Compromise with Character: An Integrated Framework to Assess the Moral Quality of Political Compromises
Patrick Overeem

Patrick Overeem is an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration of the Vrije Universiteit (VU) in Amsterdam. His specialization is in political theory and government ethics. Broadly interested in the quality of and interplay between what Aristotle called politeia (form of government) and politikos (politician), he has published on, among other things, public values (especiallyconstitutional/regime values), statesmanship, integrity, and virtue ethics. Currently, he is conducting his ISRF research project on the practice and ethics of political compromise-making, specifically in multi-party democracies under conditions of polarization and populism. Besides research and teaching at the Department, Patrick is coordinator for Political Science at the VU’s newly started bachelor program Philosophy, Politics, Economics (PPE). Until recently, Patrick has worked at Leiden University, where he co-founded the Centre for Public Values & Ethics, a platform for research on public sector integrity. He has taught courses in political philosophy, government ethics and public values, and the philosophy of social science and was awarded a fellowship at the Leiden Teachers’ Academy. In his doctoral dissertation (2010), he provided a theoretical analysis of the historical meaning and constitutional relevance of dividing between politics and administration in modern states. Patrick holds degrees in both Political Science and Public Administration.


The aim of this project is to develop an integrated ethical framework for the assessment of the moral quality of political compromises. Such a framework is needed, because in times of polarization and populism, political compromises are particularly vital, but also increasingly unpopular and difficult to achieve. While academic ethicists have often abstract debates about the nature and impact of (hypothetical) compromises, media and citizens criticize the very game of striking political compromises, making politicians even more are embarrassed to admit them. Thus, we seem to have difficulties understanding what achieving a good compromise could be like. The framework to be developed is intended as a conceptual instrument to improve on this. It will pay attention not only to the moral principles a compromise does or does not violate (deontology) or to the practical results it yields (consequentialism), but also to the role of moral character in the process of striking the compromise itself (virtue ethics). This is a frequently neglected element that should, however, be central to our assessments. To develop the framework, philosophical conceptualization and normative analysis will be combined with interactive empirical research on three concrete cases from Dutch national politics in the tumultuous period 2002-2012 (two in which stable compromises were reached – the directly elector mayor in 2005 and pensions in 2011 – and one in which that did not happen, resulting in a political crisis – the Afghanistan mission in 2010). Using interactive consultations, in-depth interviews with key players and other experts, and document study, the ethical framework will be iteratively constructed, validated, and further refined. Ultimately, the project has the goal to assist both academics and practitioners in seeing better how politics as ‘the art of compromising’ can be conducted with virtue and how this art could be further improved in present-day circumstances.

The Research Idea

In modern democracies, politicians (and other public officials) have to accommodate a plurality of moral positions in a peaceful and accountable manner. Striking compromises is one of the most common ways to do so. Nevertheless, political compromises are far from popular. Citizens and media tend to dislike them and politicians conceal them. Compromises are regarded ‘compromising’ (Lepora, 2012) – at best a necessary evil, at worst a breach of integrity. This attitude is largely due, this project aims to show, to the predominance of a needlessly limited framework for the assessment of political compromises, based on two ethical approaches: deontology and consequentialism. We tend to consider the moral quality of compromises primarily in terms of principles and results. Compromises are considered acceptable as long as principles are not too severely violated and still sufficient desired goals are met. Put differently, the ratio between inputs and outputs is decisive. This project, however, draws attention to a third approach, that of virtue ethics, as a fruitful complement to the other two. Compared to deontology and consequentialism, this approach concentrates more on the ‘throughput’ of compromise-making, arguing that the moral quality of compromises also strongly depends on the process of striking them. Simply put, a courageously, prudently, or patiently achieved compromise is already thereby of better moral quality (other things equal) than a cowardly, foolishly, or rashly achieved one. Virtue ethics can thus enrich our understanding of the moral quality of political compromises, not only for academic theorists, but for public officials, too.


