‘We all have had moments when we feel that those with whom we disagree not only reject the point we are focused on at the moment, but also reject our values, general beliefs, modes of reasoning, and even our hopes. In such circumstances, productive critical conversation seems impossible. For the most part, in order to be successful, argument must proceed against the background of common ground. Interlocutors must agree on some basic facts about the world, or they must share some source of reasons to with they can appeal, or they must value roughly the same sort of outcome. And so, if two parties disagree about who finished runners-up to Leister City in their historic BPL win last year, they may agree to consult the league website, and that will resolve the issue. Or if two travelers disagree about which route home is better, one may say, “Yes, your way is shorter, but it runs though the traffic bottleneck at the mall, and that adds at least ten minutes to the journey.” And that may resolve the dispute, depending perhaps on whether time is what matters most.
But some disagreements invoke deeper disputes, disputes about what sources are authoritative, what counts as evidence, and what matters. Such disputes quickly become argumentatively strange. And so if someone does not recognize the authority of the soccer league’s website about last year’s standings, it is unclear how a dispute over last year’s runners-up to Leister City could be resolved. What might one say to a disputant of this kind? Does he trust news sites, television reporting, or Wikipedia entries concerning the BPL? Does he regard the news sites and the league website as reliable sources of information concerning this year’s standings or when the games are played? What if our interlocutor in the route-home case doesn’t see why the quickest route is preferable to the shortest? Maybe our traveling companion regards our hurry-scurry as a part of a larger social problem, or maybe wants to enjoy the Zen of a traffic jam. Sometimes a disagreement about one thing lies at the tip of a very large iceberg of composed of many other, deeper, disagreements.
The puzzle about deep disagreement is whether or not reasoned argument works at all in them. There is a widely held view, perhaps at the core of deliberative views of democracy, and certainly central to educational programs that emphasizing critical thinking, that well-run argument is at least not pointless, and often even productive. And many hold that it’s important to practice good argumentation, especially in cases of deep disagreement. Call this view argumentative optimism. The trouble for this optimism is that as disagreements run progressively deeper, it grows increasingly difficult to see how argument could have any point at all; this, in turn, encourages us to regard interlocutors as targets of incredulity, bemusement, and perhaps even contempt or hatred. There’s little, many think, one can argue or say that is going to rationally resolve certain disagreements. In the end, it all may come down to who’s got better propaganda, more money, or, perhaps, the better weapons. Call this view argumentative pessimism…’