Disagreements occur all the time. Only on occasion do we bother discussing them.

When we do discuss our disagreements, the process may or may not be constructive.

In the worst kinds of debate, participants place their opponents somewhere on these three axes:

  1. Ignorance. If the other party had as much information as me, then they would see I’m right.
  2. Stupidity. Even if the other party had the same information as me, they would be incapable of correctly processing it.
  3. Evil. The other party wilfully rejects or distorts the truth out of some unseemly motive.

It is rarely useful to reduce another person to these three dimensions.

For one thing, it is arrogant—it implicitly appoints you the arbiter of knowledge, intelligence, and morality.

More fundamentally, it is usually inaccurate. It ignores the enormous space of possible disagreement that can exist in the absence of ignorance, stupidity or evil.

In the remainder of this post, I’ll describe some of the other, more important dimensions of disagreement-space.

Disagreements of ontology

Perhaps the most fundamental disagreements occur between people with differing ontologies. That is: when people employ differing conceptual frameworks to understand a topic.

In this situation, it’s common to feel as though the other party is speaking a different language. This is a reasonable perception—in a real sense, they are speaking a different language. They attach differing semantics to the same words.

In any debate where the parties seem to be “talking past each other,” it’s a safe bet that they have ontological disagreements that need to be explored. At this point—assuming the debate is a good-faith effort to weigh the merits of ideas—it behooves the participants to slow down and spend some time comparing their mental models at a higher level.

Not all ontologies are equally valid. Some are too simple; others have unjustified detail. They may contain outright falsehoods—incorrect causal relationships, for example. And in the majority of cases, they contain inconsistencies. It takes a lot of effort to consciously articulate fragments of one’s own ontology. Most of us go our whole lives without even trying.

It’s possible for differing people, confronted with the same information, to construct differing ontologies explaining that information. This can arise from differences in temperament and prior experience. In the jargon of Bayesian statistics: there may be sensitivity to prior knowledge.

Disagreements of salience

Even when people have very similar ontologies, they will often disagree over which parts of the ontology demand the most attention.

We can look at the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates for illustration. For the most part, they have pretty similar ontologies. They tend to view the government as a paternalistic entity, entrusted with safeguarding the public interest against a variety of threats—the current president; corrupt forms of capitalism; climate change; and predations against disadvantaged groups.

However, they also tend to rank these issues differently. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren focus most of their thought on corrupt capitalism; Kamala Harris emphasizes social justice issues; Andrew Yang unfailingly concentrates on automation and the “freedom dividend” concept. (In truth, Yang’s differences are more ontological. He places automation at the root of most other issues.) And Beto O’Rourke focuses on injecting high school Spanish into his speech whenever possible.

To the extent that people agree on ontology but disagree on the salience of issues, we can credit differences in background or temperament.

I’m reminded of the moral “tastes” Jonathan Haidt describes in his excellent book, The Righteous Mind.

Some takeaways

My takeaways from thinking about this:

  • Truth is really difficult to get at. No single person is likely to possess it.
  • It pays to be patient when we disagree. There is a wide gap between
    1. noticing a disagreement, and
    2. imputing ignorance/stupidity/evil to the other person.
  • In the majority of cases, it’s worthwhile to preface debates with high-level descriptions of ontology. This prevents a lot of time wasted in “talking past” each other.
  • Differences in temperament and experience can result in very different understandings of the same information. This variety may be puzzling or frustrating, but it can also be very useful if harnessed correctly. Most likely, there are scenarios where the other person’s viewpoint is more useful than yours.

In some ways, my description is kind of unsatisfactory. For differences in both ontology and salience, I’ve given ultimate credit to the vague notions of “temperament” and “background.” This probably needs to be fleshed out a bit more.

\( \blacksquare\)