How to Understand “Reasonable Disagreement”

Ever have a political discussion with a friend and have it degenerate into incompatible positions that cause tension, anger, and exasperation? You have to learn how to appreciate “reasonable disagreement.” This is not a contradiction in terms; you can disagree and be both reasonable about it.

In the culture-laden and pragmatic world of communication disagreement is the norm, so we have to deal with it. Some people are taught that specific sources of information are the true guides to knowledge. Scripture and religious communities which include all sorts of information about the earth and animal species can be cited as a supreme source of knowledge. If people take no critical stance toward these issues and accept them thoroughly then they are justified in their beliefs. There can be a debate about what is true and what is not but this does not change the normative system. The beliefs of the religious person are justified; they are part of a system of relationships their empirical content notwithstanding. A “creationist” and “evolutionist” produce disagreement because they live in different knowledge worlds. They may be polarized and the position of the other may be unimaginable but this is the “stuff” of disagreement and must be managed.

Relationships that are “fiercely entangled”, such as between ethnopolitical groups in conflict, are characterized by the incommensurability that accompanies situations where the parties in conflict are divergent. Conflicting groups must be able to experience disagreement; they must, as Benhabib describes, treat the other as an “adversary” and not an “enemy.” The ability to tolerate disagreement as well as work with it is central to the communicative and resolution process.

There is more to reasonable disagreement than a gentleman’s agreement to respect differences. Clearly, communities, cultures, social networks, and groups establish different sets of standards and principles regarding beliefs and drawing conclusions. And while there are overlaps between groups in terms of standards of knowing (e.g. science) there are also sharp differences between them. For this reason, reasonable disagreement is a defensible philosophical position and a communicative state that usually cannot be avoided.

Some theorists are relativists in that they do not believe there is any overarching cultural norm of rationality. Others want to argue for more objective standards. One problem is that for one side of a cultural disagreement to be “correct” there must be a standard that determines such correctness. Such standards are difficult to establish. Still, rampant relativism is equally as indefensible and it is possible for certain positions to be more justified than others. The central question is posed as the following: is it possible for two cultures or conflicting groups, both of which have epistemic standards, to both share evidence and have reasonable disagreement. In other words, one group believes a proposition and the other group does not. An explication of the clash of narratives between Israelis and Palestinians present a good example. Zionism, for example, as stated in historical documents and instances can be interpreted as a noble effort to return a historically oppressed people to their homeland, or as a European colonialist enterprise with an expansionist ideology. The two groups (Israelis and Palestinians) are in disagreement such that one believes a proposition to be true and the other disbelieves it.

The disagreement is “reasonable” to the extent that each side is justified in holding the belief or disbelief. Ideally anyway, members of both groups should have equal access to evidence and documentation including the benefit of full discussion. In many cases this condition is not met. Differences in education and availability of information will also account for disagreements. To make matters even more complex, we must include the fact that people have graded beliefs based on subjective probabilities.

Participants in groups who disagree are working on the basis of a proposition that states that their own system of information justifies their beliefs. The simple act of observing Jews migrate to Israel justifies both the belief in “noble return” as well as “colonialism.” And from a communicative and discursive standpoint there is nothing malevolent about these differences. Both beliefs are justified and linked to some system of information. One side of the argument is not more correct than the other.

One solution to the condition of reasonable disagreement is for the two parties to converge on what counts as evidence. Some progress here is possible but slow and difficult. Then again, we always note that the process of communication and decision-making is slow and difficult.


Posted on November 11, 2013, in Communication and Conflict Resolution and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Reasonable disagreement is a good idea, consistent with a dialogic openness to other views. But what happens if a difference of belief entails incompatible material consequences? For example, should West Bank Jewish settlements be expanded, or not? Regardless of the answer, they are in fact being expanded. In this situation, what is “reasonable disagreement” other than acceptance of defeat by the Palestinian side?

  2. Fair point and there will always be disagreements that are certainly not reasonable. Part of me thinks that there is rarely truly reasonable disagreement because the evidence, if considered properly, will always be stronger in support of one side over the other. When comparing a theist to an atheist really only one side is “rational.” And the evidence can only support one side or the other. So maybe there is no actual “reasonable disagreement.” But if we include belief into the evidence, which is more realistic and pragmatically based, then we have a closer approximation of the real world of communication and argument. So the settler example you cite would not be reasonable disagreement.

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