Can Reasonable People Disagree?

It used to be a common phrase, but it seems to be falling into disuse.  One can only wonder if it is still true that, “reasonable people can disagree.”  University of Massachusetts professor Fred Feldman argues that reasonable people can not disagree.  Feldman thinks that if you really believe in your position you can not accept an opposing view to be reasonable.

Feldman is playing a semantic game here, but many people seem to conform to his point.  The pervasive sense that civil discourse is sorely lacking civility is everywhere.  How did we get to this point?

William Clinton was the most divisive, polarizing President in American history.  The man won two terms without ever getting 50 percent of votes cast.  Then, along came George W. Bush to claim the mantle of most divisive President.  His record stood until the election of Barack Obama.  It would seem that reasonable people were becoming more entrenched in their disagreements with little space for common ground.

There are reasons.  Congressional districts, driven first by the Voting Rights Act, have become increasingly partisan.  A massive number of districts are gerrymandered to the point of making them single-party districts.  Once that happens general elections become secondary to primary elections which attract only the most partisan (i.e. extreme) voters, pushing the candidates to embrace policies further from the mean.  Over the past ten years, ten states have had zero districts change party hands.  Since 2002 only one of California’s 53 districts has changed party representation.  In New Jersey, only one of their 13 has changed, in Missouri only one of their nine has changed, and so on.  You get the picture.

In Coming Apart Charles Murray describes the increasing segregation of our communities, making them more internally homogeneous, and leading to greater cultural disparity between regions, and their inhabitants.

Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone presented shocking evidence demonstrating that Americans intermingle less than ever before.  Fewer and fewer people attend religious services, join community organizations, and participate in the institutions of civil society.  As we interact with only like minded people, and visit news sources and internet sites that merely echo our  pre-existing biases, we withdraw from dissention and harden our opinions.

For twenty years, under Republicans and Democrats, the federal government has grown larger.  This is important because larger government installs more programs and regulations that purport to have answers to socially vexing problems.  A big government attempts to solve problems, order society and mold behavior.  To disagree with these “reasonable” efforts is to risk being castigated as heartless, or worse.  Those who argued in favor of welfare reform were called racists, those who question the role of man in climate change are likened to holocaust deniers.

It seems reasonable people can not disagree.  This is not only absurd but dangerous.   Because there is so much we do not know, and so much that we think we know that may be proven wrong.

When my father went to school teachers taught that Saturn had ten moons.  When I was in school scientists believed it had 17 moons.  Today Saturn is orbited by 62 moons.   We used to think Pluto was a planet.  Until very recently, everyone knew that nothing could travel faster than light.  Then they fired up the Hadron Collider.  Now all the laws of physics may need to be rewritten.  Once, everyone knew the Sun revolved around the Earth, until they didn’t.

Smart people – experts – are wrong all the time.  “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction,” wrote the Journal of Physiology in 1872.   “Everything that can be invented, has been invented,” said the US Commissioner of Patents in 1899.  In 1977, the CEO of a computer manufacturer said, “there is no reason anyone would ever want a computer in his home.”  “Bear Stearns is fine,” said Jim Cramer in 2008.

Ralph Waldo Emerson cautioned that “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and he is correct.  But as we ever more shutter ourselves away from the possibility of being wrong, we embrace political structures that reward not deliberation but discipline.  As a result we risk much.

There is an apocryphal story of John Maynard Keynes being loudly criticized for changing his mind on important theories.  Calmly, Keynes replied “when my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”  Indeed.


4 thoughts on “Can Reasonable People Disagree?

  1. I wonder if this level of divisiveness is unique to the large and culturally diverse population (with speech permissiveness) that marks the US. The idea that we are more divided now than ever is curious in light of our society also being more inclusive than ever (for women, nonwhites, homosexuals, different religions, etc.).

    I like to consider myself an at least somewhat reasonable person and it seems Feldman may be confusing being reasonable with seeing an opposing view as reasonable. Are these the same thing? I certainly hold views for which I can see (fairly, I think – at least I try) the opposing view’s point and chain of reasoning, but I still disagree – often with the premises upon which the opposing view rests. If I can do this and be civil, am I still expressing reasonable disagreement? Interesting.

    When world views differ considerably, often emotion slips in. So it does when there seems to be a lot to lose/gain. This is why most people were only mildly engaged when Pluto got “demoted,” but a discussion about social welfare gets all heated.

    I do agree (a third point of agreement between us? Ha.) that the public discourse on many topics is far too either/or and all-or-nothing. This is a problem on both sides of the partisan divide. What do we blame? Politicians? The media? Human nature? It seems that a lot of people have a very low ambiguity tolerance, lower than looking at the nuances requires. (I notice this A LOT in my (college) students – wanting to reduce things to pro vs. con and needing to either see one side as “right” or throw their hands up and disengage entirely with the debate as simply a matter of “it’s relative.”)

  2. According to Murray and Putnam, and historic sources like De Tocqueville and Crevecouer, a level of divisiveness is that natural state of large populations. However, America was the exception. It is not that America did not have different economic and political classes, but that all had a shared culture – a “civic religion.” That has diminished. Now instead of a common belief that America is the best country on Earth, we uphold the values of multi-culturalism with its suggestion that all cultures are equal, just different.

    Lacking a civic religion we moved from a melting pot to the “tossed salad” metaphor for our communities. This whole unified civic religion thing is a little foggily nostalgic, because America was always a contentious, competitive place (Civil War anyone?), but I think we all sense, that things have changed.

    I think your point about emotions slipping in is spot on. But I would argue that we have more opportunity for our emotions to come into play because the stakes are so high and the decisions are so distantly made. As a conservative and a federalist, I think big government is at fault for this portion. So much is decided by government, that politics is more emotional than ever (just ask me how many things I have been called in my career). The frustration of lacking influence because of a distant and inaccessible government compounds the problem.

    But all of this is a small part of the problem in my view.

    Since the Victorian era, with the advent of science and industry, we have increasingly come to understand that problems can be fixed, that solutions are discoverable. It is only after the industrial revolution do we get lots of social utopian movements, womens suffrage, abolition, prison reform, and so on. All these things are good of course, but I think our amazing civilizational abilities have given us too much confidence to solve every problem. We are fallible creatures.

    I also suspect that the deluge of and speed of information play a role. Things are quick and relentless, who has time to ponder?

    Anyway, it is all rather interesting. And highly debatable.

    1. “I also suspect that the deluge of and speed of information play a role. Things are quick and relentless, who has time to ponder?”

      This I think will have far reaching implications – technology certainly isn’t improving information overload, nor does it encourage people to seek out divergent views- despite the hopes that the internet would be a boon for democracy.

      So as a federalist, you only against big federal government, right? But for letting states decide how big or small they want their governments to be? I wonder if even at a state level even the decisions made by initiative/referendum don’t involve a whole lot of frustration. For example, here in California, the whole proposition 8/gay marriage debacle was put to ballot – but by no means does that seem to make people – or their rhetoric – on either side less frustrated. (I suspect that other states who have voted on gay marriage have a lot of disenfranchised feeling people, too.) But maybe that’s an extreme example?

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