Monday, March 11, 2013

When moderation and compromise are inappropriate

I have heard it argued by political moderates that their beliefs are right because moderation is a virtue, and that people on one side or another are wrong because they are at the "extremes." I have also heard it argued that compromise is inherently good. I will seek to show here the fallacy of endorsing political beliefs merely because they are in between the views of the two main sides of the debate.

First of all, moderation is not always a virtue. Which of us would endorse moderation between right and wrong, between wisdom and foolishness, between good and evil? Which of us would argue against being "extremely" right or "extremely" wise or "extremely" good on grounds of their extremity, when "extreme" does not mean an excess but a maximum? If you would reject this kind of moderation or accept extreme good, then you see why moderation is not always a virtue. Moderation is not inherently virtuous.

The Constitutional Convention

To illustrate this truth, let us examine one of the most intensely debated issues of the Constitutional Convention - the issue of slavery. Pro-slavery delegates argued that slave states should have more electoral votes because of their slave population, even though the slaves themselves would have no control over the added votes. They wanted the free citizens of their states to have added votes because of their slaves, with the vote from each slave being equal to the vote of one free person. Anti-slavery delegates, on the other hand, would have abolished slavery entirely if they could. The result of their debates was the Three-Fifths Compromise, where slavery was permitted with states having electoral votes proportioned to the number of free inhabitants plus "three-fifths of all other persons" - i.e. slaves (Source: The United States Constitution, Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3).

Slavery in Virginia tobacco plantation, 1670

The Three-Fifths Compromise was a moderate course between the two extremes - namely, abolishing slavery entirely, and rewarding white Southerners for holding slaves with extra electoral votes (equal to those from free people) that they alone controlled. But was this inherently virtuous because of its moderate or compromising nature? Of course not. It may have been the most virtuous (or rather, least vicious) course that pro-slavery delegates would allow, but it was not the most virtuous choice available to the Convention. Had the Southern states permitted it, they could have chosen to abolish slavery entirely, which would have been much more virtuous. Would this course have been wrong because of being "extremely" right or "extremely" good or "extremely" virtuous? Of course not. Moderation in this case prolonged slavery in America for over eight decades.

A slave who was brutally whipped, 1863 (during Civil War)

I'm not saying that moderation is always wrong, or that better options than compromise are always available. What I am saying is that moderation and compromise are not always right. If you want to be a political moderate, do it because you believe the positions it advocates are right, not because of a belief in the inherent virtue of moderation and compromise. Such inherent virtue does not exist - they are only virtuous insofar as the positions they necessitate are right and just ones.

Dred Scott: The most infamous decision in Supreme Court history

Frederick Douglass: The forgotten antislavery leader

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