Rationality and Conflict

(UPDATED 14/09/2011 – rephrasings and reorganising of material)

At the end of last Hilary term (March 2011), I was lucky enough to attend the National Union of Students Women’s Campaign Conference – three days of intense discussion, collaboration and learning about our common feminist goals. I think the most important thing I gained from the conference is that I got to know so many other student campaigners, and we built, in a very short time, a surprisingly constructive, supportive community. We asked many questions of each other. A very common question was on how to deal with conflict in the course of our political activities. I think this is a vital question to engage with for the members of any political campaign, and it’s one of the questions that captures the most emotional energy. So I’m writing this, partly for fellow politically-minded people, but also partly aimed at myself.

Conflict is important disagreement between people. It is not only endemic to campaigners, for whom a political strategy for social change is crucial. Conflict is also present in the life of anyone who disagrees with someone at some point over an emotive issue.

Yet the presence of conflict is often seen as a sign of failure. Many people I know, including myself, sometimes see the onset of an argument as a negative reflection of ourselves; a failing to pre-empt the argument by diffusing the point of disagreement. This self-blame is grounded on the presumption that being in superficial accord with those around you is the best state of things, and this presumption often comes with a feeling that you have done something wrong in provoking sincere, serious dispute with someone.

Maybe it’s about our upbringing. What isn’t? Maybe it’s about the gendering of our upbringing. What isn’t? (Okay, I’m being facetious.) But whatever it is, this instinct to please can be destructive of personal and social development.

You take a moral stance because you believe in it; and the stronger your belief, the more you stand your ground. By the very fact that you are setting out to change people’s minds, you will encounter countless people who don’t see things your way. If someone doesn’t see it like you, what does that say to your belief? It can’t be evidence of the wrongness of your belief, because the existence of those people is presumed by the political nature of your project. This is a truism, yet is unappreciated when we take disagreement itself to be a negative mark on us. Furthermore, it takes two people to disagree passionately; if you are engaged in disagreement with another person, and the disagreement is passionate, this is because they are standing their ground as well as you are standing yours. The issue is important to both of you; and it cannot be a negative mark on you that it is important for you.

This is of course not a recommendation, practical or sociable, that provoking disagreement in every situation is wise. For that you have your social judgment. I just want to reaffirm that the existence of disagreement in itself is not reason to think you have done wrong in the interaction.

You might think that this is such obvious advice that nobody could need it. But say you are discussing some political issue with a friend over dinner, or even a half-stranger in some kind of discussion forum. Over your wandering conversation, you hit upon disagreement about a fundamental issue. Say you’re a liberal egalitarian and she is a fervent let-the-market-eat-everything Nozickian libertarian, or sexist, or perhaps libertarian and sexist (mmm, unappealing). Say you decide to challenge her, and let’s assume it’s a sunny morning in your mind, and you are able to engage your shiniest argumentative powers. She retorts just as coherently, and you have a heated argument. At the end of it, she is still as fervent a Nozickian as before.

What has gone wrong? Why is there still disagreement? Why was there disagreement to begin with? Even worse, you reckoned it was a good day for you; if you can’t win the argument on your best form, when will you ever be able to win it? And now arises these self-directed, slightly self-blaming questions.  So let’s try to diagnose what’s gone on that causes these feelings and questions. I’m going to describe one part of this unease, which I shall call meta-ethical unease.

(Meta-ethical unease) There was conflict in the first place – that was bad enough. You don’t disrespect your friend; you reckon that if a belief is good enough for her, it could be good enough for you too; and so the fact that you disagree so much makes you feel uncomfortable in the first place. As Cohen puts it (elsewhere, differently) – the very thought that you could have had very, very different flags pinned to your moral mast, had you been born in different lands, makes you feel uncomfortable about hoisting yours so highly.

Then, not only was there conflict in the first place, but secondly, you were unable to resolve it – that’s the other half of the unease. You tried your best, and if you can’t communicate your ideas well, then who else can do it for you? Maybe you lost your cool, and resent yourself for not having argued in a more dispassionate and academic way. (Some of my friends reading this from outside the Land of Oz – Oxford – will find this kind of self-resentment completely laughable. It kinda is, and that tells us something too.)

