Most disagreements are dishonest. That's what I tentatively believed and what I started believing even more after being pointed toward the paper "Are Disagreements Honest?" from the megacool Tyler Cowen. The gist: yes. Yes they are. A taste:
Are typical human disagreements rational? Unfortunately, to answer this question we would have to settle this controversial question of which prior differences are rational. So in this paper, we consider an easier question: are typical human disagreements honest? To consider this question, we do not need to know what sorts of differing priors are actually rational, but only what sorts of differences people seem to think are rational. If people mostly disagree because they systematically violate the rationality standards that hey profess, and hold up for others, then we will say that their disagreements are dishonest.
After reviewing some stylized facts of disagreement, the basic theory of disagreement, how it has been generalized, and suggestions for the ways in which priors can rationally disagree, we will consider this key question of whether, in typically disagreements, people meet the standards of rationality that they seem to uphold. We will tentatively conclude that typical disagreements are best explained by postulating that people have self-favoring priors, even though they disapprove of such priors, and that self-deception usually prevents them from seeing this fact.
Years ago, I placed upon myself a tentative injunction against arguing over the internet — and that only after a particularly unproductive few days spent in one of those "rate my playlist" communities. I can't quite tell whether I've broken it. Since vowing to put no more precious sand from the hourglass down the bottomless well of e-debate, I've engaged in discussions that one might or might not call arguments. I've avoided name-calling, to be sure, and insult-flinging in all its forms, though I wasn't much for flamewars to begin with. My "arguments", such as they are, take a different route.
It now seems to me that, when both participants lay out their premises and define their terms as clearly as possible, the substance of the argument, already hazy, evaporates. Without quite knowing how I've gotten here, I've reached the conclusion — a correct one, I believe, or at least a less wrong one than I've ever held — that everyday arguments are mostly, to re-contextualize the wise words of Paul Graham, "artifacts induced by sampling at too low a resolution." Explain your positions in reasonably fine detail. Get clear on your word meanings. Break the issues, where possible, into sub-issues. Reveal subjective probabilities. Poof, it's over: either the arguers find that they actually do agree, or they conflict in some philosophical bedrock issue rendered inconsequential by its sheer broadness.
When I'm talking with a guy or gal and my Spidey-sense detects an oncoming internet argument — or, what the hell, even real life argument — I, apparently being both Spider Man and Robocop, shift to one prime directive: dig deeper and deeper until I discover the core of the conflict. Nine times out of ten, there's no (real) conflict, and I've saved us both hours of dicking around over some semantic mismatch. One time out of ten, the conflict is real-ish, but whatever issue it's about is sure to be a damn fascinating one, and if my initial position turns out to be in the wrong, it's a golden opportunity to correct it.
That said, there are four angles in arguments, or just plain ol' discussions, that I cannot abide. If my interlocutor takes them, I will begin frantically searching for the escape hatch. They are as follows:
- The hand of god. This is when one makes a normative argument about the actions of an omnipotent being. Sounds wild, but it happens all the time, and not just in religious contexts. When someone goes on about how if only "we" (or "they") just incentivized this, disincentivized that, punished this, rewarded that, built this here and built that there then our problems would be solved, they can only be making recommendations to the hand of god. Hard as this is to internalize, society is nobody's engineering project; it's not just that a given individual or group shouldn't, to use a phrase that refers to no conceivable action, "run the world", it's that nobody can. Absent awesome supernatural powers, it's impossible. If you find yourself hearing someone's grand plans to reform society, ask them if they're a god. ("Ray, when someone asks you if you're a god, you say yes!") If not, ask they're a close advisor to a god. If not, shut 'em down, because their argument is pointless. They might as well muse on how best to harvest the moon's green cheese.
People raise the hand of god all the time in political arguments. Oh, so you think everything would be just fine if the country switched to your tax program or your health care system, do you? Are you going to implement them yourself? Can't be done, I'm afraid. Are you going to run for public office and propose them? No? Well, are you at least going to suggest them to an elected official? No? Then shuduppa you mouth. I don't mean to give the impression that this is solely the domain of politics-watchers, either; just listen to a few presidential candidates' speeches. They just spout off tidal waves of B.S. about the supposed end results of the choices they would make if elected, as if they could control those. Sometimes I think I'd give up a limb if it meant hearing candidates, if only for one election, talk only about the actual actions a president can take.
- Appeal to imagination. My opponent believes that this country is A-OK as it is. Well, I'm here to tell you that while he's standing around asking "Why?", I'm asking "Why not?" Look around you; look at all the filth, the deaths, the poverty. ("Crime is everywhere, crime, crime!") I don't think that's A-OK at all. My friends, I envision a world where everything — the cars, the buildings, the animals — is made of candy. Chew on that when you're about to punch the ballot.
The Economist summed up this maneuver nicely in its profile of Naomi Klein, entitled "Why Naomi Klein Needs to Grow Up":
She gives capitalism no credit for the extraordinary progress seen in recent decades in reducing poverty and other measures of deprivation (notably child mortality) in the world's poor countries. She measures the growing-pains of capitalist development not against real-world alternatives but against a Disneyesque utopia in which no poor person ever loses his job or chooses to work in a multinational factory at low wages (by rich-world standards).
- Invocation of desert. I am pretty much done with desert as a concept. No argument involving desert has ever been satisfactorily resolved, because desert can't be objectively established. I could argue that I deserve a pie, but anyone else could immediately counter, with the very same degree of truth and validity, that, on the contrary, I don't deserve a pie. Because both sides boil down to "says me", the argument remains gridlocked until the heat death of the universe. That's a silly example, but it's exactly the same as when someone argues that, say, the poor deserve to have wealth redistributed to them. Now, I don't disagree with that, but it doesn't matter whether the poor deserve anything, because there's no way to intersubjectively establish that desert. In fact, it actively harms the cause of the poor to make a desert-based argument in their favor, because it uselessly eats up opportunity cost that could be employed concretely improving their lot in life. Alas, a simple morality play pulls hard.
- Identity. Just as I am not a fan of identity-based politics, I am not a fan of identity-based anything. Two particularly abused concepts might shed light on this: authenticity and soul. When a speaker makes claims about the "soul" of a piece of music, say, or the "authenticity" of a dish of food, they're not really — or even primarily — uttering a statement about an external thing. The speaker's making claims about himself, and bold ones at that. The sentences "This soup tastes authentic" or "This song has no soul" are more realistically phrased as "I have the special experience and/or ability required to identify which soups are possess an extremely vague but important quality, and I have identified this soup as having it" and "I have the special experience and/or ability required to identify an extremely vague but important quality in music, and I judge this song as lacking it". They pretend to be conveying one piece of information on their surfaces, but they're dishonestly meant to convey entirely different ones. The speaker refers to qualities of himself, rather than qualities of the thing in question. If he wanted to do something other than brag, he'd presumably focus on other qualities, ones that don't implicitly buff his own imagined qualifications: whether the soup, say, tastes good, or whether the song has a technically accomplished bass line. But that, unfortunately, wouldn't accomplish the goal of impressing you. Not that identity arguments pull it off either, though at least a non-identity argument probably won't make other people quite as embarrassed for you.