Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Relativism and Genuine Disagreement

Sometimes people think they disagree when really they are making perfectly compatible claims. What criteria determine whether an apparent disagreement is genuine? In particular, might we genuinely disagree over a matter of 'relative' truth (such that we're "both right")?

Here's a natural picture which suggests not: genuine disagreement requires a dispute over the (objective, "God's eye view") state of the world. This explains why, if tomorrow I say "It's raining", I don't really disagree with your present claim that it isn't raining. Both can be right, because there's no objective matter of fact about which we disagree. (We can both agree that it rains on March 19, 2009, but not March 18.) The situation is similar, we may think, for the cultural relativists who disagree about whether abortion is wrong. Both may agree that it is condoned by Sally's moral standards but not by Anne's, and at that point it is difficult to see what is left for them to disagree about. (They might fight, or have conflicting desires, but that is not the same thing as disagreeing in their propositional beliefs. It's more like the dinnertime 'disagreement' between a predator and its prey.)

The relativist might insist that they can still disagree over the relativistic proposition whether abortion is wrong. But sophisticated interlocutors will recognize that this effectively amounts to disagreement over whether abortion is wrong relative to the assessor's moral standards, which again seems to reduce to a non-cognitive conflict between the two moral standards. (It's not as though either party is making any kind of rational/epistemic error -- a fact, incidentally, that should give the moralist pause.)

So it's unsatisfying for the relativist to just appeal to formalities, e.g. "we disagree over the truth of this proposition!" That seems too cheap. But perhaps they can say more. On p.19 of 'Relativism and Disagreement' [pdf], MacFarlane suggests:
Accuracy [i.e. truth at the relevant context of assessment] is the property we must show assertions to have in order to vindicate them in the face of challenges, and it is the property we must show others’ assertions not to have if our challenges are to be justified.

This suggests the following account of genuine disagreement: two people genuinely disagree if they can appropriately challenge each other's assertions.

Sometimes people challenge assertions inappropriately. For example, if tomorrow I were to look back and say, "You said it wasn't raining, but now look: it clearly is!" my challenge would be inappropriate. Even given my beliefs, your past assertion was perfectly accurate, since the relevant context of assessment, in this case, is the context of utterance -- a time at which (I know) the statement was indeed true. So this account suffices to explain standard cases of merely apparent disagreement. But it does so in a way which is (at least potentially) compatible with maintaining genuine disagreement in case of relative truths.

The big question, now, concerns what is the "relevant" context of assessment when evaluating assertions about a relativistic domain. Again, suppose moral relativism is true. When we assess Anne's claim that abortion is wrong, is it Anne's moral standards or our (the assessor's) own that are relevant? To preserve moral disagreement, the relativist will want to insist on the latter. I argue elsewhere that this is a mistake: the relevant context for moral assessment is always the actor's. But, in any case, this is the crux of the dispute, and I'm more sympathetic to MacFarlane's line in other domains, e.g. matters of taste, humour, etc.

P.S. It seems to me that there's something to be said for both criteria of genuine disagreement discussed above. I think MacFarlane's is plausibly the primary notion: philosophical inquiry into disagreement is initially motivated by concern about our assertoric practices, which is what he focuses on. Yet there seems an important sense in which (from a philosopher's rationalistic perspective) relativistic disagreement is defective. So even if we grant that MacFarlane has correctly diagnosed what constitutes "genuine disagreement", we might still want to reserve a related term -- "objective" or "substantive disagreement", say -- for disagreements that meet the first criterion, of disputing how things are objectively.


  1. My concern is that giving an account of when challenges are appropriate is going to be difficult, and may just end up routing us back through whatever stuff we were doing when we gave accounts of why a relativist semantics doesn't allow cultures to disagree.

  2. I do not see that moral disagreement is somehow not genuine. The fact that different people have different views but the facts which those views relate to are not different is not grounds for dismissing the difference as not "genuine". I think a case could be made that you have it backwards, that moral disputes are genuine and academic ones are not. For instance, if I have understood you correctly, someone who thinks the sun moves around the earth would have what you count as a genuine disagreement with someone who holds that the earth moves about the sun. Surely at least one of them is wrong and it is not merely different views.

