Disagreements?Not really.

Consider how one should respond to a simple case of disagreement. Frank sees a bird in the garden and believes it’s a finch. Standing beside him, Gita sees the same bird, but she’s confident it’s a sparrow. What response should we expect from Frank and Gita? If Frank’s response were: ‘Well, I saw it was a finch, so you must be wrong,’ then that would be irrationally stubborn – and annoying – of him. (The same goes for Gita, of course.) Instead, both should become less confident in their judgment. The reason such a conciliatory response to a disagreement is often desired is reflected in ideals about open-mindedness and intellectual humility: when learning of our differences with fellow citizens, the open-minded and intellectually humble person is willing to consider changing his or her mind.

Our disagreements on a societal level are much more complex, and can require a different response. One particularly pernicious form of disagreement arises when we not only disagree about individuals facts, as in Frank and Gita’s case, but also disagree about how best to form beliefs about those facts, that is, about how to gather and assess evidence in proper ways. This is deep disagreement, and it’s the form that most societal disagreements take. Understanding these disagreements will not inspire optimism about our ability to find consensus.

Consider a case of deep disagreement. Amy believes that a particular homeopathic treatment will cure her common fever. Ben disagrees. But Amy and Ben’s disagreement doesn’t stop here. Amy believes that there is solid evidence for her claim, resting on the basic principles of homeopathy, which claims that pathogenic substances dissolved almost indefinitely in water can cure diseases, as well as testimony she got from experienced homeopaths whom she trusts. Ben believes that any medical intervention should be tested in randomised controlled studies, and that no sound inferences are to be drawn from homeopathic principles, since they are shown to be false by the principles of physics and chemistry. He also believes that apparently successful treatments reported by homeopaths present no solid evidence for their efficacy.

Amy understands all this, but thinks that it merely reflects Ben’s naturalistic perspective on human nature, which she rejects. There is more to human beings (and their diseases) than can be accurately captured in Western scientific medicine, which relies on reductionist and materialist approaches. In fact, applying a scientific perspective to disease and healing would distort the very conditions under which the homeopathic treatment works. It is difficult for Ben to get beyond this point: how does Ben argue for the superiority of his approach, without begging the question against Amy? The same holds for her as well. Once the structure of their disagreement has been laid bare, it is as if there is no further argument that Amy or Ben can produce to convince the other because there is no method or procedure for conducting enquiry that they could both agree upon. They’re stuck in a deep disagreement.

Some of our most worrying societal disagreements are deep disagreements, or at least they share certain features of deep disagreements. Those who sincerely deny climate change also dismiss the relevant methods and evidence, and question the authority of the scientific institutions telling us that the climate is changing. Climate skeptics have insulated themselves from any evidence that would otherwise be rationally compelling. One can find similar patterns of selective distrust in scientific evidence and institutions in social disagreements over the safety of vaccines and genetically modified crops, as well as in conspiracy theories, which are extreme cases of deep disagreements.

Deep disagreements are, in a sense, irresolvable. It is not that Amy is incapable of following Ben’s arguments or is generally insensitive to evidence. Rather, Amy has a set of beliefs that insulates her from the very sort of evidence that would be crucial for showing her to be mistaken. No line of argument or reasoning that Ben could sincerely present to Amy would rationally convince her. What should their response be? Should they approach the disagreement with the same intellectual humility of Frank and Gita, who rationally take the fact that they disagree as good evidence that someone’s made a mistake?

No. Ben has no reason to think that his disagreement with Amy indicates that he has made a mistake similar to that of mistaking a sparrow for a finch. And the fact that Amy trusts homeopathy is no reason for Ben to think that his reliance on the general principles of natural science is misguided. Why should the fact that Amy supports these quirky principles be a reason to think that a naturalistic approach is inadequate or mistaken? If this is right, then unlike in the case of Fred and Gita, the disagreement should not rationally compel Ben to change his mind. The same might be true for Amy.

This is a surprising result. We are used to the idea that respectfully accommodating the views of fellow citizens, whose intelligence and sincerity is not in doubt, requires some degree of moderation on our part. We cannot, it seems, both fully respect others, regard them as intelligent and sincere, and still be fully convinced that we are right and they are completely wrong, unless we simply agree to disagree. But on a societal level we cannot do that, since ultimately some decision must be made.

Examining how deep disagreements arise will demonstrate the gravity of the issue. Why do we disagree with valid, knowable facts when we all live in the same world, we have roughly the same cognitive abilities and, in the Western world at least, most people have fairly easy access to roughly the same information?

