Respectful Disagreement

Early last month there was a short piece by Robin Hanson on his group blog titled Disagreement is Disrespect:

But this does seem a handy opportunity to repeat that while disagreement isn’t hate, it is disrespect. When you knowingly disagree with someone you are judging them to be less rational than you, at least on that topic. (Judging them less informed or experienced by itself can’t create disagreement.) It might be only a minor disrespect, if you think this disagreement suggests little about whether you’d disagree with them elsewhere. But disagreement is disrespect, nonetheless.

Taking that to an extreme you come up with the obvious conclusion: if you want someone to respect you as much as possible, you should always agree with them. Because there’s nothing better than a coterie of yes-men.

Avoiding that conclusion means you have to have some way of respecting people who don’t constantly agree with you; and more so, respecting those people more than the ones who simply repeat whatever you happen to think. But if you really believe that your opinions are entirely rational — that is, they logically follow from unquestionable assumptions — you don’t actually have much room to accept disagreement. Because either whoever disagrees with you is being illogical, which doesn’t deserve respect, or they’re denying basic assumptions, which likewise doesn’t deserve respect.

Take abortion for example. If you believe that human life is sacrosanct (and what sort of person doesn’t?) then it’s a simple deductive analysis to say that a foetus is both alive and human from conception, albeit dependent on it’s mother’s womb for the next nine months. Abortion means choosing to end that life, which is murder. Sure, you can pretend you don’t follow the argument, but that just means you’re either stupid, or in denial — which leaves your choices down to (1) being okay with murder, (2) being in deliberate denial; (3) being stupid; (4) agreeing that abortion isn’t okay, ever.

The question then is how you can possibly respect anyone who chooses any of the first three options. And framed like that, it’s pretty hard — even if you’re not a strict pro-lifer, the most comfortable response is probably to try to fit into the fourth slot, maybe by saying that you don’t like late term abortions.

But maybe you do think the mother should have a choice in the matter (we’ll politely ignore whether the father should or shouldn’t), after all it’s her body that’ll be distended for half a year, her ability to function in society that’ll be diminished, her hormones that’ll go haywire, and her health that’ll be put at risk gestating a possibly unwanted parasite. Because that’s the key difference between a foetus and a baby, child or adult: they’re completely dependent on a single woman. At other stages in life, dependency is something that can at least be transferred to someone else, from a parent to a lover, or to a private hospice, or a church, or a hospital, and if no one at all is willing to look after someone who needs looking after, well, vagrants still die on the streets, and it’s sad and maybe someone should do something about it, but it’s not murder. And just because a woman’s biology is designed (by God or evolution as you like) to try to force them to provide the necessary support for the new life, it’s surely not immoral to allow a woman to use technology to safely reclaim that choice, and if it’s not okay for me to force you to take a bum from the street into your home to take care of, even for a few days, how can it possibly be okay for you to force someone to look after a baby in their own body for months?

This time, as far as I can see, you either (1) don’t accept people should have a choice over who they support; (2) you’re in denial; (3) you’re illogical; or (4) you support abortion. So which is it, are you in favour of murder or tyranny?

Personally, I don’t much care for either of those; though in the special case of abortion, my preference leans towards morally opposing it and legally supporting it at least early-on, but I’m not particularly bothered by people who take different views. (Well, favouring abortion over abstinence, contraception and pregnancy would weird me out, but I don’t think I’ve seen anyone go quite that far) Personally, I’d like to see a technical solution in the form of an artificial uterus, which would at least potentially move the “adoption” option to a much earlier point in the process. Making abortion illegal, but offering transplant of the foetus into an artificial womb to be cared for and put up for adoption would seem like a good option to me. Though the cost and its effect on live birth rates might be challenging.

But if you’ve decided that anyone who disagrees with you isn’t deserving of respect; that it’s immoral not to make the assumptions you’ve made, and stupid not to deduce your conclusions from those assumptions, then you’ve got no incentive to consider alternative scenarios like that, after all, everyone who doesn’t agree with you is immoral or stupid, and how could it possibly be a good idea to co-design a solution with people whom you now know are evil idiots? [palin shirt]

That conclusion seems to pop up a fair bit in politics, whether it be while you’re trying to understand the McSame/Failin Rethuglican holdouts or the handful of remaining undecided voters or the America hating socialist atheists supporting religious extremists. I presume it’s always been more or less that way, and I guess I’d rather see people trying to cut each other to the quick with the force of the rhetoric rather than by force of arms, but I can’t say I like it.

It also seems like it’s well and truly seeped into Debian, too. The whole “evil cabal” story has been around forever, sure, but at least back in the day you could have real disagreements with people and still respect their motives and work together on a solution. Here’s a selection of comments on the latest kerfuffle:

I’m pretty unhappy with the very non-Debian way you have when it comes to making decisions and announcing them. .. And also that feeling you seem to have that you are above the lot of mere mortals that we, DDs without delegations, are.

In my mind I can’t conceive of why they would have willingly accepted power if they weren’t prepared to face the highest scrutiny and criticisms. Can you?

People with too much power are winning. A lot of of the average contributors have good points about all this, but they already gave up (this is a hobby for most of all!) and do nothing because they are already too frustrated. Some try arguing and discussing, but it is not going anywhere because people of the problem B are playing to ignore everything, so you can not argue with silence.

When you thought things were bad enough already, they just got worse. We now have people coming up with decisions all by themselves. No asking anyone about it, even in backroom meetings, or only to fake it and ignore their opinions on the matter. .. It looks bad, and it is. Talk about communication problems. Talk about power-hungry people.

Nothing will have changed, nothing will be taken away, nothing to see here, move along: The big lie.

Nice how some people (on purpose?) try to misunderstand everything. And love to flame.

Maybe it’s a failure of imagination, but I can’t see the attitudes embodied in those sentiments inspiring constructive collaboration amongst the various Debianites who have different priorities and visions for Debian, as opposed to a destructive and destabilising fight over who ends up with enough power to force their choices on everyone else.

And honestly, I don’t think there’s any chance of avoiding that at this point, either in politics or Debian. Because once you’ve decided the evil and stupid people are trying to wrest power from you, you can’t trust people who say you should “respect” them, because that’s probably just an evil trick to make you drop your guard just long enough for them to win.

Oh well. Two simple reasons to respect people who disagree with you. One: by challenging your beliefs and arguments, they give you the opportunity to refine and improve them. Two: in the unlikely event that you’ve made a mistake in your analysis, they’ve already done the groundwork for an alternative analysis that you can adopt or adapt to replace your earlier flawed ideas.

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