I don’t care if we agree

Agreement is a good goal. It’s hardly the highest, though, and often it can be a problematic goal to hold too tightly, depending on how the other person (or people) might approach the conversation.

The other person might use the goal of agreement as a tool for winning an argument. Agreement might be held hostage. They may be ready to agree only if their current view is proven wrong according to the highest imaginable standards of proof; if they can’t be shown that their view is absolutely, incontrovertibly self-contradictory on every possible interpretation, then they will see themselves as winners. Likewise, they will be persuaded of a new view only if it is proven inescapably, obviously true according to the strictest conceivable standards of evidence, failing which they will again see themselves as the victor and their conversation partner as the stubbornly irrational holdout. This is not a rare or exceptional occurrence; this is the norm for conversations, often even among very intelligent or highly educated people.

Much better to follow Aristotle. We should wish to agree with the truth first of all, and would prefer to agree with our friends but accept that it will not always happen. What might this approach actually look like in practice?

If I am ignorant on a topic and my conversation partner is particularly knowledgeable about it then I will aim for agreement at least insofar as that can help me remedy my ignorance.

If I am knowledgeable on a topic and my conversation partner is ignorant about it, then I will desire agreement insofar as my conversation partner is congenial to and hungry for being instructed.

If we are both ignorant, we should not worry at all about agreement, but should instead desire to become knowledgeable, if that is possible and if (or when) circumstances allow.

If we are both knowledgeable but disagree on some point, then we may hope to learn from one another, but beyond that we shouldn’t be overly concerned about reaching complete agreement.

If my happiness is contingent on whether another person agrees with me, or on whether I agree with another, then I have made myself the servant of the other person’s whims, over which I have no control. Instead, I should seek to agree with myself, to satisfy my own (reasonable, intelligent) standards of evidence, and to learn from others what they can teach me, and beyond that, only to be glad for whatever knowledge or wisdom I have been fortunate enough to attain.

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