Ethical reflection on moral dilemmas is of all ages, but systematic reflection on compromises is still relatively young, Lord Morley’s On Compromise (1886) being perhaps the oldest study. Particularly since the groundbreaking volume by Pennock & Chapman (1979), which offered an unprecedentedly elaborate conceptualization and comprehensive treatment, the topic has drawn explicit attention (Bellamy, 1999; Bellamy & Hollis, 1999; Day, 1989; Dobel, 1990; Luban, 1985). In recent years, we see a remarkable surge of studies addressing compromises from subdisciplinary perspectives, ranging from analytical political philosophy (Archard, 2012; Arnsperger & Picavet, 2004; Nachi, 2004; Rossi, 2013) to applied ethics (Lepora & Goodin, 2013; Menkel-Meadow, 2006), and from intellectual history (Fumurescu, 2013) to American politics (Gutmann & Thompson, 2012). In this literature, different types of compromises are helpfully distinguished. Striking about it, however, is that political compromises are usually advocated (or, less frequently, condemned) for what they do rather than for what they are. In other words, authors tend to set moral limits to compromises and then appreciate them for what they deliver. Thus the very process of compromising by politicians of flesh and blood remains under-researched. One reason for this could be that few studies address actual, non-fictional cases of political compromises in their full context (Margalit’s much-acclaimed On Compromise and Rotten Compromises (2009) is an exception, but he concentrates mainly on extreme circumstances of war and peace). So this lively subfield seems to need focused studies that are not only philosophically informed but also situational and specific.

The Focus

Governing means dealing with a plurality of public values: responsiveness, lawfulness, effectiveness, and many others (Jørgensen & Bozeman, 2007). One common way to manage conflicts between such values is striking a compromise, if possible. In recent years, however, concerns have grown that political compromises are no longer as feasible as they were before. In The Spirit of Compromise (2012), Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson argue that American politics has fallen prey to an uncompromising mindset of permanent ‘campaigning’ at the cost of the compromising mindset required for ‘governing’. A similar thesis has been defended for Dutch and Belgian politics by the Flemish journalist Bart Eeckhout in his book Het Einde van het Compromis (The End of Compromise; 2011). Political compromises, he argues, have become increasingly difficult because of polarization on a variety of fundamental issues (immigration, welfare cuts, terrorism), strengthened by the rise of populist movements and radical parties on both ends of the political spectrum. Thus compromises, though more vital than ever, get difficult and unpopular. Even in ‘consociational democracies’ like The Netherlands, reasonable consensus politics, which takes compromise as an accepted form of conflict resolution, is under pressure. As media and citizens tend to frame political compromising as an elite game and as a source of stagnation, politicians themselves become afraid to be depicted as compromisers. Apparently, these actors all have difficulties conceiving of ways in which compromises can be struck with virtue and integrity. They lack a framework to determine what makes a good compromise.

Theoretical Novelty

What should an integrated ethical framework for the assessment of compromises be like? So far, the issue is mainly treated in terms of moral principles and preferred outcomes, but this creates a fundamental insecurity in the moral assessments of compromises. Schematically put, deontologists (e.g., Kantians) often have difficulties with compromises, fearing violations of moral principles, whereas consequentialists (e.g., utilitarians) rather tend to embrace them as helpful means to achieve results. Debates between these two camps remain irresolvable and limited. One reason is that in both approaches, political actors are mainly considered by their degree of reason and freedom of choice, leaving their moral character relatively neglected. Hence, this project aims to show how these two approaches could be supplemented by a third (virtue ethics), which does draw attention to the operation of stable character traits (dispositions) in addition to mere rationality and conditionality in the process of compromise-making. Explicit discussions of compromises in virtue ethics are, however, admittedly rare. Those that do exist are, moreover, rather ambivalent: although several virtues seem to go well with compromises (prudence, justice, charity), compromising also seems unsuitable for a truly virtuous (steadfast, reliable) character. Because of this hesitance, it is challenging to inquire what (if anything) virtue ethics could add to our framework for the assessment of (different types of) compromises. Particularly useful for this goal seems Rosalind Hursthouse’s neo-Aristotelian theory of virtuous action in the face of moral dilemmas (On Virtue Ethics, 1999), which she herself has not yet applied to compromises.


