Why So Many Disagreements Are Just So Damn Intractable

In a recent essay, I made a distinction between what I called epistemic reasons and purely causal reasons. The former are potentially truth preserving (capable of providing epistemic justification) the latter are not even potentially truth preserving (and thus are incapable of providing epistemic justification). In this essay, I’m going to appeal to the same basic distinction regarding reasons that do and do not provide epistemic justification, but I’m going to refer to them simply as epistemic reasons (ERs) and non-epistemic reasons (non-ERs).

In the course of reading the first chapter of MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, it occurred to me that we could use the ER/non-ER distinction to help explain disagreements about contentious issues concerning ethics, for example.

So let’s imagine two people, Sara and Jill. They disagree about the ethical rightness of abortion. Why do they disagree? Because their moral and non-moral beliefs differ. Sara believes that life does not begin at conception. Jill believes that life does begin at conception.

It turns out that Jill believes life begins at conception because she is Christian and her Church teaches that life begins then. Sara is not Christian and her religious beliefs do not influence her stance on life’s beginnings. In fact, Sara believes that the embryo is indeed alive at conception; it’s just not a person. She believes that the embryo becomes a person only when it reaches some basic cognitive states.

Jill’s belief about the beginning of life is “justified” by her Christian beliefs, which are grounded in non-ERs.

Sara’s beliefs about the embryo and personhood are grounded in, we’ll reasonably assume, some combination of ERs and non-ERs.

Reasons give out at some point. An important question is whether one’s belief system rests primarily on ERs or non-ERs. It’s, of course, possible to imagine two people, Sam and Beth, disagreeing even though all their beliefs bottom out in ERs. So my claim is not that non-ERs are the sole culprit for disagreement. Rather, the problem is this: Sam and Beth presumably could, in theory, come to rationally adjudicate their disagreement, assuming an ideal situation where bias and other merely psychological influences on claims are absent.

But such a scenario is not likely to occur. Most of us are more like Jill and Sara rather than Sam and Beth. We have a huge, complex mixture of ERs and non-ERs underlying our beliefs; and we are incapable of freeing ourselves completely from bias and other psychological influences., e.g., Jill’s felt need to maintain allegiance to her Church.

Focusing on the pernicious role of non-ERs, my hypothesis is that many of the non-ERs, not all, come from childhood and those times we are most susceptible to believe things on mere perceptions of other people’s authority. Thus, the beliefs based on non-ERs are deeply rooted. And, thus, not easily given up or modified, especially not by appeals from others to argumentation/rational adjudication. Given the non-epistemic nature of non-ERs, they are resistant to epistemic evaluation.

Therefore, in combination with psychological influences such as bias, needing to belong and be approved of by others, etc., the prevalence of non-ERs underlying our differing beliefs—beliefs that underlie our disagreements on important issues—explains, in large part, why some of our disagreements are so intractable and will remain so. Perhaps it would help if we could try to systematically root out the non-ERs from our belief systems. That would presumably help, but I imagine the other psychological factors would remain and continue to undermine our attempts to adjudicate disagreements.


2 thoughts on “Why So Many Disagreements Are Just So Damn Intractable

  1. So if Jill just believes that life begins at conception because her church said so it’s a non-ER, but if she believes that life begins at conception because of the potentiality of that group of cells to become a human being, does that then count as an ER?

  2. Greg, you said, “if she believes that life begins at conception because of the potentiality of that group of cells to become a human being, does that then count as an ER?” Assuming that her belief that they have that potentiality is not grounded in a non-ER, then I’d say yes. But that leaves open, of course, whether it’s a good epistemic reason.

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