For a fair compromise, don't negotiate, deliberate!

When we compromise on moral questions, it is important that compromise is fair. But how can we ensure this? Compromise is often the result of negotiation and bargaining. However, to achieve a truly fair compromise, argues Friderike Spang, we should deliberate, rather than negotiate

Rethinking the process of compromising

Almost by default, we assume that compromises result from negotiation or bargaining processes. This, I argue, is a mistake. Especially when it comes to compromises that absolutely should be fair, such as those on moral questions, it is crucial we discuss our reasons deliberatively.

What is a fair compromise?

I propose that a fair compromise consists of fair concessions. I further propose that concessions are fair only if they are proportional to what is at stake for the participants. Therefore, in a fair compromise, the person who has more at stake in a disagreement concedes less, while the person who has less at stake concedes more.

When to compromise fairly

Certainly, not all compromises must be fair and, if fairness is not a concern, negotiation or bargaining processes work fine. Whether fairness matters depends largely on the subject of a disagreement. Take a buyer and a seller on a farmers’ market. Let's assume both disagree on the price of a pound of apples. A fair compromise on this disagreement, while perhaps desirable, is not crucially important. An unfair outcome will not likely lead to full-blown conflict.

However, fairness is of paramount importance for compromises that affect socio-political cooperation. Compromises on moral disagreements between citizens or legislators fall into this domain. Such compromises can avoid social strife or stagnation in passing legislation. In these cases, it is important the compromise will last. This is more likely if the disagreeing parties consider their respective concessions to be fair.

Fairness is of paramount importance for compromises that affect socio-political cooperation, so in these cases it's crucial the compromise lasts

Unfair compromises, in contrast, are often not stable over time. In the long run, they can even exacerbate an existing conflict. This might happen if, for example, the compromising parties become aware of the unfairness only after the compromise has been made. In this case, a spiral of mutual mistrust can set in, thwarting the chances for future cooperation.

Why is deliberation necessary?

It is helpful to think of the process leading to a fair compromise as consisting of three interrelated stages. If fair compromise is our goal, all three stages must be deliberative.

In the first stage, the disagreeing parties explain why they hold their respective points of view. This enables everyone to understand each other's positions in a deeper sense, which I call second-level understanding. Second-level understanding means that I understand why X believes Y, rather than merely understanding that X believes Y. Between deliberation and negotiation, only the former can structurally enable mutual second-level understanding. This is so because only deliberation structurally requests that we not only provide our reasons, but also listen to each other and seek to understand different points of view.

I have high stakes in a disagreement if my reasons relate to important principles or values; but low stakes if my reasons relate merely to interests that lack a deeper connection with my sense of self

In the second stage, the disagreeing parties evaluate what is at stake for each other. This evaluation is based on the previous second-level understanding: what is at stake for each participant is determined by their reasons for holding their views. I have high stakes in a disagreement if my reasons relate to important principles or values; for example, if they pertain to my identity or my conception of justice. In contrast, I have low stakes in a disagreement if my reasons relate merely to interests that lack a deeper connection with my sense of self.

The process of evaluating stakes is, again, fundamentally deliberative because it requires mutual justification and explanation.

In the third and final stage, the disagreeing parties determine fair concessions. This stage is based on the previous evaluation of stakes because fair concessions must be proportional to the stakes involved. Once again, deliberation is necessary because the disagreeing parties must justify why their respective stakes should translate into the proposed concessions.

Failures of negotiation

In contrast to deliberation, negotiation processes fail to facilitate a fair compromise. This is because negotiation processes inherently support an ideal of 'winning' rather than second-level understanding. The ideal of winning justifies the use of deception, lies, and threats, all of which are counterproductive when we seek to understand each other's points of view. Furthermore, negotiators often conceal what is at stake for them by adopting a 'poker face'. They present their positions not as they are, but so they can gain as much (and concede as little) as possible.

Negotiation processes inherently support an ideal of 'winning' rather than a genuine understanding of each other's positions

Negotiation is therefore also inimical to truthful evaluation of mutual stakes. And if negotiators conceal their actual stakes, it is impossible to determine fair concessions because these must be based on what is truly at stake for each party. Compromises reached through negotiation thus tend to reflect negotiation skills and power relations rather than fair concessions.

No guarantees

Compromising on moral questions is, of course, a delicate endeavour, and I am not saying that deliberation will always lead to fair compromise. Indeed, disagreeing parties can fail at any stage of the deliberation process – they can fail to achieve second-level understanding, to agree on the stakes involved, or to determine fair concessions. Failure at these stages can impede a fair compromise – and much depends on participants’ willingness to seek a fair outcome.

My point is therefore not that deliberation guarantees a fair compromise. Rather, I argue that if we seek a fair compromise, deliberation is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition that can support us in reaching a fair outcome with disagreeing parties. In contrast, negotiation structurally supports winning rather than fairness and is therefore detrimental to reaching fair outcomes. In the process of achieving a fair compromise, there is, indeed, no room for bargaining or negotiation at all.

Friderike is the author of Why a fair compromise requires deliberation.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Friderike Spang
Friderike Spang
SNSF Senior Researcher, University of Lausanne

Friderike works on the research project Understanding Political Compromises in Democracies (UPCiDe).

Her research centres on moral disagreements and how these may be resolved through deliberation and compromise.

She also explores the role of emotions in contexts of disagreement, and works on political veganism and animal ethics, broadly speaking.

She tweets @FriderikeSpang

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