Thursday, October 23, 2008

musing on "disagreement"

A brief musing about the concept of “disagreement”...

There is an obvious difference between the confidence we have (both psychologically and epistemically) when we assert that “2 and 2 makes 4” versus when we assert that “it is wrong to lie no matter what” (assuming we think it is).

It’s hard to disagree with the first assertion, but it’s not that hard to disagree with the second (personal note: I disagree with the second statement). In fact, one might make the stronger claim that the kinds of disagreements that attach to the latter kind of statement (and in fact to that very particular statement itself) are perennial.

I’ve seen this asymmetry in disagreement deployed to argue that the best explanation is that there is a fact of the matter about the first kinds of judgment (e.g., “2 and 2 makes 4”) but likely not one about the latter kinds of judgment (e.g., moral).

I have two queries...

First, it is interesting to note that the asymmetry is deployed against moral judgments. I wonder why this kind of asymmetry is not also deployed against other kinds of judgments that appear to elicit perennial disagreements. I have in mind the various theses that one finds in metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, political philosophy, history, cotemporary physics, psychology, etc. In short, nearly every domain of inquiry... Isn’t this just the specter of logical positivism making another appearance?

To be sure, I am aware of the various context-sensitivities that are part and parcel of moral judgment. I’m keenly open to forms of non-Absolutism (which should not be conflated with anti-objectivity). However, I’m curious as to why those who deploy the aforementioned asymmetry aim only or most prominently at moral judgment. Why not level the playing field en toto. At least the Pyrrhonian skeptics were consistent in their adoption of skepticism across the board with their disagreement criteria.

Second, as I look at some of the world-crushing events of only the past century, I think of World War II. I think that persons deeply involved in the Nazi and anti-Nazi war campaigns vigorously disagreed about the moral status of Jewish persons. I don’t think this stands as some kind of special evidence that there isn’t a fact of the matter about the moral value of Jewish persons.

Multiply instances of moral disagreement on the contemporary political and moral landscape, just in the United States, and I think we see a dazzling array of disagreement over all sorts of critical issues, none of which obviously can be said to be populated by participants who think the issues do not trade in cognitively contentful statements with truth value.

In fact, one might even say that the very existence of disagreement, more often than not, solidifies our belief that there are facts about which we disagree (where values are numbered among these facts that describe a situation). The old fact-value dichotomy that has been exploded numerous times over is still a kind of specter that just doesn’t get the hint that it’s been effectively exorcised in theory and definitely in practice!

So, I guess at the end of it all, I don’t get what’s supposed to be so significant about the phenomena of disagreement.

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