The origin of this kind of meta-ethical unease with conflict is a mistaken faith in political rationalism. (Well – I’m sure one can feel this way without ever having read Rawls – but the philosophical basis for this unease is, I think, with rationalism.) Some forms of liberal universalism posit the existence of a standard, normal, or “right” method of value-acquisition by which everyone, or everyone regular, can converge on the same set of values. These are liberal universal values. This view of value-acquisition is analogous to strict methodological/epistemological views of belief-formation; if you check your deductions, check your evidence, and check your sources, you will converge on the true set of beliefs, like everyone else – as long as you’re doing it right. However, value-acquisition is very different, psychologically and methodologically, from belief-formation.


A schoolchild who has not done her sums properly might be blamed by her teacher for being too hasty. Whose rebuke, then, are we afraid of when we attempt to match our moral sums against others’, and find that our answers don’t match?

That’s just one question for the atheist moral realist or quasi-realist; what does it mean to get morality wrong, and why does it matter for ourselves?

I think the most fruitful direction to take that question in is this: we are afraid of our own rebuke; not being faithful to some component of ourselves.


The question that I started this essay off considering, however, is slightly different. If political rationalism leads one very quickly into a fear of conflict, what do other meta-ethical and meta-political positions tell us about conflict, and about our reactions to them? Which meta-ethical position sustains the most healthy attitude towards conflict? It seems that the more relativistic one’s meta-ethical position, or the less realist, the less soul-cringing one engages in upon discovering conflict. However, I don’t think relativistic meta-ethics is able to fully support first-order ethical views, so we should ask the slightly different question: Which meta-ethical position, that supports first-order ethical views, sustains the most healthy attitude towards conflict?

Returning to the cashing-out of the unease with conflict in the scenario I gave, here is a fuller way of contrasting meta-ethical unease with another form of unease:

(Meta-ethical unease) It is possible that there is someone else with a fundamentally different ethical position to yours. That is, there are processes of socialisation, or psychological processes, which you (believe you) haven’t experienced, but which someone else has, that has led them to different views.

(Pragmatic unease) There’s –at least- one agent in the world who seriously disagrees with you, and so they form a pragmatic block to your ability to enact your political goals.

Furthermore, you’re finding it difficult to change their mind. This adds to the

(Meta-ethical unease) – not only are there processes of socialisation or psychology that result in moral views completely different to yours, but the processes of socialisation you are used to (e.g. intellectual debate) are not robust enough to displace theirs. This could be seriously problematic if the process of socialisation you are using is a fundamental part of your meta-political or meta-ethical system. For example, the epic process of considered discussion is the postulated basis for how people approach consensus in a hypothetical Parliament that determines the values embedded in the political theory (Rawls).

(Pragmatic unease) – not only are there people who will block you, but it’s hard to stop them from blocking you by trying to change their mind. You will have to look to other means.

The meta-ethical unease we experience leads us to question how it is that people come to hold abhorrent views, or to lack compassion, or to be so morally different from you, when otherwise, you are similar in background and socialisation. The Kantian has some ways of looking at amoral people (people who lack morals, or lack what we recognise as morals, rather than people who do evil wilfully, who are immoral) – the Humean has others. Which is more humane? Are amoral people stupid, closed-minded, or dispassionate, non-empathetic, psychopathic?

(To be clear, I’m not yet concerned with moral behaviour, i.e. whether one follows the norms one professes to adopt, but with the acquisition of those norms – although the line between holding and acting on a value may be very hard to draw.)


I want to take this direction of inquiry further into a pragmatic understanding of the decisions we face in everyday life. Which meta-ethical diagnosis can lead us not to a binary on/off understanding of moral norm acquisition, but can lead us to understand how our own moral norms can be bent, lost, and questioned afresh?

We all belong to cultures in which abhorrent views about the value of humans and other living things have been held, or still are widely held – views about the value of certain races, genders, sexual proclivities. As whole cultures, as extended families with a shared heritage of socialisation, we are therefore not wholly good or evil, but our shared tradition contains many strands of moral better and worse.

It seems that in each of us, there are the seeds of moral compassion, that lead us to acquire norms and values about how to treat others. How are these seeds sown? And how do we avoid our own moral droughts?


p.s. apologies for general misuse and abuse of the term “socialisation”; if you would like to suggest some corrections, please do! I never studied sociology, my big social science blind spot.

