A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Friday, 27 November 2015

On Disagreement

People disagree about politics all the time. Sometimes this is due to different beliefs about how the world works, sometimes it is due to different moral beliefs. Neither of these possibilities automatically implies that someone is doing wrong: there is usually room for legitimate disagreement on both counts.

Take the current debate about whether or not the UK should intervene in Syria. There are essentially two ways to make the case for intervention, presented here in a very rough form:

(A1) Intervening in Syria will make the UK safer.
(A2) If a policy makes the UK safer, it is justified.
(C) Intervention in Syria is justified.

(B1) Intervening in Syria will improve the lives of people in Syria.
(B2) If a policy improves the lives of people in Syria, it is justified.
(C) Intervention in Syria is justified.

One can plausibly reject any of these premises. One might believe that bombing ISIS makes terrorist attacks in the UK more likely, that the situation in the Middle East is unlikely to be improved by UK intervention, or that UK Foreign Policy should aim only at promoting the interests of the UK. The ideal of a deliberative democracy is that we establish where precisely we disagree, and debate the topic until we have general agreement. This is of course very fanciful, but so is most democratic theory.

All of this is to say that when we disagree with someone on a political issue, there are strong reasons not to automatically attack them. If you know precisely what the disagreement is, then you may well be in a position to declare your opponent wrong and/or evil - but this is not generally the case.

This is similar to, but not identical with, the Principle of Charity. I'm not advocating that opposition should always be presented in its most favourable (to you) light; rather, you should aim to understand your opponents' position as they themselves understand it. If, after you've done that, they still seem evil - then perhaps they are in fact evil.

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