  3. [Huh, it looks like the blog highlights the comments of anyone who shares my display name -- how confusing!]

    Other Richard - I think you're missing the point. I'm not a moral relativist. The question is as follows: supposing (contrary to fact) that moral relativism is true, would genuine disagreement still be possible (i.e. between two people each of whom were "correct" relative to their own moral standards)?

    I suggested that although there's a natural line of thought which suggests that the answer is 'no', this isn't necessarily right. A better line of thought suggests that genuine disagreement may still be possible even if relativism is true. This would be so if it is "appropriate", according to the rules of the language game, to challenge another's moral assertions whenever they are false relative to us (even if true relative to the speaker).

    But that's a big "if" (as Neil notes).

  4. I think this sort of argument can be too blunt an instrument when it comes to real-world moral disagreements.

    First, when you define "genuine" disagreement as requiring "a dispute over the (objective, 'God's eye view') state of the world", you automatically beg the question to rule out any "genuine" difference of opinion between two well-informed persons in a relativistic world.

    I'm a bit sensitive to this because I've often seen this "genuine disagreement" question-begging used by realists when they try to argue that morality and moral argument is an empty pursuit if morality isn't real. You're not doing that here, but even the whiff of that approach drives me bananas. (What is another name for "non-genuine"? "Cognitive?")

    Most moral disagreements are about moral policies, not moral foundations. Abortion is a moral policy, and people (theoretically) are pro or con based on some deeper and more vague principle, like fairness or authority or harm. In theory, people would reason from deeper principles, and reach some conclusion about the policy. Under moral realism, the deepest moral foundations might be some self-evident truth or revealed fact. Under moral relativism, the foundations would be cultural, genetic, etc.

    So much for theory. In practice, humans don't reason to beliefs like ideally rational machines using deduction and induction from experience. They get beliefs intuitively and automatically, and then they try to find a plausible rationale for the belief. For example, typically, a person who is against gay marriage believes that the policy is wrong FIRST, then searches for reasons why their intuition is correct. That's why we see so many horribly inane "arguments" against Prop 8. I guess you might say most moral views are non-cognitive before they are cognitive.

    Because we're not ideally rational machines, rationality for humans involves critical thinking - questioning the intuition and thoroughly searching for illicit rationalization. This opens the door for rational and critical argumentation about a moral policy in a relativistic world.

    So, suppose moral relativism is true, and you and I disagree on some moral policy (e.g., abortion). If you have thought more critically than me about the subject, then you may be able to identify errors in my thinking about the issue. You may be able to show that my supposed arguments for my position are invalid or not consistent with my deeper moral principles, and that my "reasons" for my belief are mere rationalizations. And that should tell me that my intuition about the policy is deeply suspect.

    This sort of moral argumentation seems to me to be meaningful, useful, and productive pursuit in a relativistic world, and hardly "non-genuine".

    There may be irreconcilable differences when our deep moral foundations disagree, but that doesn't mean there aren't genuine disagreements that can be resolved through moral argumentation.

    Now, you might argue that the aforementioned errors in thinking (i.e., the rationalizations) don't constitute "genuine" moral disagreements because, in a God's eye view, we don't make errors in thinking. However, if this attack on the authenticity of reasoning in a relativistic world is valid, it ought to be equally valid in a realistic world. And that means that real-world moral debate would be just as inauthentic under a moral realistic picture as it is under a moral relativistic picture.

    Sorry for the rambling.

  5. Right, it's uncontroversial that, say, Sally and Anne might still disagree about the (n.b. objective) fact whether opposition to abortion is really consistent with Anne's deepest moral commitments, or whether she's making some internal logical error, etc.

    I meant to address the more philosophically interesting question whether fundamental disagreement (i.e. between fully informed agents) is still 'genuine' in case of relativism. So it was meant to be tacitly understood that neither Sally nor Anne is making any 'internal' error, according to their own standards. Can they still disagree on moral matters, or do their different standards entail that they are talking past each other -- as if one were to say "Bob is tall (compared to most folk)" and the other were to say, "No, Bob isn't tall (for a basketball player)."?


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