People disagree. Human beings often express conflicting views about a variety of different issues, from food and music to science and politics. With the development of advanced communication technologies, this fact has become more visible than ever. (Think of Twitter wars.) The extent and depth of our disagreements can lead many to despair of making progress through rational debate. Before resigning ourselves to pessimism, however, we should make sure that we understand the phenomenon. Philosophical reflection might help.
Consider the following discussion:
Aurora: Everyone has a moral obligation to do what they can against climate change, even when this means making choices that can negatively affect their family or their country. Making a large donation to a charity that protects rainforest might mean less money for your children’s education, and policies that reduce emissions might make the industrial sector of your country less competitive. I understand this is tough, but preventing climate change requires tough decisions.
Bianca: I agree that climate change is real and that adopting these measures would be necessary to stop it. But surely I have no moral obligation to do something that can negatively affect my family or my country.
Aurora and Bianca seem to disagree. They do not disagree on the reality of climate change or the effectiveness of the measures described by Aurora. But they do disagree on whether we have a moral obligation to take such measures.
Could Aurora and Bianca realistically aspire to resolve their disagreement, or should they simply agree to disagree? Before embracing the (appealing) second option, consider another case of disagreement.
Charles: Ed is really helpful and efficient. I enjoy working with him!
Danielle: Ed is not helpful and efficient at all – just wait a few days and you’ll see.
It looks like Charles and Danielle disagree about Ed. However, the conversation might continue as follows:
Charles: Are we talking about the same Ed here? I mean the new employee who has an office on my floor.
Danielle: Oh, I see! Yes, he is really helpful and efficient. Sorry, at first I thought you had a different Ed in mind.
By making sure that they are talking about the same person–by making sure that they mean the same thing with the name “Ed”–the disagreement is resolved. In fact, it turns out that there was no disagreement in the first place, for they fully agree about Ed’s qualities. The misunderstanding was easy to resolve, but the danger was real: If the misunderstanding persisted, Danielle’s words might lead Charles to change his mind about Ed and compromise their future relationship.
You might think that this example is irrelevant, having nothing in common with the previous exchange between Aurora and Bianca: “In the second case,” you might say, “Danielle misunderstood Charles. On the contrary, Bianca understands very well the meaning of Aurora’s claim about the ethical implications of climate change. Their disagreement is not based on some sort of misunderstanding; that is not what is going on there.”
This response seems natural, but the situation is more intricate. Aurora and Bianca’s respective claims both involve the phrase “moral obligation.” Do they mean the same thing with those words? Our disputes often involve terms whose meaning is difficult to clarify. Danielle thought she meant the same as Charles when using the name “Ed,” but in fact she had the wrong person in mind. How confident are you that you are not similarly confused in your own discussions?
Maybe this still seems unlikely. Isn’t this kind of confusion just a remote possibility? It is not. Aurora and Bianca’s discussion is imaginary but not at all atypical. Bianca thinks that the phrase “moral obligation” only applies when there is an appropriate connection (personal, legal, or cultural) between the relevant subjects. Therefore, one does have strong obligations towards her family or her country, while her obligations towards future generations living in other countries are weaker or even non-existent. Aurora, on the other hand, thinks that the phrase applies independently of the kind of relationship we have with others–hence her claim that sometimes the right thing to do is one that might negatively affect your family or country.
Sometimes people mean different things with the terms they use and this can generate dangerous misunderstandings. The claim is controversial. Over the last decades, several philosophers have claimed that understanding each other does not require meaning the same thing with our words. This, they say, would be too demanding–we should simply aim for similarity of meaning, since two people can never mean exactly the same thing when they communicate.
This debate matters. We should aim for fruitful disagreements, and that certainly involves understanding what the other part is saying. For instance, Charles and Danielle’s apparent disagreement is not fruitful, for it is based on a misunderstanding of Charles’ words. But what does it take to understand each other? What would it take for Aurora and Bianca to really understand each other’s ethical views? Does understanding require meaning the same when using expressions like “moral obligation”? Or is similarity of meaning enough?
In a world of pervasive disagreement, we should aim at answering these (admittedly difficult) questions. Until we have a better grasp of the conditions for mutual understanding, our disputes risk being unproductive. Perhaps our disagreements will persist, but perhaps they will prove superficial once we understand each other–after all, Charles and Danielle’s disagreement did prove superficial, for it vanished once the misunderstanding was resolved. The same might happen to other more stubborn disputes, if we make a serious effort to understand what the other person means.
If said in the right tone, “What are you talking about?” can be just the right thing to ask.
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