It is because we use our cognition to support factual beliefs or value commitments that are central to our identity, particularly in situations where we feel that our identity is threatened. This makes us seek out evidence in ways that support our worldview, we remember supportive evidence better, and we are much less critical of it. Counter-evidence, meanwhile, is subjected to fierce critical scrutiny, or ignored altogether. Factual beliefs can therefore become markers for cultural identities: by asserting your belief that climate change is a myth, you signal your allegiance to a particular moral, cultural and ideological community. This might in part be the psychological dynamic that drives the polarisation over climate, and similar mechanisms might have a role in other politicised social disagreements.

This affects how we can reasonably react to societal disagreement about facts. Asserting facts is not simple: it is often a way of signalling broader religious, moral or political allegiance. This makes it harder for us to fully respect our fellow citizens when we disagree over factual matters.

As the political philosopher John Rawls noted in Political Liberalism (1993), a liberal society largely rescinds from attempting to control the flow of information and the minds of its citizens. Therefore disagreements are bound to be pervasive (though Rawls had religious, moral and metaphysical disagreements in mind, not factual disagreements). What is particularly troubling about some societal disagreements is that they concern factual matters that tend to be almost impossible to resolve since there is no agreed-upon method to do so, all while relating to important policy decisions. Generally, theorising about liberal democracy has focused largely on moral and political disagreements, while tacitly assuming that there would be no important factual disagreements to consider. It has been taken for granted that we would eventually agree about the facts, and the democratic processes would concern how we should adjudicate our differences in values and preferences. But this assumption is no longer adequate, if it ever was.Aeon counter – do not remove

Klemens Kappel

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.



On 15 September 2008, the giant financial services firm Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, starting a chain reaction that saw the global economy spiralling toward total collapse. The global financial crisis that ensued revealed just how fragile and unstable the world economic order really was. If there was ever a time that neoliberal capitalism should have faced a legitimation crisis, this was it.

One only needs to think back to December 2008 when the then US president Barack Obama scolded the heads of the largest US auto firms for flying to Washington in private jets to ask for financial bailouts. As one Democratic Party representative added: ‘Couldn’t you all have downgraded to first class or jet-pooled or something to get here? It would have at least sent a message that you do get it.’

For a short time after the crash, those on the top of the corporate ladder seemed as powerless as those on the bottom. The failure demonstrated that neither chief executive officers (CEOs) nor their financial advisors had much of an idea of how the market worked or how to control it. All that was left for modern citizens was to brace themselves as a runaway global free market fell off the proverbial cliff. The CEO suddenly appeared like a fall guy for the crash rather than as a hero.

Fast-forward 10 years, and it’s hard to believe that the economic and political supremacy of the CEO could have even been put into radical question the way it was in 2008. CEOs never really lost their stride and, now more than ever, they are considered to be visionaries and idealised as leaders. Nor did they lose their corporate jets. Other than for a brief symbolic belt-tightening immediately after the crisis, CEOs were soon flying high again on company planes.

Today, business founders such as Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg or even Larry Fink epitomise a new class of celebrity CEOs, seen by so many as personal heroes who can save the world, and the same goes for the larger array of employee CEOs such as Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan Chase or Tim Cook at Apple. Yet all the while, CEOs participate in a world economy wracked by increasing inequality, as epitomised by the kind of obscene CEO remuneration that sees the likes of Amazon’s boss Jeff Bezos earning almost a million times that of the workers in his warehouses.

More ominously, millions of Americans voted for an ostentatiously super-rich CEO, electing Donald Trump as their president. In his acceptance speech, Trump praised his own business acumen as being key to his political success: ‘I’ve spent my entire life in business, looking at the untapped potential in projects and in people all over the world. That is now what I want to do for our country.’

The barely interrupted veneration of the CEO as a hero, marked most expressively by the Trump presidency, has brought us to a point today where CEOs are not just valued for their skills in business but have become role models in all walks of life. We now live in what we call a ‘CEO society’: a society where corporate leadership has become the model for transforming not just business, but all human activity, where everyone from politicians to jobseekers to even those seeking love are expected to imitate the qualities of the lionised corporate executive.

The contemporary adulation and admiration of CEOs raises the question of what enabled their continued idolisation, given what could well have been their fall from grace 10 years ago? At the time, many hoped that the sad devastation of the crisis might open the door for an economic and political paradigm shift that would usher in a fairer, more equal and just society. It’s not that this promise of change has not arrived, it’s that it seems farther away than ever.

After 2008, for a brief time, people clamoured for CEOs to be held accountable and be prosecuted. This was, not least, a practical matter. With jobs being lost, shop fronts being boarded up, and politicians crying austerity, what people wanted above all else was economic recovery. Yet with the world’s top executives in disgrace, who could lead such a dramatic economic revival?

