Unthinkable: How to deal with disagreement?

It’s not easy but there is a third way to the realist and relativist approaches to truth, says UCD professor of American philosophy Maria Baghramian

Democratic debate can be angry and rude. Disagreement is inevitable, and sometimes intractable, where protagonists refuse to bend to any reasoning that runs counter to their own.

And even if people can rally behind a concept such as fairness, there's no guarantee of agreement over what it means in practice, as UCD professor of American philosophy Maria Baghramian points out: "Data gathered from 15 small-scale societies, based on a battery of tests, indicate that there is a great deal of cross-cultural variation on what is considered fair as well as the requirements for fairness towards others."

What's the best way of settling such disputes? Baghramian, a leading scholar on the intersection of pluralism and political theory, provides today's pragmatic idea: "Truths about ultimate values and explanations of the meaning of our lives are plural and not necessarily combinable."

How should we deal with intractable disagreements?

“There are at least three strategies available. We can make common cause with the realists among philosophers and argue that there are facts – not just about science but also about how we should live or what we should value – that could decide in favour of one or another side of any given dispute.


“Or we can resort to relativism and argue that both sides to an irresolvable dispute could be right, each according to its perspective or sociocultural framework.

“But my own preferred solution, something that I have discussed in some of my writings, is a form of pluralism combined with maximal tolerance and permissiveness.”

Explain what constitutes the realist approach “Philosophical realists attribute the persistence of disagreement to ignorance and/or verbal misunderstanding. They place faith in the ultimate resolution of all real disagreements and the disappearance of the merely verbal ones.

“Admittedly, questions about what should be of value to our lives or how we should live are more complex than even the most complicated questions that science can throw at us, but their complexity, the realist argues, should not deter us from trying to find truths in the normative as well as in the factual domain.”

Where’s the catch?

“The optimist in this debate points to the moral progress we have made. Regardless of what Aristotle said or thought, no one nowadays seriously defends the view that some human beings are born to be slaves. Truths in morality are discoverable and agreement can be reached.

“The pessimist, on the other hand, points to the ongoing wars and killings in the name of moral or religious principles and asks: where are we to find the truths that the realists speak of?

“The fact that intractable disagreements could persist even when the two sides agree on the methods of inquiry and the relevant facts and show mutual respect complicates things further.”

What about relativism, then. Is it a better way of resolving disagreement?

“Relativism is popular for different reasons. Many see it as a hallmark or even a prerequisite of tolerance and open-mindedness. Tyrants, on the other hand, have used relativistic-sounding arguments to defend their ways. Human rights, they argue, are inventions of western Enlightenment and not applicable to other societies and times.

“Some contemporary philosophers have encouraged us to characterise intractable disagreements – particularly those concerning questions of taste, inclination and moral judgment – as faultless.

“The term ‘faultless disagreement’ tries to capture the relativist’s belief that there could be instances of genuine disagreement between individuals or social and political groupings where both parties to the dispute are equally right, each from its own perspective and according to its own framework of assessment.”

What’s the weakness

of this approach? “For one thing, the idea of ‘faultless disagreement’ fails to capture the common psychological experience that we disagree only when we think that the other side is wrong or at fault.

“Furthermore, when it comes to the ‘real world’ and disagreements on questions such as abortion, immigration, or blasphemy laws, the dispute is not just about a clash of abstract principles but also, and most crucially, about how to allocate limited resources – healthcare, social housing, education, etc.

“To think of disagreements as faultless is of little help in deciding on such divisive issues.”

So what’s your preferred solution?

“I tend to support pluralism, not just in the political domain but also on questions of values and conceptions of what makes our lives meaningful. There are many ultimate, not necessarily combinable values. Some people prioritise kindness and self-sacrifice, others individual human flourishing. In some cultures autonomy is an ultimate value, in others a sense of belonging and identification with a community.

“The differences in our attitudes towards these ultimate values should not be seen as cases of outright disagreements, open to resolution, peacefully or by other means. Rather, pluralists accept the legitimacy of differing frameworks of values and priorities and attempt to resolve any attendant conflicts through compromise and accommodation.

Does this have the effect of reducing all value systems to equal merit?

“No. Not every belief system is of equal value. The Nazis or Isis, with its outrageous interpretations of Islam, to take just two examples, won’t have a place within this pluralistic framework because their point of departure is the violent suppression of the very pluralism advocated here.

“There are thus constraints on pluralism, decided by the preconditions for making such pluralism possible. And here is one area where the pluralists and relativists part company. The slogan ‘anything goes’ encapsulates the relativists’ predicament.”

What are the practical consequences of this kind of pluralism?

“At a practical level, pluralism can be accommodated only through maximal tolerance and permissiveness, implemented through a legal and social framework that presupposes the ‘equal validity’ of more than one set of ultimate values and facilitates social institutions that would allow for their co-existence.

“The task is not easy, but how could finding an adequate response to the question of what is of ultimate value in life be simple or easy?”

philosophy@irishtimes.com Twitter @JoeHumphreys42