Obama, compromise and morality


President Obama’s speech at the University of Arizona, in which he called for civility on all sides, reminded me of a logical puzzle I had read many years ago. I think it was in a book by Raymond Smullyan. The problem posed by the philosopher was this: suppose there is one pie to be divided amongst two boys. The first boy wants half, the second demands the whole. What is a fair compromise?

Many are inclined to say that a fair compromise is one in which each receives less than what they ask for. In this case, boy #1 receives a quarter of the pie, while boy #2 receives three quarters.

Bullies and muggers demand everything in your pocket. But no one thinks it’s fair if you give them half. The reason is that the original condition wasn’t fair to begin with.

This is a structural problem for liberals and democracy in general. If everyone’s vote is to count, what do you do with the person who wants to institute intolerance? If a person demands a dictatorship, is a fair compromise to give up freedom of speech in exchange for freedom of religion, or freedom to assemble in exchange for freedom of religion? The American Founders recognized this problem. That is why the first Ten Amendments aren’t amendable.

This brings me back to the president’s speech, in which we asked everyone to lower the rhetoric and for everyone to extend a hand to their opponent. But if I am already speaking in a normal voice but my opponent is shouting in a bullhorn, if we both lower our voices, then I whisper while, without the megaphone, the other still shouts.

Perhaps Obama’s speech was the best one he could have given under the circumstances. He is a pragmatism, after all. But I don’t think there has been a moral equivalency when it comes to the present political climate. The willingness to compromise, speaking coherently and rationally hasn’t been equally distributed across the political spectrum.

So while I was moved by Obama the healer on Wednesday night, I am concerned about Obama the compromiser, the one who is much like boy #1 while those who vilify him reap the rewards like boy #2.

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One thought on “Obama, compromise and morality

  1. Wow, this is a fantastic post! Obama’s fair “Compromises” always seem to have a bit of the “pie” dilemma, don’t they, but especially in this case…

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