  1. Sorry I’m a little late to the party.

    Couple of thoughts:

    1. Another useful way of thinking about the source of this sort of conflict is Blackburn’s idea of the ’emotional ascent’: see Ruling Passions, I.3 pp. 9ff. At the bottom are mere likes and preferences (‘de gustibus non disputandum’!), and we climb via ‘I personally believe X but don’t care what you believe’ all the way up to “If you do not think like this, then I am against you too, and my opposition may show itself in any number of ways, from avoiding your company, to advising others to do so, to seeking to change you, to constraining you as I can, or deploying social and legal pressures of all kinds against you” (p. 12). Conflict, then, occurs when both parties are a few rungs up.

    2. I think that ‘meta-ethical unease’, as you describe it, is a *good* thing. And, to answer your central question (“Which meta-ethical position sustains the most healthy attitude towards conflict?”): I believe that position is (call it, say) ‘*humility* with respect to different conceptions of the good'[*]. This is importantly different from *neutrality* wrt different conceptions of the good (or a ‘relativistic’ metaethic; the distinction, if there is one, isn’t important here). Whereas if I’m neutral I don’t *care* whether you have a different COTG from me – certainly I don’t care enough to argue with you, or to seek to change you – if I’m humble, I do care and I might very well seek to change you but I do so from a position of meta-ethical unease, an awareness of the contingent nature both of my holding my COTG and of you holding yours.

    This humility has two benefits: first, by taking other conceptions of the good seriously I might arrive at a ‘better'[†] one in the end (competition in the market of ideas); second, if I’m more sensitive to your commitments, I can use what I know about those commitments – your point of departure – the better to persuade you. I don’t think these two benefits are necessarily in tension, either: a genuine attempt to understand instrumentally for the second benefit entails the possibility of the first benefit arising.

    In the past I’ve experienced numerous COTG-shifts in fairly quick succession. When I was a teenager I moved from militant atheist (14-16) to zealous Catholic convert (16-18) and back again. Such first person experience of these shifts, I think, is what accounts for my current meta-views. And it certainly means that now when I argue about religion (and concomitant issues: abortion, gay marriage, etc.) I do so from a foundation of respect for the other person’s prespective, however profoundly I disagree with them. And, again, I think this is a good thing: I’ve convinced far more religious people of my point of view on various social issues than I would have done had I not *understood* and respected where they were coming from (to focus expressly on the second benefit).

    Of course, humility can go too far. There are clearly plenty of circumstances where we’d want to lock up someone first and (attempt to) reason with them later. And it might very well be inappropriate in the public arena (as opposed to conflict one-on-one at the dinner table) to manifest a desire to empathise. We don’t want to end up in a place where “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Or perhaps we are already there?

    * I’m reading you as being more concerned about the fact of there existing different conceptions of the good (e.g. you v. the sexist Nozickian), rather than the problem of there existing amoral people who lack compassion (which, to be sure, is a problem, but not one that’s going to be fixed by philosophising with/about such people).

    † By which I do not mean ‘more closely approximating The Truth / The Universal Moral Law etc.’; rather, ‘something which strikes me as more true’ – which may be for reasons of logic or my own experience of the world or something else.

  2. Paul Sagar said:

    Very good post.

    Couple of things.

    1. “As Cohen puts it (elsewhere, differently) – the very thought that you could have had very, very different flags pinned to your moral mast, had you been born in different lands, makes you feel uncomfortable about hoisting yours so highly.”

    This is only really a problem if, like Cohen, you are a bit mad, and think that there is one timeless, eternal concept of justice which exists independent of all human thought and action (and is such that there may be times when it is impossible to apply this timeless truth, even though it is still somehow “right”). Even though he was never able to advance even one step in explaining what that concept *is* or how anyone might come to know it.

    2. To try and get beyond – or see in a different light – the Hume/Kant loggerhead, it might be worth your investigating the history of how and why Kant came to formulate his ethical theory. So we know, for example, that he lectured on Smith’s theory of moral sentiments (a very Humean text) for many years, and that he read Hume’s ethical writings. And yet he broke radically with them – and did so by constructing a theory that had nothing to do with sentiment at all, and indeed was predicated on the assumption that actual human action, passion and mental processing was not where a theory of morality as he desired could be grounded. Hence, it’s worth thinking about that line in the Groundwork where he says that the only morally pure thing is a good will. Of course modern Kantians want to talk about passions, psychologies, actual human conducts and so forth. But then, it may be that many Kantians have misunderstood the original Kant project, and are thus falling rather disastrously between two stools. Bernard Williams is good on this, if you look hard.

