Tolstoy on Disagreement
By Bryan Caplan
Sometimes I think I could spend the rest of my life reading War and Peace, then Anna Karenina, then starting over with War and Peace. Here’s another thought-provoking passage from AK:
‘What do they want to argue for? No one ever convinces anyone, you know.’
`Yes; that’s true,’ said Levin; `it generally happens that one argues warmly simply because one can’t make out what one’s opponent wants to prove.’
Levin had often noticed in discussions between the most intelligent people that after enormous efforts, and an enormous expenditure of logical subtleties and words, the disputants finally arrived at the realization that what they had so long been struggling to prove to one another had long ago, from the beginning of the argument, been known to both, but that they liked different things, and would not define what they liked for fear of its being attacked. He had often had the experience of suddenly grasping in a discussion what it was his opponent liked and at once liking it too, and immediately he found himself agreeing, and then all arguments fell away as useless. Sometimes, too, he had experienced the opposite, expressing at last what he liked himself, which he was devising arguments to defend, and, chancing to express it well and genuinely, he had found his opponent at once agreeing and ceasing to dispute his position.
Is this right? I agree that it would save a lot of time if people simply laid their cards on the table. I strive to do so… or at least that is my favorite excuse for my poor social skills.
Nevertheless, I doubt that greater openness about our underlying values (or “likes” as Tolstoy puts it) would lead to more agreeement. When Krugman opens up about his liberal conscience, for example, I hardly find myself “agreeing and ceasing to dispute his position.” My reaction is more like “Give me a break.”
What do you think? Would greater candor about values lead to greater agreeement? Or is Tolstoy’s Levin barking up the wrong tree?