dissensus seeks to understand and Improve disagreement

“Find Common Ground,” a Seductive, but Ineffective Strategy

When disagreements are going nowhere,we might try to search for common ground. Doing so is a natural response to deep disagreements. Unfortunately, finding common ground will not always (or even usually) work, and it will not help us resolve deep disagreements, though it may give the illusion of doing so.

How does finding common ground work? An illustration will serve us well here. Rakim thinks that euthanasia should remain illegal, because life is a gift that we should cherish — even though we might think that our future holds only pain, we may find unexpected, deeply meaningful experiences still lie ahead of us. Eric disagrees, he thinks that euthanasia should be legal, because it gives people an opportunity to conclude the story of their lives in way that fits the lives they have lived. They give more reasons and refine their arguments, but they get no closer to resolution. They even find that they basically agree about the facts: Eric acknowledges that one can still have valuable experiences in spite of pain, and Rakim agrees that some endings to a life story are more satisfying than others. So, they suspect that their disagreement stems from differences in the network of background beliefs that they use to interpret the facts and connect them up to conclusions.

If they disagree because they don’t share frameworks for evaluating the arguments, then it only makes sense to search for some common point of view from which to evaluate the arguments, i.e. common ground. As they reflect on the various background commitments that led to their evaluation of each argument, they find one in common: both agree that life is sacred. So, they take their differences off the table, they discuss what they mean when they say “life is sacred,” and they discuss how that general idea should apply to the case of euthanasia. They don’t resolve their disagreement about euthanasia yet, but they take comfort in having something in common to fall back on when disagreement gets ugly.

Rakim and Eric went through the following steps to find common ground:

Recognize that disagreement comes from divergent background commitments.

Shift focus away from the specific arguments each side gives.

Reflect on the background commitments that each uses to interpret the arguments.

Find shared background commitments, and table divergent commitments.

Discuss how the shared background commitment must be applied to the case at hand (in this case, euthanasia)

In practice, step 5 often involves “unpacking” what one is committed to if they truly believe in some background idea. For example, Rakim might note that if one really believes that all life is sacred, then one can’t make exceptions for life that becomes undesirable. Eric, might note that life being sacred entails that we afford it a dignity proper to the kind of thing that it is. Thus, the disagreement shifts to a discussion of what really follows from the shared background commitment.

On its face, searching for common ground seems like a great way to put aside an unproductive way of disagreeing, and to make some progress by doing something different: working to share an evaluative perspective instead of fruitlessly arguing from divergent evaluative perspectives.

Unfortunately, while finding common ground may make people feel closer to one another, that feeling masks continued deep disagreement. Why doesn’t finding common ground help resolve deep disagreements like Eric and Rakim’s?

Before we get to the crux of the problem, I should note that we should be suspicious that we can accurately identify the moral commitments that inform our interpretation of specific arguments (step 3 above). Ample evidence shows that introspection distorts what is actually going on in our minds prior to introspecting (See Schwitzgebel, Perplexities of Consciousness). Moreover, we are particularly unreliable when it comes to reporting our moral qualities (See Vazire’s studies of self-knowledge of personality). If denying that we think life is sacred might expose us as callous, machiavellian or evil, then we are disposed to overlook such judgments when we reflect. More practically speaking, imagine the consequences that Eric would meet if he told Rakim that life was not sacred. However, I want to focus on a different problem.

Finding common ground will not help us solve deep disagreements, because ideas that we share in common can play different roles within the overall frameworks that individuals use to give and assess reasons. Thus, finding common ground, according to the procedure enumerated above, leaves divergent frameworks in tact; it finds a common element, but that doesn’t alter the frameworks themselves. Thus, finding common ground doesn’t help us create a shared framework for evaluating reasoning. And, since deep disagreement derive from not sharing enough framework, finding common ground only gives the appearance of progress.

“Framework beliefs” “forms of life” and “background beliefs” are all gestures, so lets illustrate the point by returning to our example. Rakim and Eric agree to the abstract principle that all life is sacred, but notice that their efforts to use this consensus leads nowhere. Rakim would insist that all life is sacred just means that every living thing and every moment of life should not be defiled: we have to maintain the purity of life by not negatively interfering with it. However, Eric thinks that the sanctity of life underscores his position too: life being sacred means that the kind of dignity specific to life ought to be upheld. Allowing a person to deteriorate until they are no longer themselves degrades life’s dignity. So, ending a life at the right time is actually the way to uphold life’s purity and thereby respect its sanctity.

It’s tempting to say that one of the two is just confused about how to analyze “sanctity of life,” and once we find the correct analysis one can correct the other. However, this reaction misses the point. Their disagreement comes not from an analysis of the general concept “sanctity of life,” but rather the way in which that shared abstract concept applies. Applying concepts is exactly where framework beliefs come in. In order to apply concepts like sanctity we have to share a great deal: a sense of what is similar to what, a sense of direction and what counts as fulfillment, an understanding of what is within out power and what beyond, a sense of what’s relevant in the case, etc. None of this can readily be packaged in a few sentences that we an easily convey to another person.

For our purposes, it might be better to say that what each means by “sanctity of life” is revealed by how they used the concept to make sense of the world. Rakim uses the concept to underscore the value of actions that let life be. Eric uses it to acknowledge that life grows and decays, and that we devalue it by facilitating its decay. The meanings in use differ significantly.

