Guest Post: Agree to disagree? Why not?

Pedro Jesus Perez Zafrilla.
(University of Valencia)

In a previous post on this blog, David Aldridge questions the social convention of ending arguments by “agreeing to disagree.”, arguing that doing so “ends the dialogue at precisely the point where what is really at issue is beginning to emerge” . He also questions the motivations of those who seek to end an argument by offering to “agree to disagree” However, I think agreeing to disagree is a good idea and I will try to argue why.

Debating could be characterized by three features: a context of disagreement, open-minded participants, and an expectation that one can rationally convince his/her interlocutor. Then, people who debate do so because they believe that agreement is possible. The achievement of agreement is the aim of  dialogue.

Nevertheless, the desire to reach agreement shouldn’t lead us to forget that debate is fruitful only under certain conditions. Some of them include limitations of time and the number of participants, because the decision must be made, or agreement reached, within a reasonable span of time. But there are also other limitations in the debating process. We might begin with the expectation that one can rationally convince one’s interlocutor about the rightness of one’s position but we reach difficulties when incommensurable views are confronted. Some examples are found in debates on taxes, euthanasia or models of education. Here what is morally significant for some persons is not so for others. So, concepts such as “a dignified life” or “quality of education” have different meanings for each side of the debate. Accordingly, the arguments one side presents will not be convincing to the other side. In these cases, the expectation that one can rationally convince one’s interlocutor will generate polarization processes toward antagonist positions (see Haidt, J. “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail. A Social Intuitionist approach to Moral judgement”, Psychological Review, 108, 2001, p.823). Even more, each person will think that his/her interlocutor is not morally motivated (Schulz, Kathryn. Being wrong. Adventures in the margin of error. London: Portobello Books, 2010, pp.107-110).

In that context, far from achieving agreement, debate leads to disagreement. For that reason, I think the more reasonable option to avoid this turn is to seek points of convergence between the interlocutors, whilst recognising the deep differences that remain between them, as Gutmann and Thompson suggest (Gutmann, A. and Thompson, D. Democracy and disagreement. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996, pp.84-85). However, this recognition of the limitations of the agreement that can be reached doesn’t mean that the dialogue has failed. On the contrary, it is the most suitable way to maintain the effectiveness of dialogue and arrive at agreement. I think so for three reasons: the first is that agreeing to disagree avoids the frustration when our interlocutor doesn’t recognize the rightness of our arguments. Second, and as a consequence of the first, agreeing to disagree enables us to continue recognizing our interlocutor as an open-minded person. Finally, it enables us to set more realistic goals for deliberation. The opposite, blindly trusting the open-mindedness of our interlocutor, as Aldridge argues, seems a to be overly optimistic..
Then, answering to Aldridge’s question about what could motivate an offer to agree to disagree, an appropriate reason to offer to agree to disagree would be an awareness of the limitations that debate has in contexts of deep disagreement.

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3 Responses to Guest Post: Agree to disagree? Why not?

  • David Aldridge says:

    Thanks Pedro. Great to get a reply. I might put up a couple of comments as I think about this. Right off the bat, though, I find it interesting that you have replaced the word I used, ‘dialogue’, with another, ‘debate’. That changes the significance of the thing a great deal, don’t you think?

  • Seph North says:

    David did not say that agreeing to disagree should not be done, just that it should be questioned and can be used for bad reasons. You seem to be arguing that “agree to disagree” is always ok and shouldn’t be questioned, is that right?

    ” rightness of one’s position but we reach difficulties when incommensurable views are confronted.”
    Couple of problems here, it seems like you go into an argument with the belief that your position has some inherent “rightness”, rather than going in with an open mind and just trying to find the truth. Then you mention incommensurable views – why do you think such a thing exists? What do you think makes people have views that are incommensurable?

    “Accordingly, the arguments one side presents will not be convincing to the other side”
    Surely then the first side has failed in making a good argument, or the other side is refusing to be open to it? What other good explanation is there?

    “the first is that agreeing to disagree avoids the frustration when our interlocutor doesn’t recognize the rightness of our arguments”
    Again, “rightness”. If you go into an argument expecting to be right, you are not open minded.

    “agreeing to disagree enables us to continue recognizing our interlocutor as an open-minded person”
    How so? Agreeing to disagree causes an *end* to learning about your opposition. Surely it just reduces your ability to understand your interlocutor and closes off your mind from theirs.

    “The opposite, blindly trusting the open-mindedness of our interlocutor, as Aldridge argues, seems a to be overly optimistic..”
    You would rather be pessimistic, and assume interlocutors are irrational? Surely then all debate is pointless to you?
    Assuming they are open minded means the conversation is even worth having in the first place, then even if they are not open minded it gives you an opportunity to find that out rather than being pessimistic and not even trying.

  • Nick Swarbrick says:

    It is, of course, possible to go into an argument expecting that the position you hold at the start will still be yours at the end. I am not at all sure that most debate isn’t like this anyway: there is a wonderful (and funny) story in the early Christian Sayings of the Fathers in which two monks try to have an argument and fail because they are committed to seeing the point of view of the other. You might be to open change as Seph suggests – but I would propose that in most cases we go into any debate ” expecting to be right.” I wonder: is this the same as expecting you will not change your mind?

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