The work of Avishai Margalit provides a refreshing and instructive contrast to much that has become conventionally accepted in recent political thinking, particularly about the moral conflicts that arise in pursuit of peace. A longtime peace activist in Israel as well as one of the most important philosophers working on questions of ethics and politics today, Margalit was a founder of Moked, a small party advocating what was then seen as a revolutionary two-state solution to the Palestine–Israel conflict; it gained one seat out of 120 in the Knesset in the Israeli elections in 1973. As the years passed the two-state solution gradually became accepted, while officially encouraged settlement on the West Bank made it all the more difficult to carry out.
On Compromise and Rotten Compromises reflects over thirty years of practical and intellectual engagement with the moral issues raised by the search for peace. It begins with a simple assertion: “The book is in pursuit of just a peace, rather than of a just peace. Peace can be justified without being just.” Here Margalit is developing a line of reasoning set out in The Decent Society (1996), where he argued that avoiding evils and not the attempt to realize an ideal condition of justice should be the central focus of political thought and action. A decent society is one that does not inflict cruelty and humiliation on its members, and aims to avoid other universal evils such as war.
An impassioned advocate of “negative politics”—the politics of dealing with evils rather than striving for an ideal good—Margalit is clear that in a decent society many types of injustice would be corrected; he is no less clear that remedying injustice is not the same as moving toward a condition of perfect justice. But his point is not that theories of ideal justice (such as those of John Rawls, for example) should be replaced by a philosophy that focuses simply on making the world less unjust—a position set out in Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice (2009). Margalit’s argument, implicit in The Decent Society and argued methodically in On Compromise and Rotten Compromises, is different and more radical: the struggle for a decent society requires compromise, including the willingness to accept a less just world where this is necessary in order to stave off greater evil.
For anyone concerned with the moral quandaries of human conflict, On Compromise and Rotten Compromises contains much that will be of intense interest and lasting value. There is an illuminating discussion of two pictures of morality and politics. One is economic, in which practically everything can be exchanged in the markets; the other is a religious vision claiming that some things are holy and may never be traded off. Margalit goes on to observe how the politics of the holy can be used to support irredentism,…
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