Senior Lecturers in Philosophy at the University of Sydney, Dr Luara Ferracioli and Dr Sam Shpall, participated in a live Ethics Centre conversation last year, discussing: how do we respectfully disagree? Ferracioli and Shpall concluded the following seven lessons, and how there can be value in disagreeing.

It often feels like we’ve lost a sense of principled disagreement – the idea that it’s OK if reasonable people think differently about something that matters.    

In part, this is because we’ve changed the boundaries on what it’s OK to disagree about. Today, disagreement and debate about sensitive issues is seen by some as harmful or violent. 

This can be interpreted as both attempts to de-platform bigoted ideologies, and also as those upholding the status quo having their power threatened and hiding behind a veil of civil society. It’s why subjects like Black Lives Matter and Critical Race Theory attract so much opprobrium – they speak directly to and challenge power, particularly latent and overt power dynamics. 

We can all be guilty of treating disagreement as something that must have a winner and a loser. Whilst in other times disagreement has been used as a tool for everyone to learn; today, we disagree without any readiness to be persuaded.    

When should we respectfully disagree? Should we always be open to having our mind changed? Can we remain friends with someone who we disagree with about things that really matter?    


1. Genuine disagreement is not a bad thing.  

There is value in good disagreement. Arguing well helps to flesh out all sides of an issue, bring to light underrepresented perspectives and contribute to solutions that benefit the most people; as in a true, functioning democracy and political system.  

People occasionally conflate disagreement over an idea with a personal attack. This is a mistake, because disagreeing over issues and rationally debating the outcome – whether it’s who will do the dishes or how to allocate the national budget – is the best way to ensure a measured outcome that is in the best interests of the greatest majority. The more diversity of opinion there is in the discussion, the better the chance that the outcome will be balanced and representative of the greatest range of points of view. 

The trouble lies in ensuring that the debate is measured, rational and charitable, and does not resort to humiliation and point scoring, as it often does in politics and personal disagreements. It’s important, also, to consider whether some disagreements of opinion are so fundamental that they license strong non-engagement moves like cancellation, de-platforming, and defriending; for example, boycotting a festival because of the presence on the bill of an act or speaker with whose ideas you disagree, or demanding their invitation to speak be withdrawn, such as in the recent case of Sydney Festival. 


2. Genuine disagreement is often positively necessary for intellectual and emotional development.  

Hopefully it’s already clear that cancelling and de-platforming people’s voices is not the way to stimulate a healthy culture of disagreement. Imagine I disagree with my partner about the wisdom of buying an apartment. One of us could simply acquiesce to make things more comfortable. This seems dangerous and unproductive. It makes it more likely that we will make the wrong decision, and it makes it more likely that at least one of us will feel ignored, disrespected and resentful. Notice how familiar the gendered dynamic is here in heterosexual romantic relationships: the controlling, all too often abusive man makes the decisions and expects or enforces compliance.  

To make the right decision we both need to express our needs, wants and arguments clearly, and treat each other’s opinions with respect, working our way through the pros and cons to eventually reach a compromise based on mutual respect, not on one person overpowering the other. 

In the case of the marriage equality debate in Australia, it came down to a national referendum, where the majority voted in favour of same sex marriage, proving pointless all the misleading ad campaigns and snarky media baiting of politicians and pundits. 


3. Sometimes what people call “disagreement” is not disagreement at all. 

Rather than disagreeing over philosophical ideas, sometimes people resort to the tactics of personal attack and outright hostility. If your aim is to humiliate a political opponent or win an election, you might well find that genuine disagreement and a contest of ideas is a less effective strategy than belittling them and misrepresenting their policies. (This goes partway to explaining political apathy, because it appears that many politicians are more interested in humiliating their opponent and scoring a point than having a real battle of ideas.)  

Similarly, if your aim is to “win” a fight with your partner (and make yourself feel good, humiliate them, and put them in their place), you might find that genuine disagreement is a less effective strategy than personal attack. How often in a personal disagreement have you found yourself wanting to bring up a time in the past when the person has wronged you, that has no bearing on the current situation?  

