone has led the fight up to this point, and who alone can carry it on to final victory, cannot but detest the "practical" statesman who mutilates or emasculates his principle or ideal in carrying it out, cannot but regard him as a mere trimmer, weather-cock, placekeeper, policy man. On the other hand, the promoter of a successful compromise does not present it bluntly as " an instalment on account," but as inherently "fair" and "reasonable." In defending his compromise against all comers he is bound to develop faith in it. In the end he will stigmatize the man of principle who criticises it as "extremist," "idealogist," "fanatic." Yet the latter is the spur or gadfly that keeps the social mind in movement and will eventually enable the statesman completely to realize his principle. This cross-firing between these two types of fighter in the political division of the great army of progress is one of those tragic situations that the wit of man cannot relieve.

English fondness for compromise

Societies differ in aptitude for compromise. Englishmen reform on the instalment plan and are extremely complacent about it. Says Macaulay: [1] --

The Toleration Act

" Of all the Acts that have ever been passed by Parliament, the Toleration Act is perhaps that which most strikingly illustrates the peculiar vices and the peculiar excellences

(341) of English legislation. . . . The perfect lawgiver is a just temper between the mere man of theory, who can see nothing but general principles, and the mere man of business, who can see nothing but particular circumstances. Of lawgivers in whom the speculative element has prevailed to the exclusion of the practical, the world has during the last eighty years been singularly fruitful. To their wisdom Europe and America have owed scores of abortive constitutions, scores of constitutions which have lived just long enough to make a miserable noise and have then gone off in convulsions. But in the English legislature the practical element has always predominated, and not seldom unduly predominated, over the speculative. To think nothing of symmetry and much of convenience; never to remove an anomaly merely because it is an anomaly; never to innovate, except when some grievance is felt; never to innovate except so far as to get rid of the grievance; never to lay down any proposition of wider extent than the particular case for which it is necessary to provide; these are the rules which have, from the age of John to the age of Victoria, generally guided the deliberations of our two hundred and fifty Parliaments. Our national distaste for whatever is abstract in political science amounts undoubtedly to a fault. Yet it is, perhaps, a fault on the right side. That we have been far too slow to improve our laws must be admitted. But, though in other countries there may occasionally have been more rapid progress, it would not be easy to name any other country in which there has been so little retrogression.

The Toleration Act approaches very near to the ideal of a great English law. To a jurist, versed in the theory of

(342) legislation, but not intimately acquainted with the temper of the sects and parties into which the nation was divided at the time of the Revolution, that Act would seem to be a mere chaos of absurdities and contradictions. It will not bear to be tried by sound general principles. Nay, it will not bear to be tried by any principles, sound or unsound. The sound principle undoubtedly is, that mere theological error ought not to be punished by the civil magistrate. This principle the Toleration Act not only does not recognize, but positively disclaims. Not a single one of the cruel laws enacted against non-conformists by the Tudors or the Stuarts is repealed. Persecution continues to be the general rule. Toleration is the exception. Nor is this all. The freedom which is given to conscience is given in the most capricious manner. A Quaker, by making a declaration of faith in general terms, obtains the full benefit of the Act without signing one of the Thirty-nine Articles. An Independent minister, who is perfectly willing to make the declaration required from the Quaker, but who has doubts about six or seven of the Articles, remains still subject to the penal laws. . . . This law, abounding with contradictions which every smatterer in political philosophy can detect, did what a law framed by the utmost skill of the greatest masters of political philosophy might have failed to do. That the provisions which have been recapitulated are cumbrous, puerile, inconsistent with each other, inconsistent with the true theory of religious liberty, must be acknowledged. All that can be said in their defence is this: that they removed a vast mass of evil without shocking the vast mass of prejudice; that they put an end, at once and forever, without one division in either House of Parliament, without

(343) one riot in the streets, with scarcely one audible murmur even from the classes most deeply tainted with bigotry, to a persecution which had raged during four generations, which had broken innumerable hearts, which had made innumerable firesides desolate, which had filled the prisons with men of whom the world was not worthy, which had driven thousands of those honest, diligent, and God-fearing yeomen and artisans, who are the true strength of the nation, to seek a refuge beyond the ocean among the wigwams of red Indians and the lairs of panthers."

A juster view is presented by Professor Dicey, [2] who, after pointing out the prevalence of compromise in ecclesiastical legislation in England during the nineteenth century, goes on to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the system of compromise: --

Advantages of compromise

" Compromise involving great deference to clerical sentiment has averted the intense bitterness which, in foreign countries, and notably in France, has accompanied ecclesiastical legislation. The position of the Church of England has throughout the nineteenth century been gradually shifted rather than violently altered. The grievances which in 1828 excited the hostility of Non-conformists have been immensely diminished, yet the sentiment even of the clergy has not been embittered by a revolution every step of which they and zealous churchmen have opposed; and whilst, in some respects, the wealth, the influence, and the popularity of the church have been increased, the profound discord which arises from the identification of political with theological or anti-theological differences, and amounts in some countries to a condition of moral civil

(344) war, has been all but entirely averted. These are the virtues of compromise.

Disadvantages of compromise

" In the field, however, of ecclesiastical legislation the vices of compromise are as marked as its merits. Controversies, which are deprived of some of their heat, are allowed to smoulder on for generations, and are never extinguished. Thus national education has been for more than fifty years the field of battle between Church and Dissent, each settlement has been the basis of a new dispute, and even now controversy is not closed, simply because the law has never established any definite principle. One change in the marriage law after another has failed to rest the whole matter on any satisfactory foundation. Our law of divorce enables a clergyman of the Church of England to cast a slur upon a marriage fully sanctioned by the law of the state. The piecemeal legislation engendered by the desire for compromise, and the spirit which this piecemeal legislation produces, are no small evils. 'The time to do justice,' it has been well said, 'is now.' To do justice bit by bit is in reality nothing else than to tolerate injustice for years."

French penchant for symmetry and system. What it costs.

The French, more logical and consistent in their political thinking than the English, abhor compromises that flout every principle save expediency, and are apt to insist on applying a remedy in its entirety, if they are able to apply it at all. This impatience with halfway measures produces symmetry in laws and institutions, but excites the bitterness of large unpersuaded minorities, necessitates resort to the mailed fist as a means of procuring obedience to law, and threatens a progressive government with reaction or revolt.



If common action becomes necessary in matters on which society has not yet made up its mind, a compromise will be struck.

Compromise occurs oftener in politics than anywhere else because in political society cooperation is compulsory.

The agitator and the compromiser are hardly ever the same man because the one is spokesman of a single party, the other is spokesman of all parties.

Agitator and compromiser are both servants of progress, yet each hates the other.

Compromise lessens the rancor of political conflicts, but it may postpone their settlement.

Willingness to compromise ought to be joined to a stubborn loyalty to principle.


1. Show that compromise in the sense of dissembling one's convictions in deference to conventional views is altogether different from compromise as give-and-take in matters wherein common action is necessary.

2. Show that as classes become distinct and self-conscious discussion fails to bring agreement, and compromise from an ad interim arrangement becomes the established method of government.

3. Compare the resort to compromise under class rule with that under popular rule.

4. Why is law enforcement more vital in a government of compromise than in a government by public opinion? [See Ross, "Sin and Society," 136-145-]

5. Does frequency of compromise prevent a government from realizing a particular type or conforming to a set of political principles?


  1. "History of England," III, 66-69.
  2. "Law and Public Opinion in England," 356-358.

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2