The Problem of Consensus

I’ve recently been reading a lot about wicked problems. The word ‘wicked’ here does not designate immorality but rather complexity, malignancy, and general intractability. I will almost certainly be exploring the topic further in a future post. You can read more about wicked problems here). What I want to talk about today is a feature or aspect or type of wicked problems: the challenge of collaboration. Basically the idea that I have been reading is that for people to work together efficiently they need to have a common understanding of the problem they’re working on and on the goals of the project. Otherwise the different perspectives will clash and struggle against each other, vastly detracting from the efficiency of the project.

It is interesting, I do not recall reading any major philosophical work that has discussed the problem of building consensus or agreement. It makes sense, in a way. First, consensus usually pertains to concrete action, while philosophy usually does not. To philosophers, the conversation itself is usually the end, or an individual is trying to articulate their own particular set of beliefs. Further, the western philosophical tradition usually emphasizes a combative and confrontational approach.

I have been reading a book recently called The Righteous Mind. The premise of the book is basically that our rationality serves our intuitions, not vice versa. That is to say, we tend to believe things intuitively first, and then we create reasons for our beliefs. One idea that the book emphasizes is that we cannot rationally engage with others when angry or upset. When our walls are up, we focus on rationalizing objections and defenses, rather than on actually engaging with the other person.

I wonder whether philosophy is harmed by this. On the one hand, it seems that the psychological state that generates an argument does not define the quality of the argument. Nietzsche is probably right that we can explain philosophies by pointing to environmental and social features in the lives of philosophers, but I think most of us resist the idea that this undermines the ideas themselves. On the other hand, conversation and dialogue is indispensable to philosophy, and I have to say based on my experience that I am defensive in a a great many of my philosophical conversations. Philosophy is an immensely fractured discipline, which is in many ways divided by culture and language as opposed to coherent philosophical disagreement.

I think its interesting to try to push the issue further, though. Should philosophy be aiming for consensus? Consensus, I think it should be noted, is different from compromise. Compromise means meeting in the middle, consensus means coming to a shared understanding. I think there is at least plausibility to the claim that philosophy should spend less time debating and more time consensus building: at the very least we might begin to dissolve some of the barriers that inhibit our current philosophical traditions.

Let me know what you think,


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