Commentary Magazine


Topic: moderation

Distinguishing Between Moderation and Political Compromise

I wrote a piece recently on compromise, moderation, and the American Constitution, and in reaction I received a note from Diana Schaub, a professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland.

She pointed out to me that it’s “helpful to distinguish the virtue of moderation, which is always right, from the practice of political compromise, the goodness of which depends on circumstances.” Moderation, Schaub went on to write, “doesn’t always entail the spirit of accommodation. There are times when one must stand fast, and one can do so without becoming immoderate.”

To buttress her argument, Schaub cited an example of George Washington (who became a revolutionary, having arrived at the conclusion that diplomatic compromise was no longer possible with Great Britain) and Abraham Lincoln (who was unwilling to consider certain sorts of compromise in order to maintain the Union and who steadfastly opposed any action that would remove the label of moral evil from the institution of slavery). Professor Schaub herself has used the apposite phrase “intransigent moderation” when describing Lincoln. 

Her main point, Schaub said in the note she sent to me (and which she kindly allowed me to quote from), is that “moderation, while usually receptive to political compromises, can at times be uncompromising without ceasing to be moderation.”

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I wrote a piece recently on compromise, moderation, and the American Constitution, and in reaction I received a note from Diana Schaub, a professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland.

She pointed out to me that it’s “helpful to distinguish the virtue of moderation, which is always right, from the practice of political compromise, the goodness of which depends on circumstances.” Moderation, Schaub went on to write, “doesn’t always entail the spirit of accommodation. There are times when one must stand fast, and one can do so without becoming immoderate.”

To buttress her argument, Schaub cited an example of George Washington (who became a revolutionary, having arrived at the conclusion that diplomatic compromise was no longer possible with Great Britain) and Abraham Lincoln (who was unwilling to consider certain sorts of compromise in order to maintain the Union and who steadfastly opposed any action that would remove the label of moral evil from the institution of slavery). Professor Schaub herself has used the apposite phrase “intransigent moderation” when describing Lincoln. 

Her main point, Schaub said in the note she sent to me (and which she kindly allowed me to quote from), is that “moderation, while usually receptive to political compromises, can at times be uncompromising without ceasing to be moderation.”

These words are ones I fully concur with and are consistent, I think, with some of the observations I made in my original piece. My emphasis, though, was somewhat different. What I intended to underscore is that to assume per se that moderation and compromise are problematic is itself problematic.

In any event, I thought Professor Schaub’s explication was wise and very intelligently stated, and certainly worth sharing. 

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The Virtue of Moderation

I recently read a splendid book by Harry Clor, On Moderation: Defending an Ancient Virtue in a Modern World, whose purpose is to “articulate a coherent, defensible case for moderation as a virtue, the possession and encouragement of which is important for us.”

Maybe the best way to begin is to be clear on what Clor says moderation is not. Political moderation is not, he writes, the antithesis of holding principled and wholehearted commitments. It’s not simply a matter of being in the middle of two extremes. It is not “tepid, middle compromise” between opposing ideals.

Like thoughtful scholarship, political moderation, according to Clor, takes a disinterested account of opposing perspectives on complex questions. It is synonymous with proportionality. And it recognizes limits and takes into account circumstances. For example, determining how much liberty and how much restraint a society embraces can’t be answered in the abstract; it depends on circumstances. “A course of action, policy, or pronouncement that is valid in some or most cases would be wrong, even disastrous, in certain situations, and there will be exceptions to any proposition you could affirm,” Clor writes. Immoderation, on the other hand, “is characterized by a one-sided or absolute commitment to a good that is in fact only one good among several.”

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I recently read a splendid book by Harry Clor, On Moderation: Defending an Ancient Virtue in a Modern World, whose purpose is to “articulate a coherent, defensible case for moderation as a virtue, the possession and encouragement of which is important for us.”

Maybe the best way to begin is to be clear on what Clor says moderation is not. Political moderation is not, he writes, the antithesis of holding principled and wholehearted commitments. It’s not simply a matter of being in the middle of two extremes. It is not “tepid, middle compromise” between opposing ideals.

Like thoughtful scholarship, political moderation, according to Clor, takes a disinterested account of opposing perspectives on complex questions. It is synonymous with proportionality. And it recognizes limits and takes into account circumstances. For example, determining how much liberty and how much restraint a society embraces can’t be answered in the abstract; it depends on circumstances. “A course of action, policy, or pronouncement that is valid in some or most cases would be wrong, even disastrous, in certain situations, and there will be exceptions to any proposition you could affirm,” Clor writes. Immoderation, on the other hand, “is characterized by a one-sided or absolute commitment to a good that is in fact only one good among several.”

Professor Clor goes on to warn that we should want politics that incorporates moderation and “you should be quite afraid of any leaders, movements, or polities wholly lacking them.”

I quite agree, and while there is a danger that one can be frozen because of the inability to decide on the merits of competing claims, the greater danger faced by most of us is more nearly the opposite: acting as if every course of action we have chosen is obvious and enlightened and could only be opposed by knaves or fools; and that every decision should be viewed as a zero-sum proposition, with all the arguments favoring one side (ours) and disfavoring the other. We go in search of data and studies that reinforce our preexisting views and ignore (or dismiss) the others. It’s of course easy to see these tendencies in others, and much harder to see them in ourselves.

“Willingness to entertain doubts is a moderating virtue when it reminds me, before I launch into some totalistic commitment, that there is more than one viewpoint or consideration to take into account,” Clor writes. “Moderation is intertwined with humility of a sort, the kind of humility that keeps us aware of our inevitable limitations – that we are all limited beings, limited in our capacity to master the unavoidable uncertainties and contingencies of life.”

This is something thinkers from Aristotle to Montaigne to Burke to Lincoln to C.S. Lewis understood, in one way or another; and it’s an insight all of us, of every political persuasion, would be wise to reacquaint ourselves with. Because moderation and humility, rightly understood, will help us to better ascertain the truth of things. And in politics, like life more generally, the truth shall set us free.

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