Deep Disagreements and Argumentative Optimism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

ContemptWe all have had moments when we feel that those with whom we disagree not only reject the point we are focused on at the moment, but also reject our values, general beliefs, modes of reasoning, and even our hopes. In such circumstances, productive critical conversation seems impossible. For the most part, in order to be successful, argument must proceed against the background of common ground. Interlocutors must agree on some basic facts about the world, or they must share some source of reasons to with they can appeal, or they must value roughly the same sort of outcome. And so, if two parties disagree about who finished runners-up to Leister City in their historic BPL win last year, they may agree to consult the league website, and that will resolve the issue. Or if two travelers disagree about which route home is better, one may say, "Yes, your way is shorter, but it runs though the traffic bottleneck at the mall, and that adds at least ten minutes to the journey." And that may resolve the dispute, depending perhaps on whether time is what matters most.

But some disagreements invoke deeper disputes, disputes about what sources are authoritative, what counts as evidence, and what matters. Such disputes quickly become argumentatively strange. And so if someone does not recognize the authority of the soccer league's website about last year's standings, it is unclear how a dispute over last year's runners-up to Leister City could be resolved. What might one say to a disputant of this kind? Does he trust news sites, television reporting, or Wikipedia entries concerning the BPL? Does he regard the news sites and the league website as reliable sources of information concerning this year's standings or when the games are played? What if our interlocutor in the route-home case doesn't see why the quickest route is preferable to the shortest? Maybe our traveling companion regards our hurry-scurry as a part of a larger social problem, or maybe wants to enjoy the Zen of a traffic jam. Sometimes a disagreement about one thing lies at the tip of a very large iceberg of composed of many other, deeper, disagreements.

The puzzle about deep disagreement is whether or not reasoned argument works at all in them. There is a widely held view, perhaps at the core of deliberative views of democracy, and certainly central to educational programs that emphasizing critical thinking, that well-run argument is at least not pointless, and often even productive. And many hold that it's important to practice good argumentation, especially in cases of deep disagreement. Call this view argumentative optimism. The trouble for this optimism is that as disagreements run progressively deeper, it grows increasingly difficult to see how argument could have any point at all; this, in turn, encourages us to regard interlocutors as targets of incredulity, bemusement, and perhaps even contempt or hatred. There's little, many think, one can argue or say that is going to rationally resolve certain disagreements. In the end, it all may come down to who's got better propaganda, more money, or, perhaps, the better weapons. Call this view argumentative pessimism.

A famous argument for pessimism was given by Robert Fogelin in "The Logic of Deep Disagreements." The core of his case is as follows:

1. Successful argument is possible only if participants share a background of beliefs, values, and resolution procedures.

2. Deep disagreements are disagreements wherein participants have no such shared background.

3. Therefore: successful argument is not possible in deep disagreement cases.

4. In disagreements needing urgent resolutions that also do not admit of argumentative resolution, one should use non-argumentative means to resolve the dispute.

5. Therefore, in urgent deep disagreements, one should use non-argumentative means to resolve the dispute.

Fogelin did not identify his preferred non-argumentative means, nor did he clarify how one might determine that a disagreement is deep (as opposed to merely hard) or urgent. Regardless, it is clear that argumentative optimists face a challenge. How might they respond?

For starters, optimists should ask whether deep disagreements really exist. And so, an optimist could concede Fogelin's point, and yet contend that in fact that no actual disagreements are deep. One way the optimist could argue is as follows: In cases of persistent and hard disagreement, interlocutors seem not to share enough meanings in common to have their dispute count as properly disagreement. That is, in order for two parties to disagree, there must be a sufficient degree of semantic overlap, otherwise there is no disagreement at all, and the parties simply "talk past" each other. In other words, when one party asserts "Birds fly," and the other says "Birds don't fly," they apparently disagree. But if it is discovered that the two parties do not share in common a broad conception of what it is to fly, what things are birds, what authorities to consult, or whether one of them really did see a seagull up in the air just the other day, we should conclude that there is no disagreement after all, but rather a case mutual unintelligibility. Perhaps it's worse to countenance the possibility of mutual unintelligibility than deep disagreement, but it's one way to retain argumentative optimism. The deeper the disagreement, the harder it is to see it as a disagreement.

This means that insofar as we see disagreements as a disagreements at all, we must take the disputants to share enough in the background to allow them to talk about the same things; that is, in order to see parties as disagreeing, we must take them to inhabit the same world. Consequently, we can never see disagreements as deep. Where we see disagreement, we see (in principle) resolvability.

A different optimistic strategy is to reject Fogelin's first premise. One might say that argument isn't only about resolving disagreements. An argument, as an exercise of manifesting our rationality, may improve our understanding of our own views and those of others. In an exchange, we may, in thinking about an issue, actually create common ground in developing a shared culture of reasoning together. Consequently, argument can be productive in deep disagreement cases, but it takes a longer-run view.

Finally, the optimist may reject even the fourth premise. She may deny that when argument gives out in urgent cases, one may resort to some form of non-argumentative persuasion. The optimist could insist that the fourth premise states a dangerous policy, since one may have mis-identified merely difficult or hard cases as instances of deep disagreement. Additionally, the optimist might claim that resorting to propaganda, rhetoric, verbal coercion or other non-argumentative means gives up on the plausible thought that even in cases of severe and stubborn disagreement, parties still can learn from each other. The Fogelin policy presumes that when disputes seem irresolvable, the only alternative is to simply defeat or at least neutralize one's opponents. But notice that these tools, were they used against us, would strike us as objectionable.

The dispute between argumentative pessimist and optimists is itself stubborn and unlikely to be soon resolved. But in light of the dangers of prematurely adopting pessimism, this tie goes to the optimist.