What arose from peril was a novel fantasy of executive-led recovery that allowed the shattered reputation of the CEO to stage a prompt, if not miraculous, comeback. This played into an appealing crisis narrative. With such a narrative, all faith must be invested in the recuperation of an imaginary golden past that existed before the upheaval. Most recently, this has manifested in Brexit’s investment in the promise of a renewed British sovereignty, as well as in populist political rallying cries such as ‘Make America Great Again’.

These desires for recovery and return are of course perfectly understandable, and they clearly shed light on why ideologies of free-market heroism thrived again after crisis. But this still only scratches the surface of why CEOs continue to be idolised by so many. Whereas individual executives from Martin Shkreli of Turing Pharmaceuticals to Harvey Weinstein of Miramax might be reviled for their greed, corruption or abuse of power, the CEO – as an ideal – has been reinstated with a solid-gold allure.

The financial crisis pointed to a deep insecurity rested in the fear that it was futile for humans to control the economic world that we had created, and this reverberated with a more general fear that we lack agency more widely. Suddenly, people were pushed into facing the possibility that their lives were lost to the whims and unpredictable fate of a supernatural market. Where since the advent of the 20th century it had been righteously condemned that ‘money is the secular God of the world’, now it was feared that finance had become an even more reckless God, one who cared little for the humans who worshiped at his gilded altar.

The quick rehabilitation of the image of the CEO in the popular imagination was not just a practical matter of wanting to hold on to the material benefits afforded by neoliberal capitalism. It was a psychic measure needed to counteract the fear of dehumanisation at the hands of a runaway Frankenstein economy. In other words, we just wanted to pretend that someone was in control, even if all the facts and evidence were telling us that this wasn’t the case. Everything could be forgiven if hope could be returned.

The retention of the CEO myth was an assertion of the power of individuals to shape events and control their destiny. To achieve this meant holding on to the heroic character of the CEO such that people might regain a sense of control over their own lives too.

Maintaining faith in the CEO was less a matter of empirical fact and more a symptom of a human need to find something to believe in at the end of a hard-earned day; with the reality too hard to bear, the fantasy had to return. Held out was the promise that everyone could receive grace if only he accepted the modern CEO gospel. This is the very same faith that allows people to believe that the business acumen of an impetuous, loud-mouthed, misogynist bully is able to lead America to greatness. When Trump said that he would run the US like a business project, ‘under budget and ahead of schedule’, enough people believed him to pave his way to the White House.

CEOs represent the ability to be in control of a market that appears uncontrollable and uncaring of its profound human costs. This desire for control belies the reality for too many people of being on the wrong side of the rising tide of inequality, and of being subjected to the tyranny of a new singleminded political authoritarian intolerance. Let’s hope that with the next crisis we learn that we need to let go of the fantasy of the CEO.Aeon counter – do not remove

Carl Rhodes & Peter Bloom

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


Thanks Barry for a concise essay on consciousness.

I can't believe it!

Scientific materialists claim that consciousness presents a ‘hard problem’ that will ultimately be solved by science demonstrating how consciousness is created by brain activity. Personally I think this is nonsense – consciousness lies outside the domain of science. In this post I explore what consciousness is through the lens of the philosophy of panpsychism, as presented in philosopher Christian de Quincey’s book Blind Spots.

Consciousness (or mind) is subjective, it is undetectable, is not measurable, and is not located in space.

Physical entities have extension in space, consist of matter-energy and can be measured by science.

Consciousness and matter/energy are the inner and outer of existence. They always go together. Consciousness is the capacity for knowing, feeling, being aware, making choices. It needs energy to act. Consciousness is pervasive throughout the universe, and goes ‘all the way down’ to the smallest components.

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I never thought it of it as part of my moral compass, I just like to help people.

Life After 50

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A moral compass is something that develops over time.  Although I am certain DNA has something to do with it, I suspect it has more to do with the people in our life who, from a very young age, lead by example, teaching us morals & values, moulding us into decent human beings with a good sense of right & wrong.

At some point in our lives, we become solely responsible for our own moral compass.  Now & again we may need a gentle nudge or swift kick in the butt to readjust our mindset, but for the most part, if we have been raised with the proper tools in our moral compass toolbox, we have the wherewithal to know what we should & should not do.

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Excellent thoughts on living life in the now, thanks Jane.

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Thanks once again for sharing such a wonderful reflection. Yesterday and today I got to share a little time with my 3 sisters, brother-in-law, nephews and family. It reminded me of the fragility of life and the beauty of sharing.

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