What About Disagreements?

Daniel Cohnitz

Daniel Cohnitz is Professor of Theoretical Philosophy at the UT Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics. He teaches in the new master’s programme in philosophy. Image credit: Benjamin Decker Photography

The Simpsons are funnier than Family Guy, at least for the early episodes. You object to my claim. You say that I’m wrong and that Family Guy is funnier. You and I disagree. However, our disagreement doesn’t lead to any excessive dispute, and that’s not because we don’t care enough about the matter. You and I are true fans, but de gustibus non est disputandum – there is no disputing matters of taste.

Of course, it suffices to take a quick glance at the comments that accompany YouTube videos by Justin Bieber to be convinced that this Latin proverb is not a true statement of fact. Perhaps, instead of saying that there is no disputing matters of taste, it should say that there shouldn’t be such disputes.

Why is that? It seems that the idea behind the famous proverb is that matters of taste, and thus matters of what’s funny or what’s delicious, etc. aren’t matters of objective fact, they are subjective in the sense that they are funny or delicious because we find them funny or delicious. Thus, when I find something hilarious that you don’t find funny at all, it’s not that one of us is getting the facts wrong, as when I say that Tartu is in Estonia and you disagree.

Disagreements about matters of taste suggest that there are at least some disagreements where none of the disagreeing parties needs to be wrong about the objective facts, where nobody is making a mistake. Perhaps this much is common sense. The philosophical problem, as it so often does, starts when we begin to take a closer look at the common sense idea.

If I assert a claim (e.g. ‘The Simpsons are funnier than Family Guy’) and you deny it (e.g. by retorting ‘No, The Simpsons are not funnier than Family Guy’), then it looks as if we have a contradiction. Both claims cannot be true, so one of them must be false, right? But if one of the claims is false, then one of us is making a mistake after all. Saying something that is false is surely a mistake.

There are two ways out of this: The first is to give up the idea that the claim that The Simpsons are funnier than Family Guy is a claim at all, in the sense that it could be true or false. Perhaps I’m merely expressing an attitude or my relative amusement while saying such a sentence, as I merely express my amusement when I laugh while watching Homer’s brain losing another argument against Homer’s instincts. Laughter can’t be true or false (Perhaps there is a sense in which laughter can be false, if it is fake, if it’s not an authentic expression of amusement or joy — however, that sense isn’t meant here), and perhaps our claims about what’s funny or tasty can’t be true or false either. OK, perhaps that doesn’t sound very promising.

The The Simpsons and Family Guy

The Simpsons or Family Guy? Image credit: Stannered / Beao / Wikimedia Commons

Alternatively, we might say that the claims in question are more complex than first appearances suggest. When I say ‘The Simpsons are funnier than Family Guy’, then I’m in fact saying ‘The Simpsons are funnier than Family Guy to my standards of taste’, and when you retort, you say that they are not funnier than Family Guy, according to your standards of taste. Then, it seems, we can both be right in our claims, without anyone making a mistake.

Is that the solution? Does that explain how we sometimes can have disagreements even though none of the parties to the disagreement is making a mistake? Again, looking at this suggestion a little bit more closely leads to doubts.

If Homer says ‘I’m hungry’ and Marge says ‘I’m not hungry’, then although the two sentences might look like negations of each other, they actually express claims that aren’t in contradiction at all. Homer said that he is hungry and Marge said that she is not hungry. Not only do these two claims not contradict, there is also no sense in which Homer and Marge might be said to “disagree”. But then the same seems to hold for our analysis above.

If I say that The Simpsons are funnier than Family Guy to my standards of taste and you say that they are not funnier to your standards of taste, there simply is no disagreement in the first place. But surely you and I took ourselves to be disagreeing (and merely thought that it is a kind of disagreement that shouldn’t lead to a dispute). Were we simply wrong about this? Were we merely talking past one another in our initial claims that we thought were in disagreement?

Philosophers have tried to come up with solutions to this puzzle in the last couple of years. The reason that we philosophers get excited about an apparently not very burning issue (as about what to say about disagreements concerning what is funny or tasty) is that such disagreements about non-objective subject matter might also occur in areas that are philosophically more exciting.

For example, many philosophers believe that there are no objective moral facts, at least not in the sense that there might be facts about whether actions are right or wrong, independently of how we humans evaluate them as right or wrong. Likewise, some philosophers believe that there are no objective facts about probabilities either. However, in these cases we find people disagreeing about what is morally right or wrong and what the probabilities for certain future outcomes are, etc. In these cases it would be really useful to understand what is going on.

There are many further, difficult issues related to disagreements. Some apparent disagreements are perhaps just rooted in confusion. Sometimes a dispute arises because of a linguistic misunderstanding. In these cases the disagreeing parties might be agreeing on all matters of fact, but just think they disagree because they talk past one another. This surely happens sometimes, and it would be good if we had ways to detect and resolve such merely verbal disagreements. It would help us to avoid unnecessary disputes.

Finally, disagreements are not only annoying. Sometimes the fact that somebody disagrees with you might help you to learn something new. Perhaps the other person has a new perspective on matters that you have overlooked. But perhaps already the very fact that you disagree at all should lead you to reconsider your own views, at least if you also believe that the other party has been careful in forming her views on the basis of the available evidence.

The Department of Philosophy at the University of Tartu has just started a project entitled “Disagreements: Philosophical Analysis” which will look at these kinds of issues more closely in the coming years, in collaboration with other philosophers across the world, but also in cooperation with linguists and cognitive scientists, that will help us to understand better how disagreements of different kinds should be analysed, diagnosed, and eventually resolved.

Want to join in? Explore our new international master’s programme in philosophy and check out how to apply. Application deadline: 16 April 2014. Please feel free to contact: vivian.bohl@ut.ee. See also the programme video:

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