Theses Doctoral

Making Sense of Faultless Disagreement

Pop, Ariadna

This dissertation examines the phenomenon of faultless disagreement: situations in which it seems that neither of two opposing sides has made a mistake in upholding their respective positions. I explore the way in which we ought to conceive of the nature of the kinds of claims that give rise to faultless disagreement and what the possibility of such disagreement reveals with a view to the rationality of tolerance. My starting point is a rather simple observation: persistent disagreements about ordinary empirical claims, say, that it's now raining outside or that Columbia's Philosophy Department is located at 1150 Amsterdam Avenue, are significantly more puzzling than persistent disagreements about matters of taste and value.

Suppose you and I are standing at 1150 Amsterdam Avenue and you deny that this is where Columbia's Philosophy Department is located. My immediate--and I believe justifiable--reaction is to suspect that you suffer from some sort of cognitive shortcoming: bad eyesight, the influence of drugs, or what have you. As opposed to that, I am not particularly shocked to see that our disagreement about the tastiness of snails persists. More importantly, I would not want to say that you are mistaken in any real way if you call snails tasty. The problem is of course that if we are prepared to allow for the possibility of faultless disagreement, it seems inevitable to conclude that for certain subject matters the law of non-contradiction does not hold. The tension between this rather uncomfortable consequence and what seems to be a datum of our linguistic practices motivates the guiding question of my dissertation--namely, if there is a way to make sense of the phenomenon of faultless disagreement. In trying to do so, I make three central claims.

First, I argue that the possibility of faultless disagreement is characteristic of what I call "basic evaluations." Evaluations are basic, on my account, not by being fundamental or universal, but by being rooted in the agent's sensibilities. Such evaluations are basic insofar as the agent cannot step outside of her inner frame of personal tastes and preferences. Second, I argue that what characterizes faultless disagreements is that there are no established methods of determining who has gotten things right. This is why we tend to think that the opponents may rationally stick to their respective positions--or, as I put in my dissertation, why we do not epistemically downgrade each other whenever we encounter such disagreements.

The absence of established methods of resolution entails various epistemological challenges for realist accounts of the kinds of claims that give rise to faultless disagreement. The realist insists that despite the appearance that these disagreements are rationally irresolvable, at least one of the opposing sides must have made a mistake. But then she is forced to maintain either that we might lack epistemic access to the realm of evaluative facts and properties, or that we have access to this realm due to special evaluative capacities. Neither option is particularly attractive from the point of view of an agent. In response to such challenges I therefore propose a non-cognitivist, robustly anti-realist account of the subset of the evaluative domain of discourse that allows for faultless disagreement. I argue that we can make sense of the dimension of faultlessness, if we construe the relevant claims as expressions of our individual evaluative attitudes. More precisely, I suggest that we can construe them as dispositional intentions or plans to bring the world into line with what one deems worthy of pursuit. I also show how we can make sense of the dimension of disagreement by proposing a pragmatic account of the way in which evaluative attitudes can stand in relations of inconsistency.

Third, I argue that whenever there is no way of demonstrating that one side has gotten things wrong, it is unjustified--at least from the point of view of a cognizer who abides by the norms of rationality--to reject a given conflicting evaluation as mistaken. When it comes to the kinds of claims that give rise to faultless disagreement it is thus a rational requirement to be tolerant of our opponents' positions. Contrary to a long-standing tradition that goes back to Locke and Mill I therefore take toleration to be not a moral, but an epistemic value. Moreover, I show that what is sometimes taken to be paradoxical about the kinds of situations that call for toleration is the result of a switch of perspectives: from the perspective of a valuer I genuinely disagree, say, with your claim that it's permissible to lie if this prevents hurting someone's feelings. But from the perspective of a cognizer I realize that I would be unjustified in rejecting your conflicting evaluation as mistaken.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Vogt, Katja
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 23, 2013