Philosophy and Ethics in Germany

Thinker of the Best Option – Two Philosophy Prizes for Avishai Margalit

Avishai Margalit; © Lorenz Vierecke
Two major awards within a week: at the end of September 2012 the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit received both the Philosophy Book Prize and the Ernst Bloch Prize. In the unanimous opinion of the judges, the importance of his “urgent plea for the recognition of compromise as a fundamental element of politics”, which Margalit has set forth in his most recent publication with great cogency, can hardly be overestimated in view of current violence.

To illuminate instead of to explain: in these words Avishai Margalit, born in 1939, has formulated what he demands of his own work. The philosopher, who lives in Jerusalem and whose life is closely bound up with his hometown, has shown himself in his book On Compromise and Rotten Compromises (Über Kompromisse und faule Kompromisse) to be once again more than a precise observer and vivid story-teller. Equipped with a wealth of literary and historical evidence, he sets about throwing philosophical light on the moral concept of compromise. Margalit’s reflections begin with a story from the time of the Yom Kippur War (1973): Shortly before the parliamentary elections, Margalit returned home from the Suez Canal, where he was stationed as a soldier. He ran as candidate for a small peace party called Moked (מוקד), of which he was a co-founder. In the early 1970s the party platform already advocated a two-state solution and Palestinian autonomy. Margalit delivered a speech to a foreign delegation in Jerusalem, in which he angrily opposed the war and Golda Meir’s government. When he was done, two listeners approached him, who introduced themselves as Irving Howe and Michael Walzer, eminent American intellectuals. Howe shared most of Margalit’s positions. At the same time, he urgently warned Margalit and his party against placing themselves on the political fringe. His advice was to change policy from within: “Sectarian politics is a terrible waste”.

Compromises show who we are

Cover of the book “Über Kompromisse und faule Kompromisse“; © SuhrkampIdeals say something about how we want to be. Compromises, writes Margalit in the context of the experience, show who we are. The idea of political compromise, he argues, is trapped between two irreconcilable pictures: politics as religion and politics as economics. In the religious picture, politics is dominated by the idea of the holy: the relevant standards originate not in the political process, but precede it. The identification of politics and religion carries risks: for example, political sectarians suspect fathomless evil even in the smallest deviations. In political compromises they can see no more than a threat to their policy – and so to the good.

The identification of politics with economics reflects the other extreme: here the political good is not absolute but always exchangeable. Politics resembles the exchange of goods. Thus economism also harbors risks. Carried to its logical conclusion, it can make human beings themselves objects of exchange. Margalit illustrates this point using the example of Shakespeare’s merchant of Venice, who mortgages even his own flesh in order to get a loan.

Justified and objectionable compromises

Cover of the new edition of the “Politik der Würde”; © SuhrampIf Margalit stresses the fundamental importance of compromises for politics, he is above all concerned with the boundary between justified and objectionable compromises. He describes the Munich Agreement between Hitler and the Western Powers as the archetype of a “rotten compromise”.

But neither because it was the unsuccessful expression of British appeasement policy nor because of its content or because it failed of its goal. This compromise was reprehensible because it was made with Hitler and supported a government that systematically humiliated entire populations. The concept of humiliation, which Margalit uses here, refers to the core of his political magnum opus, The Decent Society. This plea for a decent society (Politik der Würde), opens new perspectives in political philosophy. Not the just society, says Margalit, is the most urgent goal of contemporary politics, as philosophers from Plato to Rawls have believed, but rather a society that does not humiliate its members. A society proves itself to be decent by establishing institutions that give people no reason to feel their self-respect has been violated. This means to respect the dignity of man and not to exclude people from the human community by treating them as animals, numbers or machines.

Margalit’s philosophy is rooted in rational choice theory and logic. Yet his political-philosophical work forms neither a closed and coherent system nor a conceptual distillate of universal principles and laws. On Compromise and Rotten Compromises is the testimony of an intellectual with an unwavering passion for the essentially human.

The Philosophical Book Prize is awarded every two years by the Hanover Research Institute for Philosophy; the Ernst Bloch Prize every three years by the Ernst Bloch Center and the city of Ludwigshafen. 

Nikolai Blaumer
is a doctorial candidate in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Munich.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
November 2012

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