Friday, October 12, 2007

Why Disagree (Relatively)?

More on relative truth and disagreement. Let 'Pa' denote that P is true relative to Anne. I suggested before that such relativity claims are absolute: even Bob should agree that 'abortion is wrong' (P) is true for Anne. It's just that it is false for him, and thus false simpliciter (from his context of assessment). So he would grant Pa but not P.

Jack now brings to my attention the following biconditional: (P iff Pa)a. We've seen that Bob will deny (P iff Pa). But he must also recognize that P would be assessed differently relative to Anne, such that the biconditional will come out true for her.

Now here's a plausible principle: as responsible epistemic agents pursuing knowledge, we should not want to lead our fellow inquirers into false beliefs. So Bob should be reluctant to convince Anne to deny P after all. Why? Because, by the Anne-relative biconditional, she should then also deny Pa, but Pa is an absolute truth. (I'm assuming that her context of assessment won't change when she changes her belief about P.) Indeed, the point may be made even more directly by noting that, in virtue of being true-for-her, P is surely the appropriate belief for Anne to have, the one she should have, even if Bob would judge it technically 'false'.

So if Bob can grant that Anne is believing appropriately, is there really any genuine disagreement left? Maybe it is just the kind of non-cognitive opposition you get with emotivism -- merely a matter of cheering for two different teams. You need not think the other person has made any mistake, but you are oppositely aligned and so destined to clash. But I guess even the meaning relativist can tell this kind of story, so it's no longer clear what distinctive benefits are offered by truth relativism. (Or should the truth relativist hold even 'appropriate belief' to be a relative matter? That seems to be going too far...)

5 comments:

  1. I should check I understand some of these terms first. "P is true relative of Anne" seems to mean, looking at the previous post, "Anne's idealised self would believe P". I'm not clear what an idealised self is, but am assuming it's what Anne would believe if she thought through her beliefs thoroughly and made them self-consistent (but maybe that's way off).

    So then, what you're saying is that Bob shouldn't convince Anne of something that she wouldn't believe, if she really thought things through, whatever Bob said. This seems entirely reasonable.

    It also seems reasonable to say that this is the belief that Anne should have given her other beliefs (i.e. to make a self-consistent set). But that doesn't mean it's the belief she should have, since it's possible that she should change her belief set. It being impossible for her to do this, doesn't mean that she shouldn't. Does that make any sense?

    It seems to me, that Bob and Anne can still disagree, but there's nothing they can do to remedy the situation. The team comparison you make is very appropriate. That said, I'm not sure that the assumption that the beliefs of ones idealized self cannot be changed through argument is a good one.

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  2. Richard,

    Have you moved from foe to friend?

    I think that the way to characterize Bob and Anne is that they do not agree but they do not genuine disagree.

    What do you think of this principle:

    Genuine disagreement is only possible if at least one of the agents thinks that the other can improve the other's epistemic/rational situation.

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  3. Richard,

    Bob should grant that Anne is believing appropriately in a sense, but this is just the sense in which he should assume that she's making the right assessments from her context, that, given her evidence, she basically has the right views. But if Anne accepts P, then Bob should think that Anne is not believing appropriately in another sense, namely, in the sense that she accepts something false.

    I don't understand why you make the assumption that Anne's context of assessment won't change when she changes her belief about P. I take this to mean that Anne moves from accepting P to accepting not P without any change in the original context of assessment in which she assessed P as true. But if she was correct in her original assessment of P, wouldn't her subsequent reversal be incorrect, perhaps by being rash or irrational? I assume that the evidence for P in that context isn't just as strong as the evidence for not P, in which case she probably should not have accepted P to begin with. And if her context does change so as to make the acceptance of not P rational, then she should assess P as false.

    Bob shouldn't be reluctant to convince Anne to deny P. She accepts a falsehood, which no one should normally rationally do. His convincing her will consist in his offering reasons that he takes to favor not P. But this is the normal course of action when there's disagreement (at least for philosophers).

    -nick

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  4. Nick,

    You're right to say that, even after Bob and Anne agree on all of the absolute truths and this relative bi-conditional, that Bob should still think that Anne accepts a falsity. I take that as a data point.

    As I see it, the question is whether that is sufficient for genuine disagreement.

    A reason to think that it is not sufficient is that in this case there is no normative conclusion that follows from Bob thinking that Anne accepts a falsity. Without adding more to the case, Bob should not think that Anne should have a change of beliefs as to whether P, for Bob should recognize the relative absolute truth which is the explicitly relativiezed bi-conditional above. And Bob should not think that Anne should accept an absolute falsity.

    I suppose that the point at which we most disagree is the first two lines of your last paragraph. First, sometimes it is rational to accept falsehoods. If the experts tell you Q and you have no reason to doubt Q, then it is rational to accept Q even if ~Q. Second, barring these sorts of cases, I agree that it is not rational to accept ABSOLUTE falsehoods. Relative matters are trickier, though. I submit that you should not accept something which is a relative matter if the only way for you to rationally accept that something is by rejecting an absolute falsity. Moreover, I think that even if you accept something which is a relative matter, as Bob does, you should recognize that it is generally irrational to accept something which is a relative matter if the only rational way for you to do this is by rejecting an absolute falsehood.

    I now think that this normative export is one of the nubs of genuine disagreement.

    Of course, Bob can want Anne to change her context of assessment. In that sense they disagree. But this sense of disagreement is not distinctively TRUTH-relative, even meaning-relativity or emotivism can get you that sense of disagreement.

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  5. Ben - "I'm not sure that the assumption that the beliefs of ones idealized self cannot be changed through argument is a good one."

    My thought is that one's idealized self is in the position such that they have already assessed every relevant argument, and made all the appropriate changes in their beliefs.

    Jack - "Genuine disagreement is only possible if at least one of the agents thinks that the other can improve the other's epistemic/rational situation."

    That needn't hold of practical disagreements, at least. (Think of two egoists fighting over who is to get the last slice of cake. Their disagreement is genuine enough, but they don't think it is rationally resolvable. It's a genuine conflict of interests.)

    Even for theoretical matters it seems there might be genuine disagreement without rational aspirations (religious faith? though perhaps religious experience and revelation are taken as 'evidence' here).

    (I think I agree with everything in your latest comment, though.)

    Nick - "if she was correct in her original assessment of P, wouldn't her subsequent reversal be incorrect, perhaps by being rash or irrational?"

    Right. So wouldn't it be strange for others to try to get her to do such a thing? (At least from the perspective of inquiry. They might have non-cognitive motivations, but that's a separate issue.)

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