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The Art of the Deal: how to compromise without betraying your values

by The Ethics Centre
06 July 2016
When we’re negotiating, should our conscience be up for grabs? We pick apart the question on every Federal politician’s mind.

The Coalition and Lavor parties have spent the last couple of days exploring the real possibility of a hung parliament. Even if the Coalition win a majority, which some are predicting, it’s likely they’re going to face a complex situation in the senate. Most commentators are suggesting they need to prepare to compromise in their coming term.

Any compromise can carry ethical risks and the leadership within each of the major parties will be asking themselves difficult questions: “On which ideas should we stand firm and where should we show some flexibility?”

These aren’t questions unique to politics – though they might be more common. Our professional and personal lives often require us to ask questions about how flexible we’re willing to be on our values – especially when compromise in the short term might achieve some greater good in the long run.

Whether you’re a political party, a business or an individual, putting your core values up for negotiation undermines your integrity and can erode your trust.

The pragmatic argument is that in each case – especially in politics, where realpolitik is seen as the governing framework – we make decisions on what will best suit our interests. There are no ethical principles that govern our decisions. Rather, we simply do what works for us practically.

This approach, brought to prominence by Niccolo Machiavelli, is unlikely to resonate with voters and is a risky political proposition in the long run. Julia Gillard learned this lesson the hard way when forced to compromise on a central election promise not to introduce a carbon tax under her government.

But whether you’re a political party, a business or an individual, putting your core values up for negotiation undermines your integrity and can erode your trust both within and outside your network of supporters.

So how do you draw the line between what’s up for grabs in a negotiation and what you’d ‘die in the ditch’ for?

There’s no hard and fast answer, but anyone facing these decisions will have to weigh the intrinsic and strategic costs both of dealing and refusing to deal. Intrinsic costs might include damage to integrity, compromised character and complicity in unethical behaviour. Strategic costs might include your ability to advance your party, company or personal interests, the trust of your community and in this particular case, ability to form parliament.

One way to distinguish between what’s up for negotiation and what isn’t would be along the lines of what John Howard called ‘core and non-core promises’. Core promises – or policies in this case – might be those which motivated people’s votes and are consistent with the general ideology of the party. Non-core policies might be more niche commitments which the majority of which the voting public wouldn’t have been aware. Negotiating on these probably won't cost you loyal supporters.

Instead of owning the decision, we defer to majorities and let other people decide what we should stand for.

Some may not like this distinction as it shifts the responsibility to other people. Instead of owning the decision, we defer to majorities and let other people decide what we should stand for.

Another approach is to distinguish between which policies are a matter of value and principle and which are simply a matter of practicality. The medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas believed there were different kinds of laws.

The first type of law, he said, is ethical in nature and concerned matters of justice and the common good. Asylum seeker issues, same-sex marriage or Indigenous recognition would be issues in this category.

The second kind are purely practical – Aquinas called them determinatio. These were laws that really didn’t concern ethics at all – speed limits, for instance. They are necessary to have a functional community but there aren’t really any values or principles to help us shape what those laws should be.

We can adopt Aquinas’ distinction of different laws and apply them to our values, principles and policies – whether we’re politicians or not. Where we have formed a position for ethical reasons – based on what we value or believe is right, we can’t justify compromising these except under the gravest circumstances.

However, where our point of view has more to do with how we believe we should go about our day-to-day business, it is probably OK to put it up for negotiation if we think we’ll be able to do more good through compromise.

There’s still plenty of hard reflection to do in determining which of our positions are based on our values and principles and which are purely practical, but if we’re going to become ‘masters of the deal’ (to borrow from Donald Trump), it’s a distinction we need to make.

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