Saranga Sudarshan (Independent Scholar), "Reasonable Disagreement and Metalinguistic Negotiation"
Philosophy can oftentimes appear obscure and distant. So rather than repeat the arguments of my paper, “Reasonable Disagreements and Metalinguistic Negotiations”, I’ll sketch how I came to its core idea of applying metalinguistic negotiations to the project of explaining reasonable disagreements. And maybe, this potted history will give you some insight as to what led me to write my article and why it might be of interest to you.
I think I became aware of metalinguistic negotiations before I knew what they were. I remember having discussions in undergraduate tutorials with those that profoundly disagreed with me. These discussions were often heated because at that time I felt people were talking past each other. “X is happy! They have everything they want”, “No, they aren't, they went through a lot of hardships they clearly wouldn’t have ideally wanted”. “X is free to do what he wants with his own body”, “No he isn’t, a lot of things we can do to ourselves limits the freedom of others”. Of course there is more than this sketch to these debates. But, regardless of that I hope there is something familiar about them. They involve people using seemingly common language and roughly agreeing on the broad facts of the case and the content of a theory and still ending up disagreeing in some way. What's more, even after suggesting that the two people arguing could mean slightly different things by key terms like happiness or freedom, the disagreement continued. It seemed to me at the time that a disturbing aspect of this disagreement was that we were trying to force others to use a particular term in the way we were using it or meaning it. In effect that we were indulging in verbal disagreements, ie. disagreements merely about the usage of words as opposed to anything about freedom or happiness. This seemed a clearly a bad way to argue, as fun as it can sometimes be.
Of course left as they are, these types of disagreement don’t seem all that interesting. Those undergraduate tutorials were meant for discussion and for us to challenge each other. Continuing a disagreement even if it seems like it is a merely verbal disagreement in this context seems fine. But then, I began to notice a similar sort of disagreement in politics. But now these disagreements seemed to no longer be about isolated issues between students still coming to grips with a concept. Rather they were about issues that involved some deep conflict in world views between reasonable people. Not that I understood clearly at the time, but what I was trying to make sense of was a particular form of disagreement: reasonable disagreements which were also deep disagreements. For the nature of deep disagreements see Chris Ranalli’s paper “What is Deep Disagreement”, and for reasonable disagreements see Rawls on the fact of reasonable pluralism in Political Liberalism.
One early area I remember seeing such disagreements was in the political debates over the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia. One conservative or religious line of argument was that advocates of same-sex marriage were attempting to change the definition of marriage as it existed either in the community or in law. I remember thinking that this was correct and not an objection at all. Yes, if the community’s usage of ‘marriage’ was such that it only applied to marriages between men and women advocating for same-sex marriage was broadening that usage because it was right to do so. This seemed perfectly reasonable because those on the other side were advocating for a usage that fit with a religious world view or one that favoured some meaning that was long-standing in the community or law. I also remember that one move in this debate was for both sides to use the term marriage with the meaning they were advocating for when stating their arguments, ie. by using either the more traditional or the more egalitarian meaning.
This is when I first realised that, although superficially it might seem like a verbal disagreement, there was something more going on. As such, given there were generally reasonable people on both sides, this contest was not some pure bad faith confrontation. Both sides were trying to sincerely persuade the other. There was some conflict in thought that was being asserted when each side would use the word ‘marriage’. We were contesting how to categorise our social world because that mattered for the sort of society we wanted. I began to recognise this sort of argumentative move or type of disagreement in other major political contests. The use of ‘freedom’ or ‘sovereignty’ in the debate over whether the UK should leave the EU, and the use of man and woman in debates about gender, sex, and the enumeration of rights for transgender people.
And so when I first encountered David Plunkett and Tim Sundell’s 2013 paper on metalinguistic negotiations I realised metalinguistic negotiations were a good explanation of what I was observing. As they see it, metalinguistic negotiations are disputes that hinge on a view about what the meaning of a word ought to be, which is pragmatically expressed rather than literally expressed. To understand what the means think of two people disagreeing about the spiciness of some soup. Alice says, “Oh this soup is too spicy you put too many chillies in it”, but Bob says “No it's not spicy I haven’t put any chillis in”. That sounds like a conventional disagreement. The central conflict is literally expressed: a belief about whether the soup has chillies in it. A metalinguistic negotiation on the other hand would be something like Alice saying “Oh this soup is too spicy” thinking of the taste palette of the eaters, and Bob saying “No this soup isn’t spicy at all” thinking of the different variety of chillies he could have put in it. Here the central conflict is pragmatically expressed by Alice and Bob using the term ‘spicy’ with different meanings.
When my interest in disagreements led me, during my PhD, to the problem of explaining the in the context of how legitimate political authority could be justified, metalinguistic negotiations served a perfect foundation. The above example of spiciness seemed to be perfectly translated into the types of reasonable but deep disagreements about justice, freedom, equality and other political terms. As such, the main job of the paper is to fit metalinguistic negotiations into a coherent explanatory model of reasonable disagreement within political philosophy (which itself fits into a larger project of defending political realism as a theory of legitimacy, but that is for another day).
Rather than going into the internal theoretical consequences of explaining some reasonable disagreements as metalinguistic negotiations for liberalism or political realism - you can read the paper and draw your own conclusions about that - I’ll end by drawing out what I think might be some broader dialectical consequences. One consequence might be that my proposed strategy will probably be unsatisfactory for many moral and political philosophers. This is because it entails an ever existing tension and agonism in at least some corners of politics and social life. These are corners where disagreements are not moored to fixed points which help us resolve our debates by finding a rational mistake or some point of consensus. There is no complete utopia. There is no guarantee of victorious justification on all issues. There will always be contests.
Another consequence might be that by accepting some reasonable disagreements are metalinguistic negotiations we will have to learn to get comfortable with disagreement and messiness in political life. This means that we have to accept that the usual way of persuading our political opponents by marshalling more evidence or historical precedence on some issue isn’t going to work. Rather we have to resort to critiques internal to our opponent’s worldviews (which means learning more about what they think) and presenting the best version of our own worldview so it is something that people want to believe.
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