This project combines ethical conceptualization and argumentation with political scientific empirical research. Whereas in standard research designs theoretical and empirical tasks are often treated separately, here an iterative combination of the two will be attempted. The goal is to develop the ethical framework in close dialogue with real-life actors having actual experience in political negotiations and compromise-making. To achieve this, a draft framework will be presented in an expert workshop to political practitioners and further refined on the basis of their comments. Thereafter, the adapted framework will be used in three case studies of varying character (constitutional, distributive, and existential). Case study research fits well to a virtue-ethical approach, which is comparatively situation-sensitive and therefore suited to the often complex casuistry of specific compromises. The cases are taken from Dutch national politics in 2002-2012, a tumultuous period starting with the rise and assassination of populist politician Pim Fortuyn, followed by a very unstable series of government coalitions (Balkenende I-IV) and even a minority government (Rutte I), in which nonetheless important compromises were struck. To identify contributing factors and the role of moral character among them, the project concentrates on two successful cases in which compromises were indeed found (the direct election of mayors (2005) and pensions (2011)) and one unsuccessful case in which no compromise could be reached, resulting in political crisis (Afghanistan mission (2010)). In-depth interviews with key players are used to achieve rich case descriptions. These are then again used to inform and further calibrate the ethical framework.


The time-frame is as follows:

  • In the first month, necessary preparations are made: preliminary readings, preparing the casestudies, contacting potential interviewees, and planning and organizing the expert workshop in the fourth month.
  • The next two months (2 and 3) are devoted to the conceptual development of a draft-version of the integrated framework (including virtue ethics) to assess compromises. This results in a theoretical article, to be submitted to an ethics or political theory journal.
  • Month 4 starts off with an expert workshop in The Hague for invited political practitioners (including potential interviewees) and some academic specialists from ethics and political science. Here the integrated framework will be presented and discussed. The remainder of this month is devoted to the adaptation of the framework in one-to-one dialogue with the experts and to its operationalization.
  • In months 5 to 7, the three case-studies will be conducted. For each case, this consists of a document study to get deeply acquainted with the negotiation process concerned, followed by at least 4 semi-structured, in-depth interviews with important actors. Interview transcripts are authorized and coded.
  • In the last two months (8-9), the analysis takes place. Specifically, the potentials of a virtue-ethical approach to contribute to the ethical framework will be assessed. This is to result in a second publishable article about the empirical findings.
  • The project finishes with an open-invitation symposium in The Hague where the findings of the project will be presented and their implications discussed with representatives from both political practice and academia.


As a general outcome, the project should open up the minds of scholars and practitioners to the idea that the moral quality of compromises depends not only on principles and results, but at least partly also on virtues.

Specific outcomes will be disseminated in a number of ways:

Before the project starts:

  1. May 2015, I will attend the conference ‘Compromise and Disagreement’ in Copenhagen (http://pt.polsci.ku.dk/compromise/conference/) and present a political theoretical paper. This conference is organized by the COMPROMISE research group of the University of Copenhagen, directed by prof. dr. Christian F. Rostbøll (see his letter of support to this application). Links with other compromise-experts will be strengthened.
  2. Fall 2015, I will organize a one-day symposium in The Hague for students and colleagues on the question: what makes a good compromise? Invited speakers have various disciplinary backgrounds (social psychology, rational choice, political history, and ethics).

From the project itself three different, concrete results are envisaged, namely:

During the project period:

  1. Two interactive meetings in The Hague (an expert workshop and a symposium)
  2. Two publishable academic papers (one philosophical and one empirical)

After the project finishes:

In 2016 or 2017, submission of a proposal for a large-scale comparative qualitative study on the practice and ethics of political compromise at the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) to obtain a VIDI grant (max. €800.000) for a 3-year project with research staff (postdoc and/or PhDs).

Conference Papers

Overeem, P. (2016, May). Giving in with integrity: A virtue-ethical approach towards political compromise. Presented at the Political theory seminar: Compromise Workshop I, Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen.