Don’t Agree to Agree

On occasion, I am asked “Can’t we agree that (insert statement here)?”, and I can never quite shake the feeling that the questioners aren’t getting the point.

Of course we can agree on that. We can agree on anything. The only thing needed for agreement is for two people to assert the same thing. It’s utterly trivial.

The real questions are: Can we disagree? More specifically, can we reasonably disagree? If we maintain rational standards, are there still grounds for argument? Does your point necessarily arise from premises we both accept, and are we capable of justifying those premises to ourselves and others?

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5 Responses to “Don’t Agree to Agree”

  1. Can’t we both agree and disagree? Agree on some grounds and lay out the grounds on which you disagree.

  2. When the grounds are merely trivial, stating your trivial agreement rapidly becomes tiresome.

    People often say things like “don’t you agree that (whatever)” when they wish to pressure people into accepting controversial points without argument, because the pressure is on people to be pleasant and conform — and disagreeing lends itself to neither behavior.

  3. Well if you say that “we can agree on anything”, I think that is a somewhat uncharitable interpretation. I think what these people really mean is “can we reasonably agree?” And if that is true, then the answer to that question would also provide the answer to your question.

    To the extent people are agreeable though, you could say this biases the question in an unfavorable direction – towards agreement, when really, disagreement is more likely to facilitate progress.

    So yeah – it is probably better to better to be interested in discussing areas where you disagree.

  4. “Well if you say that “we can agree on anything”, I think that is a somewhat uncharitable interpretation.”

    Error accumulates in ‘charitable interpretations’ the same way cheating accumulates under honor codes.

    In my experience, what people usually mean is “I don’t want the validity of my presumption to be brought up and examined, so I’ll use social influence to induce you to conform and agree with my claim”.

    If you can’t say what you mean, you can never mean what you say.

  5. Of course group think should not be tolerated, but there are circumstances in which it is legitimate to ask whether we can agree. It can be tolerated in cases where the purpose of the question is to resolve confusion over a disagreement. If one proposition follows from another, and we disagree on this consequent – I think it’s helpful to ask whether we can, in fact, agree on the antecedent. Once you have that locked down, the debate can proceed. In fact, in most cases, you need to find a common ground of agreement before you can proceed to resolve disagreements.

    Actually, I guess that’s sort of what your last paragraph was about.

    As to whether we can reasonably disagree, I would say… yes. Opinions or tastes (beliefs so lowly there’s no point in addressing the disagreement), and possibly desires or fundamental values are disagreements of the sort that reason may be irrelevant.

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