    But the key thing to think about if you want to understand the original Kantian project is the radical break he affects between “anthropology” – his political writings, his lectures on history and the evolution of observed moral practices – and his fully-fledged moral philosophy proper, which is a logical outgrowth of the metaphysical picture (itself also a major and systematic response to Hume). For to Kant these are completely different things, and they are made to be so precisely because Kant understood the Hume-Smith project completely in a way few people have, and saw the limits that project reached – and then tried a radically different way of getting around those limites (which, it seems, did not succeed either).

    Balliol PPE teaches you that the Hume/Kant loggerheads is as far as it goes, and that your job is to pick a side and fight for it in an endless, tedious cycle of attack and counter-attack. My belief these days is that both sides in this argument ultimately fail (and that failure is not entirely unrelated or accidental, though my sympathies – excuse the pun – are much more with Hume). We need to look in other places if we want to make progress, and not just repeat the same platitudes that have gotten us nowhere for 200 years. Again, Bernard Williams is very good on this (in fact, he’s the best on this).

  3. I’m afraid I don’t have much advice about actually dealing with conflicts, but I’d point out that ‘political rationalism’ and ‘moral realism’ don’t really have that much to do with it (though I may not know what you mean by political rationalism; is it like moral rationalism? the idea that political question have right answers, and their rightness consists in their according with general principles of rationality?)

    That’s because I don’t think it’s true that “value-acquisition is very different… from belief-formation”. When you consider factual beliefs about subjects which are as emotive, as relevant to conflicting interests, and as complex as most moral/political ‘value-questions’, you’ll find the same sort of widespread, hard-to-remove, vehement disagreement among apparently reasonable people. (e.g. ‘is it possible to have high levels of productivity in a non-market economy?’, or ‘was the Turin Shroud forged in the 14th century?’)

    Conversely, when you consider value-questions which are relatively free of those factors, like ‘is it wrong to murder innocent people for fun?’, you’ll find widespread agreement, just like on similarly straightforward factual questions.

    So if these conflicts were a reason to doubt that there’s a rational method or an objectively right answer, then we should draw that conclusion about lots of factual matters as well, about history, about causation, etc.

    But in fact we don’t need to draw that conclusion in either case, because it’s pretty easy to explain why people might have intractable disagreements even about issues with a rational right answer – namely, there’s a set of factors that lead to a certain base rate of errors (like complexity, vested interests, or discrepancies in the vividness with which we perceive different aspects of a phenomenon), and then there’s a set of psychological and social factors that entrench them and make them hard to remove (like people’s desire to have been right all along, people’s ingenuity at rationalising what they already believe, or people’s desire to agree with those they like, and disagree with those who annoy them).

  4. andeebee said:

    ‘Maybe you lost your cool, and resent yourself for not having argued in a more dispassionate and academic way’

    Personally I think teaching yourself to argue from this perspective gives you an enormous advantage whether or not the argument is academic or an argument with the neighbours over the fence kind.
    In order to go about our lives and make even the mundanest of decisions (what shall I buy for tea?) We have to be assured that it is a right and mutually beneficial choice for all which brings in the point of socialisation , gendered learning regarding stance during arguments.
    Moral seeds are sown from birth, we are taught what is right and what is wrong, the toddler will lie and say they did not take the biscuit/toy/try and pull the cats tail off , the parent will then teach ‘do not lie’. The child will hit another child and make him/her cry, the child will be taught, violence is wrong etc. When we talk about gendered ‘ moral correction’ you could add that a parent would be more horrified that a little girl performed the act of violence. Prescriptions of what ‘female’ is stretches back to The Enlightment where some bloke in a red dress and funny hat said femininity is this…(well you know what). I believe it is true of all cultures ,that girls are taught that they must be placid , unassuming and never argue with authority,be it their parents, their teachers, the police, or the state.
    The true nature of an argument is to exchange ones point of view against another , the true skill is the on the spot analysis of the opponent’s argument — which facet is true? — which is false? What is the point of the argument?Like any kind of fight its the sizing up and the resistance not to give into emotion, emotion is for speeches not arguments.


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