Bryan Caplan  

Tolstoy on Disagreement

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Sometimes I think I could spend the rest of my life reading War and Peace, then Anna Karenina, then starting over with War and Peace. Here's another thought-provoking passage from AK:

'What do they want to argue for? No one ever convinces anyone, you know.'

`Yes; that's true,' said Levin; `it generally happens that one argues warmly simply because one can't make out what one's opponent wants to prove.'

Levin had often noticed in discussions between the most intelligent people that after enormous efforts, and an enormous expenditure of logical subtleties and words, the disputants finally arrived at the realization that what they had so long been struggling to prove to one another had long ago, from the beginning of the argument, been known to both, but that they liked different things, and would not define what they liked for fear of its being attacked. He had often had the experience of suddenly grasping in a discussion what it was his opponent liked and at once liking it too, and immediately he found himself agreeing, and then all arguments fell away as useless. Sometimes, too, he had experienced the opposite, expressing at last what he liked himself, which he was devising arguments to defend, and, chancing to express it well and genuinely, he had found his opponent at once agreeing and ceasing to dispute his position.

Is this right? I agree that it would save a lot of time if people simply laid their cards on the table. I strive to do so... or at least that is my favorite excuse for my poor social skills.

Nevertheless, I doubt that greater openness about our underlying values (or "likes" as Tolstoy puts it) would lead to more agreeement. When Krugman opens up about his liberal conscience, for example, I hardly find myself "agreeing and ceasing to dispute his position." My reaction is more like "Give me a break."

What do you think? Would greater candor about values lead to greater agreeement? Or is Tolstoy's Levin barking up the wrong tree?


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Robin Hanson writes:

This explains a non-trivial fraction of disagreements, but hardly all of them.

Daniel Griffin writes:

It seems that at times two disputants will agree on 'likes' and so agreeing will more fervently seek to understand each other and agree on a conclusion.

More often than not, though, it does not seem as though people's purported 'likes' match up and so the discussion ends in mutual incredulity at the likes of the other. That is not to say at all that Tolstoy is wrong here. These different 'likes' seem to serve as the basis for their argument and so understanding the other's 'likes' would help one to understand the other. What is of course needed after laying our cards on the table is to seek to argue for our particular 'likes'. This will produce 'likes' that are foundational and unavoidable, and yet still in opposition, and yet also perhaps an agreement on various 'likes' that should be had or sought.

We could imagine many reasons for this disparity in 'likes': perhaps people do not present their true 'likes' or do not know their true 'likes' or perhaps, and especially today, people are brought up so differently that there 'likes' are genuinely very different. There is still some room, I believe, for genuine argument concerning such extremely subjective matter because it does seem as though certain likes may be far more foundational and arguments aimed towards internal consistency for the certain system of 'likes' had by each individual might produce some fruit.

The next step seems to engage Krugman concerning his liberal conscience. The failure of our tolerant society to actually engage individuals concerning the adequacy and logical foundation for their likes and dislikes only perpetuates this situation of such great disparity in values.

Also, we can imagine that in more cohesive cultures individuals are more likely to have the same likes and dislikes. Imagine if you grew up watching and reading the same things Krugman did and venerating the same people as your heroes. It is much more likely that you would agree on certain likes, though that doesn't mean you or he would then be 'right'. We could imagine that the Russia that Tolstoy is writing about provides a more united culture than that provided, anywhere, today. I think the differences in cultures is beautiful, but, I think that the failure for anyone today to talk about these foundational likes and dislikes and society's general fear of not being tolerant disallows us all from much value that might be had.

Alan Watson writes:

I see three main reasons why people hold their beliefs: rational-empirical modeling, self-interest, and social-status image.

We intellectuals, informed by Enlightenment values and impressed by the successes of science, tend to favor the first approach (or so we like to think). The convergence of people’s beliefs and interests, from barbers’ aesthetic appreciation of frequent haircuts to bureaucrats’ preference for government solutions, shows the ubiquity of the second approach.

But when it comes to politics, it is the third approach, I think, which best explains the incredible bull-headed stupidity of so many of the educated and otherwise intelligent people I know (and perhaps Krugman, whom I’ve never met). They seem to feel instinctively that adopting and holding a particular set of values will align them with the social identity they aspire to. Clearly natural selection has put a premium on demonstrating one’s commitment to the group and especially to one’s position within it. The symbolic value of conforming trumps accurate analysis, as long as the consequences of the resulting wrong analysis are not too immediate.

In most discussions of politics and economics the disputants usually try to use some combination of the first two approaches to convince their opponents, who are in fact firmly anchored by their subconscious commitment to the third approach. Thus the futility of so much of our political discourse. Without dealing with the sociology of belief, whether by laying it out on the table or by challenging it implicitly, we have little hope of convincing our opponents.

People who argue trust different things, different institutions. As a routinely-frustrated libertarian, I notice that my opposites seem to trust the democratic state as a way to solve life's problems. They demonstrate this trust by their eager entry into debate about public policy, with the assumption that public policy – implemented with the force of the state – is the way to proceed. But I trust voluntary market processes. I tend to see the state (whether democratic or not) as the cause of public problems.

So I advocate that we look for what people trust, not for what they like.

Troy Camplin writes:

Many of the arguments I have engaged in ended when we both came to an agreement regarding definitions. At other times, it has ended when the other party went, "Well, I just don't agree with that." This latter one usually comes after I have made some sort of factual statement that is inconvenient for what they believe.

Punditus Maximus writes:

It depends on the purpose of the argument -- some arguments are for the point of either resolving or illuminating disputes. Then, it's all about revealing priors and following chains of logic.

Most arguments are about justifying one's own actions. At that point, any manner of concealments, obfuscations, or rhetorical sleights of hand may take place, as people often don't know themselves why they do things.

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