These analogies run quite deep, involving posturing, self-absorption, strong rhetoric, a lack of charity, no engagement with the “opponent’s” perspective, and so on. It’s not a true “disagreement” and contest of ideas, though, but a personal attack motivated by ego. 


 4. Sometimes what people call “offensive” and “hostile” is in fact disagreement. 

In any interlocution, the first interaction always sets the tone: if it starts off hostile, that hostility will only escalate. You need to ask yourself: are you attempting a good faith engagement, or are you being defensive and stereotyping and categorising your opponent’s argument points? 

Take, for example, the disagreement in the media and social media between podcaster Joe Rogan and musician Neil Young. Young removed his music from streaming service Spotify to protest its hosting of Rogan’s podcast, accusing The Joe Rogan Experience of spreading misleading information about Covid-19 vaccines.   

Young followed up with a plea for Spotify employees to leave the company before it “eats up [their] souls”. Other prominent social media users then posted clips of Rogan using racial slurs. Rogan apologised for the slurs and said he will try, “in the future, to balance things out” with information on Covid. Spotify CEO Daniel Ek wrote, “based on the feedback over the last several weeks, it’s become clear to me that we have an obligation to do more to provide balance.” 


 5. Contemporary technologies (text messaging, emailing, social media) can make it harder to disagree well.

Communicating through the brevity of screens does not do much to help the art of good disagreement. With social media we’re getting less charitable with our opponents’ points of view and not always assuming the best version of their views. The way social media enables discussion is counter-productive – it’s so short, often anonymous, and you’re not looking at each other so you can’t see that your opponent is generally trying to have a good faith discussion.  

Sarcasm and irony do not translate over text – consider how many times you’ve been misunderstood over email or text message. Abbreviating our vocabulary down into the bite size shapes of an emoji also engenders a poverty of language and ideas that benefits nobody. Consider Godwin’s law, that the longer an online discussion grows, the more the probability of a reference to the Nazis or Adolf Hitler reduces to zero. 


6. Philosophical-collegial disagreement is a useful model for productive transformations of disagreement, from the personal to the political. 

The philosophical model of disagreement has some valuable tools that should be exported for use in everything from intimate relationships, work environments and political culture to anonymous social interaction. One of the hallmarks of bad disagreement is a lack of charity – presenting your interlocutor in an unflattering light.  

One of the things philosophers try to do at a university level is to reconstruct the best, most plausible, compelling version of the argument that one’s opponent is presenting. The principle of charity is related to a lot of other principles of agreeing well, such as the principle of intellectual humility, understanding that even one’s most cherished beliefs could be improved or better justified. 

You want to win not because you put your opponent down but because you’ve made the best argument and your opponent can see why it should go your way.


7. Some disagreements are not worth having

The phrase ‘agree to disagree’ is a funny one that’s worth thinking about – it’s usually employed in the same way as phrases such as ‘it’s all subjective anyway’ or ‘everyone has their opinion’, not as a real move in a conversation but more as an ending to the conversation. Sometimes we need to end a conversation because it’s not getting anywhere, but sometimes we employ phrases like that to paper over the fact that we don’t have anything more to add to our argument. 

But what about when one party to a disagreement rejects the foundational presuppositions of liberalism? For example, if someone thinks that men and women are fundamentally different and women deserve to be paid less than men, it might be very difficult to have a reasonable conversation with them when your foundational viewpoints are so radically different. 

We have laws that prohibit certain forms of hate speech, of course, but these are hard to enforce and do not really help to answer many of the practical questions about how to interact with people who have these views.  

We can’t give an overall theory about what to do in such cases, but we want to suggest that we steer clear of two dangers:  

  • failing to confront the genuinely inegalitarian, illiberal views; pretending that such views deserve the same sorts of consideration as liberal ones; 
  • and overstretching this response to illiberal exceptions.   


Maybe you disagree with us about some of the things we’ve written, but hopefully you agree that there is value in disagreeing well.