Doesn’t Life Require Compromise?

by Ayn Rand
From The Virtue of Selfishness
The Virtue of Selfishness
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This essay was originally published in the July 1962 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter and later anthologized in The Virtue of Selfishness (1964).

A compromise is an adjustment of conflicting claims by mutual concessions. This means that both parties to a compromise have some valid claim and some value to offer each other. And this means that both parties agree upon some fundamental principle which serves as a base for their deal.

It is only in regard to concretes or particulars, implementing a mutually accepted basic principle, that one may compromise. For instance, one may bargain with a buyer over the price one wants to receive for one’s product, and agree on a sum somewhere between one’s demand and his offer. The mutually accepted basic principle, in such case, is the principle of trade, namely: that the buyer must pay the seller for his product. But if one wanted to be paid and the alleged buyer wanted to obtain one’s product for nothing, no compromise, agreement or discussion would be possible, only the total surrender of one or the other.

There can be no compromise between a property owner and a burglar; offering the burglar a single teaspoon of one’s silverware would not be a compromise, but a total surrender — the recognition of his right to one’s property. What value or concession did the burglar offer in return? And once the principle of unilateral concessions is accepted as the base of a relationship by both parties, it is only a matter of time before the burglar would seize the rest. As an example of this process, observe the present foreign policy of the United States.

There can be no compromise between freedom and government controls; to accept “just a few controls” is to surrender the principle of inalienable individual rights and to substitute for it the principle of the government’s unlimited, arbitrary power, thus delivering oneself into gradual enslavement. As an example of this process, observe the present domestic policy of the United States.

There can be no compromise on basic principles or on fundamental issues. What would you regard as a “compromise” between life and death? Or between truth and falsehood? Or between reason and irrationality?

Today, however, when people speak of “compromise,” what they mean is not a legitimate mutual concession or a trade, but precisely the betrayal of one’s principles — the unilateral surrender to any groundless, irrational claim. The root of that doctrine is ethical subjectivism, which holds that a desire or a whim is an irreducible moral primary, that every man is entitled to any desire he might feel like asserting, that all desires have equal moral validity, and that the only way men can get along together is by giving in to anything and “compromising” with anyone. It is not hard to see who would profit and who would lose by such a doctrine.

The immorality of this doctrine — and the reason why the term “compromise” implies, in today’s general usage, an act of moral treason — lies in the fact that it requires men to accept ethical subjectivism as the basic principle superseding all principles in human relationships and to sacrifice anything as a concession to one another’s whims.

The question “Doesn’t life require compromise?” is usually asked by those who fail to differentiate between a basic principle and some concrete, specific wish. Accepting a lesser job than one had wanted is not a “compromise.” Taking orders from one’s employer on how to do the work for which one is hired, is not a “compromise.” Failing to have a cake after one has eaten it, is not a “compromise.”

Integrity does not consist of loyalty to one’s subjective whims, but of loyalty to rational principles. A “compromise” (in the unprincipled sense of that word) is not a breach of one’s comfort, but a breach of one’s convictions. A “compromise” does not consist of doing something one dislikes, but of doing something one knows to be evil. Accompanying one’s husband or wife to a concert, when one does not care for music, is not a “compromise”; surrendering to his or her irrational demands for social conformity, for pretended religious observance or for generosity toward boorish in-laws, is. Working for an employer who does not share one’s ideas, is not a “compromise”; pretending to share his ideas, is. Accepting a publisher’s suggestions to make changes in one’s manuscript, when one sees the rational validity of his suggestions, is not a “compromise”; making such changes in order to please him or to please “the public,” against one’s own judgment and standards, is.

The excuse, given in all such cases, is that the “compromise” is only temporary and that one will reclaim one’s integrity at some indeterminate future date. But one cannot correct a husband’s or wife’s irrationality by giving in to it and encouraging it to grow. One cannot achieve the victory of one’s ideas by helping to propagate their opposite. One cannot offer a literary masterpiece, “when one has become rich and famous,” to a following one has acquired by writing trash. If one found it difficult to maintain one’s loyalty to one’s own convictions at the start, a succession of betrayals — which helped to augment the power of the evil one lacked the courage to fight — will not make it easier at a later date, but will make it virtually impossible.

There can be no compromise on moral principles. “In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit.” (Atlas Shrugged.) The next time you are tempted to ask: “Doesn’t life require compromise?” translate that question into its actual meaning: “Doesn’t life require the surrender of that which is true and good to that which is false and evil?” The answer is that that precisely is what life forbids — if one wishes to achieve anything but a stretch of tortured years spent in progressive self-destruction.

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