Written by David Aldridge
Oxford Brookes University
Recently a colleague offered in conversation that we should agree to disagree. This led me to some observations about the role of agreement and disagreement in dialogue. Some conversations involve a sort of perpetual agreement or mutual affirmation. These are instances where we’re really just ‘shooting the breeze’, and there’s nothing much at issue between us. We exchange the gnomes of accepted wisdom and nod. Other exchanges are characterised pretty much by disagreement. These are the situations where we talk at cross purposes, or talk past each other – we can’t even seem to get started on the way in which the matter at hand needs to be interrogated.
In other dialogues there is more of an interplay of agreement and disagreement. There is a sense in which we must agree to disagree – that is, we must agree in order to disagree. We need to converge sufficiently in our understanding of some matter of importance for an interesting sort of disagreement to emerge, and we each need to have some interest or motivation to get to the truth of things. On the other hand, we each need to disagree in order for the dialogue to continue. If we no longer have an interestingly different perspective on the matter, the dialogue has run its course. It might come to a satisfying conclusion, or we might drift on to other matters.
These kinds of dialogues are characterised by an openness of each interlocutor to the claims of the other. Each risks being transformed by the other’s perspective on the truth of the matter. In other words, each entertains the possibility of learning something from the other. In these kinds of conversations, what would it mean to agree to disagree? It is possible that we each might have exhausted our justifications for our differing perspectives.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.