FOCUS – Compromise

by Dr. James Read –
Salvation Army Ethics Center,
Winnipeg, Manitoba

I think I can understand why Time Warner would enter a partnership with AOL. New markets. Bigger profits. These are the engines that drive business. But why would an organization such as The Salvation Army, driven by values, not profits, get into “partnering”?

The obvious answer is that partnering makes it possible for the Army to do important things that it couldn’t do on its own. As William Booth wrote in 1890: “All that I want is to have the work done…If you have any better plan than mine for effecting this purpose, in God’s name bring it to the light and get it carried out quickly. If you have not, then lend me a hand with mine, as I would be only too glad to lend you a hand with yours if it had in it greater promise of successful action than mine.”

Booth set the pattern and gave the rationale, but was he naïve to think the Army’s partners would simply accept his plans holus bolus? As a condition of contributing their needed money, people, or other resources, partners may have their own identity to protect and objectives they want factored in. Consequently, the necessity to collaborate raises the question about the willingness to compromise.

Professor Charles Glenn of Boston University calls the Army’s long and complex partnership with government an “ambiguous embrace.” (Great phrase, isn’t it?) On the one hand, he says, “the overarching theme of the Army’s growth has been its willingness and ability to partner with the secular public to achieve common social objectives.” On the other hand, he also writes, “Shifts in the character of the Army’s social programs over the past three decades can in part be attributed to external pressures associated with government contracting… Many within The Salvation Army have simply accepted the terms on which they receive government funding, and do not have sufficient distance to recognize the subtle and unconscious shifts which have occurred in the mission and character of their programs.”

I will leave it to others to debate whether Glenn’s analysis of the Army is factual. For me, he raises the interesting questions of whether, when and why compromise is ethical.

Three kinds of situations come to mind: First is the compromise of doing something good but less than the ideal. The Army has always had grand ambitious visions. “The World for God” was an early slogan that still stirs my heart. But others with the money, the talent and the reputation may not be willing to sign on for anything so big. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked…is the extent of their cooperation. Is it wrong to partner with them? How could it be? The outcome is something everyone agrees is good.

Or, is the good truly the enemy of the best? When refusing a partner’s help means doing nothing at all, then it’s wrong. But suppose one accepts, and in doing so commits scarce resources to a good task? That means they aren’t available for other tasks. Because once you’ve agreed to partner on a corps or social program, you can’t pull the plug because someone else has offered to be a partner in something better.

The second sort of compromise could be described as doing something bad but “unavoidable.” An acquaintance of mine is the chief fund-raiser for a large hospital. He tells me that one of the major foundations he approaches every year requires him to file a budget that sets the costs of administration and fundraising impossibly low. He knows he can’t keep his overhead as low as they demand. And he knows that they know it too. Every year he goes ahead and files a false budget. He doesn’t feel good about lying, but reasons that it’s the only way to get the partner’s funding, and to forgo the funding would be worse for the hospital’s patients.

Some notable Christian theologians have said this kind of compromise is a necessity built into the fabric of our now-fallen world. As Reinhold Niebuhr put it: “the law of love is an impossible possibility…every achievement will remain in the realm of approximation. The ideal in its perfect form lies beyond the capacities of human nature…The ideal of equality is thus qualified in any possible society by the necessities of social cohesion and corrupted by the sinfulness of men.” Our ethical responsibility on this view is to discern the lesser evil and rely on the assurance that God forgives us, and justifies us by our faith, not our ethical purity. “Compromise does not mean that we have an excuse,” says Helmut Thielicke. “It means we participate in the suprapersonal guilt of this aeon.”

This view is uncomfortable for me, perhaps because of my holiness tradition that has taught that sinning is not necessary. Perhaps we find it easier to live with the third sort of compromise–compromise that involves cooperating with a partner who is doing something wrong, a partner who is in some respect aided in that wrongdoing by our partnership. Governments here in Canada, for instance, are the promoters and operators (as well as the regulators) of gambling. They want “good causes” to partner with them in using the gambling profits. The Army

wouldn’t have to runs casinos itself, it would just have to lend its good name to the government that run the casino. Our values obviously diverge. Does that make partnership taboo?

Catholic ethics has dealt with this kind of situation by differentiating between “formal cooperation” (i.e. cooperation in which the partners jointly intend the evil act itself) and “material cooperation” (i.e. in which one’s own intentions remain good). Formal cooperation is always unethical, they argue; but so long as the cause is important enough, material cooperation is sometimes permissible. The reason, on this view, is that each partner has its own moral accountability, and (Thielicke notwithstanding) is not automatically tainted by the partner’s shortfall.

This brief account doesn’t say all that could be said about the ethics of compromising. What I want us to remember is that values-driven organizations like the Army need to scrutinize their partnerships from the standpoint of values, not just outcomes. The last word goes to Charles Glenn: “There is much to admire about the work of The Salvation Army, but equally admirable is their seriousness with which it is grappling with how to maintain its distinctive character and mission in the ‘ambiguous embrace’ of government and of the contributing public.”

Sharing is caring!