The pitfall of searching for common ground, then, is that when we ascend to the level of abstract principles we may find a good deal of agreement. Indeed, we may even analyze the concepts in the same way. However, using those concepts is a different matter, and how the concepts ought to apply is precisely what we disagree about in deep disagreements. In short, ascending to the abstract level, will not help us when we try to return to the concrete.

Do not dismay! What the preceding shows is that finding common ground will not enable us to use argument to resolve deep disagreements. Moreover, finding common ground will not help us bridge divergent evaluative perspectives. That does not mean that finding common ground is useless or that deep disagreement is hopeless; it just means we need a different strategy. Discovering those strategies is the purpose of the Dissensus Project.

When will searching for common ground help resolve a disagreement? The short answer is: when shared framework beliefs and uncontested competence are the common ground. To illustrate, imagine that Antwan and Andre disagree about euthanasia. Antwan, a committed libertarian, argues that euthanasia should not become a medical practice, because hospital staff should not be required to be complicit in causing a person’s death. Andre disagrees, because he thinks that people have an obligation to help alleviate others’ pain.

Antwan and Andre know each other well, and they know that a discussion that turns on ideas about individual rights will be a non-starter; they have fundamentally different pictures of how human rights work. However, Antwan and Andre are also deeply religious, and their moral sensibilities developed while attending religious services together. So, their shared religious convictions and religious teachings on euthanasia would be precisely the type of common ground that could help them advance their disagreement (I will not try to sketch the course that discussion might take, since I lack the competence that I have afforded Andre and Antwan).

Here’s the practical takeaway: finding common ground can help resolve a disagreement, only if the common ground that you appeal to is shared background understanding and uncontested competence. Finding individual ideas that you share is not enough. Finding common ground also requires that we be mindful of what background we share and what we do not, so it probably works best when we know someone well, or when the issue is one about which everyone shares competence. Finding common ground will not work when the disagreement stems from divergent background beliefs, as the Eric and Rakim’s exmple shows us.

If finding common ground works in some cases, then what’s the harm in trying whenever we disagree? Christian Campolo identifies the danger in “Treacherous Ascents: On Seeking Common Ground for Conflict Resolution.” If Rakim and Eric were to try to appeal to their shared belief in the thought that “all life is sacred” to resolve their disagreement, then one of two things would happen. Either they would fail to reach consensus or they would succeed. If they fail, then they have expended time and energy employing an ineffective strategy when they could have tried something more promising. If they succeed, the situation is worse: they will believe that rational argument led to the resolution, when this is in fact impossible (because the disagreement was deep so the conditions for giving reasons were not in place). Campolo notes that this causes us to overestimate our competence as reasoners. Overestimating our competence can have dire consequences, as anyone who has tried to fix their own car out of an inflated sense of their competence as a mechanic will tell you.

When it comes finding common ground to resolve disagreement, I have been urging the need to critical, by which I mean the need to limit the use of disagreement strategies to the contexts in which they are designed to work. Overestimating our competence as reasoners leads us to try to use argument as a tool when it cannot work. That will only perpetuate the appearance that there is nothing to be done about some disagreements. Let’s be more judicious in choosing disagreement strategies.

Finding common ground can work in another way. When you recognize that some disagreements are deep, you should just set them aside and find an issue that you can work on. While Rakim and Eric may not be able to reach consensus about euthanasia, they could try addressing a different question, like, “what ways (excluding euthanasia) could improve quality of life as it comes to an end? Sometimes engaging in good disagreements means knowing when to refrain from engaging in disagreement.

But what about deep disagreements? If finding common ground won’t work then what should we do? We need new disagreement strategies, which we will discuss elsewhere. But let me close with a few gestures.

First, Rakim and Eric sought consensus; they wanted to agree about euthanasia. I suspect that what we need to do in cases of deep disagreement is sustain differences in perspective in a way that achieves a valuable goal other than agreement. Perhaps Eric and Rakim will discover the limits of their convictions, or will clarify their particular conceptions of sanctity; perhaps their differing view will lead them to a third compromise option. In short, I think these cases prompt us to start thinking about what disagreements are for. Maybe we disagree not only in order to win someone to our side, but in order to achieve other goods.

Second, if we require or insist upon consensus when disagreements are deep, we may need to embrace procedures other than paradigmatic rational arguments. As Wright and Turner observe, we often resort to a dialectical free for all when we have to work out our differences:

“As anyone who’s served on an unruly jury will attest, what’s effective in such forums will usually embroil the above sort of ‘rational’ activity in a complicated mix of friendly cajoling, facile eloquence, strategic positioning, social pressure, veiled threats, and pure negotiation: activities that are distinctly not standard ways of accumulating understanding about the truth of a proposition” (Turner and Wright, “Revisiting Deep Disagreement, 33).

When we ask why we disagree, we are inclined to focus on the truth of the claim that we are arguing about. However, to disagree more productively, we will have to see that disagreements are not only tools to find the truth, but perhaps more importantly can be tools to unify divergent points of view without insisting on consensus. We only need to find ways to enable disagreement to bring forth this possibility.

Deep Disagreement