Hey, that’s not really a compromise!

One of the issues I frequently encounter in conversations about controversial issues is what I call the “false compromise.” (There is a related logical fallacy called “false compromise,” but here I’m using the term in a way that is slightly different.)

Stick with me on this; I’m about to get all philosophical on you.

False compromises can exist whenever one side makes an exclusive claim about what is true or good and the other side makes a non-exclusive claim, but then offers to “compromise” with a similarly non-exclusive claim.

For example, let’s say that Alice and Bob are having an argument.

“I believe that Jesus is the only way to God,” says Alice. “Without Jesus, our sins would separate all of us from God. No other path to God can get you there without Jesus.”

Bob disagrees. “There are lots of religions in the world,” he says, “and they offer a number of different, equally valid paths to God. Jesus is one path to God, but not the only one.”

The two of them argue back and forth. Alice continues to argue that Jesus is the way, and Bob argues that Jesus is one way of many.

Finally, Bob attempts a compromise. “Well, how about we meet in the middle. Maybe Jesus is the only path for you, but he’s not the only path for me.”

In Bob’s mind, that’s a reasonable compromise. In Alice’s mind, it isn’t.

Why? Because it isn’t really a compromise at all. It’s actually just another version of the position Bob already held.

See, Bob already believed that there were multiple valid paths to God. By suggesting separate paths for himself and Alice, he’s continuing to believe that. So this “compromise” doesn’t require him to change his mind about anything; it’s just another way of saying something he already believed. By contrast, this “compromise” flies in the face of what Alice stands for, which is that there is only one valid path to God, a path that applies to everyone on the planet, including Bob.

That “compromise” isn’t really a compromise. It’s a false compromise that makes Bob feel good about himself while making Alice look like the extremist jerk when she rejects his proposed compromise. But it was never really a fair suggestion to begin with.

Another example: In the homosexuality debate, there are two basic positions. One (“Side A”) argues that we should celebrate loving, committed relationships regardless of gender. The other (“Side B”) argues that sex is designed to be between a man and a woman. In other words, Side A says that gay sex is acceptable (within the right context), and Side B says that it’s never acceptable, because it’s inherently sinful.

I used to be on Side B, and now I’m on Side A. But I often hear my fellow Side-Aers try to suggest a “compromise” position to the other side: “Well, how about we just agree that gay sex would be wrong for the people on Side B, but it’s not wrong for those of us on Side A.

See, that’s not really a compromise. That’s really a Side A position.

As a Side A Christian, it’s easy for me to say, “I also respect the consciences of those who believe God calls them to celibacy.” I can do that without abandoning my Side A beliefs. It’s much harder for someone who is Side B to do the same for me, because they believe that gay sex is sinful for everyone; that’s part of what Side B means. So asking both sides to agree that the other’s approach is “right for them” isn’t really fair; it’s really biased in favor of Side A.

I hear about these sorts of false compromises all the time, and the group on the exclusive end of one issue may be on the non-exclusive end of another.

For instance, if I believe that ex-gay therapy is inherently harmful, then no, I don’t think it’s a “fair compromise” to say that it should be offered “only to those who want it.” Similar false compromises show up on questions about whether we should teach things as fact in schools (like evolution or the Holocaust). The same person who is irritated by Bob’s false compromise on multiple paths to God might not see any problem with a false compromise on teaching multiple theories of creation in school, and vice versa.

So in any given issue, whether you’re on the side of exclusivity or the side of non-exclusivity, keep in mind that not all compromises are really compromises. (And if you disagree with me on this, let’s meet in the middle and just agree that I’m right.)