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January 30, 2005

Agreement and Disagreement

Gerald Dworkin: January 30, 2005

The film director Bertolucci once said that one can only disagree with those with whom one basically agrees. This is an interesting idea and I would like to explore what might be meant by this.

 (1) Argument is only useful if there are common premises that both parties share.

 This might seem to be a truism; actually it is false. It is possible to argue ad hominem, i.e. showing an opponent that from premises he accepts, although I do not, one gets a contradiction. Thus he must give up at least one of his views. This, of course, does not show the view he abandons is false. Just that he has no grounds for holding it.

 Even if there are shared premises, and one shows that from those premises an opponent must come to accept my views, this does not show that my views are correct. The common premises may be false.

 What is correct about (1) is that I can only convince (rationally) an opponent of the truth of my view – and the falsity of his—if we share true premises. But while this is necessary it is not sufficient. We must also share methods of argument. Starting from shared true premises but not accepting shared methods of argument will not get us anywhere either.

 (2) Disagreement is only possible with those who share a common world, or a common sensibility, or a common body of knowledge

  I don’t disagree with a two-year old about the merits of inflation-indexed bonds. I don’t disagree with someone who thinks it would be a good idea to introduce a knightly code of honor for a fraternity on my campus. To borrow an example from Posner’s recent blogging, I don’t disagree with someone who believes in God; rather God doesn’t exist for me. He plays no role in my life.

 (3) Moral disagreement is only possible when there are shared responses.

 “But I'm damned if I can say—to someone who's seen House of Flying Daggers and says, "so?"—why that movie is so heart-stoppingly beautiful, any more than I could play you Maria Callas singing "Vogliatemi bene, un bene piccolino" from Madame Butterfly and persevere past an indifferent response.”  Charles Taylor (movie critic for Slate)

  As an exercise for the reader, look at this argument for the immorality of homosexuality. http://courseweb.stthomas.edu/kwkemp/Papers/HR.html



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