Significance of Agreement

As we pursue our action hierarchies with inspiration backed by clarity of vision and identity we encounter people, institutions, ideas, and experiences that contradict our models of the world. At first, we enthusiastically take up the challenge: we assume misunderstanding, poor implementation, or immorality. But as ostensibly minor contradictions unveil complex belief systems and seemingly isolated experiences coalesce, bewilderment unsettles energetic certitude.

Our incredulity rises when we are asked why we care. Why does existence of different beliefs, projects, and people concern us even when they are too abstract, remote, or tangential to our practical actions? And not just concern us, but interrupts, demotivates, and redirects our efforts?

Effectiveness of Execution

Clarity of purpose is an essential source of psychological energy. At the moment of execution, all action relies on it – and we abridge our action hierarchies, at least temporary, as much as is needed to achieve it.

We presume our capabilities to be sufficient and our models to be true even when we intuit complexity in the task and magic in our understanding. We accept visions and justifications even when we realize they can be questioned. We treat goals and plans as settled even when we know there are alternatives.

It cannot be otherwise if we are to execute: we’d learn, practice, evaluate, adjust, and reevaluate forever. The provisional faith in the rest of the hierarchy at the moment of execution makes action possible. Greater certitude in the correctness of this faith fosters more motivated, effective, and persistent action.

When action involves other people, or concerns shared goals, clarity of purpose presupposes agreement. To act we rely on models of the world, our group, and other individuals. We rely on laws, customs, and commitments. And we rely on others sharing such beliefs with us. We act within group standards and towards group goals under the assumption that others agree on their superiority.

Disagreement pollutes individual clarity, but the effect on collective action compounds beyond the sum of individual demotivation. Agreement is the lubricant of cooperation. It helps us to trust people, to model their actions, to allocate resources, to forecast the future.

Without agreement we have to question good faith, competence, and understanding of others in every interaction. We are reluctant to share, sacrifice, and expose vulnerabilities. We pull in different directions: competing and hiding instead of cooperating, putting individual goals above shared ones, looking for ways to protect ourselves or gain an advantage.

The resulting interference, insecurity, maneuvering, and duplication impede shared goals with added friction and counterproductive activity. Hostility and ineffectiveness further disrupt faith in communal hierarchies, which erodes individual clarity and trust still more, feeding a destructive cycle.

Viability of Strategy

Agreement solves the coordination problem, reduces transaction costs, encourages sacrifice, and energizes individual action – all of which compound effectiveness of shared action for each participant. And it allows us to use the simplest, most direct, and most efficient strategies, which further aid clarity and effectiveness by being easy to understand, believe, and implement.

Once we cannot rely on good faith agreement, strategies explode in complexity: defensive checks and balances that stymie progress, competitive approaches that duplicate effort, explicit rules that ossify, bureaucracies that coopt trust, education that morphs into propaganda, incentives that backfire, compromises that sacrifice the long-run…

But disagreement doesn’t just make for more complex and less efficient strategies. The simple strategies are often the only ones that appear to be viable. We believe that our goals are achievable and our sacrifices are warranted because such strategies exist.

Disagreement pressures doers into skepticism, hope into apathy, goodness into selfishness, cooperation into competition, and righteousness into fanaticism.

Defensibility of Goals

Still, why do we care about agreement even with those who aren’t involved in our pursuits?

Disagreement seeds confusion, distraction, and inefficiency. It leads to competition for desired resources. Action is certainly simpler without it. But it’s also simpler without other constraints. Why is it so difficult to treat disagreement as just another constraint?

In part because agreement is the obvious path to dissolve most other constraints. And in part because we know that human beliefs, no matter how strongly held, are not absolute in the same way that laws of nature or physical resources are. They were formed through experience and can be reformed through it.

Why can’t we just isolate ourselves from disagreement? In part because action tends to be too interconnected. It is costly, if not impossible, to isolate the commons, but we cannot idly allow dissenters to access areas we seek to protect or improve lest they appropriate contributions intended for the commons or become comparatively stronger from our sacrifices.

And in part because our most precious goals tend to have universal foundations and global aspirations so there might not actually be anyone who is completely uninvolved – merely those who aren’t involved directly, or significantly, or immediately, but nevertheless threaten our mission if they remain so. Their committed existence alone attacks the absolutes that ground our goals.

The very concept of progress rests on agreement on what is better, if not best. This agreement not only motivates action, but mitigates and justifies its risks.

As is passionately pointed out by reactionaries of every era, change breaks things and makes dangers and abuses possible on hitherto unprecedented scale. What emboldens us to proceed despite the risks is faith in the goodness of change and in the ability to mitigate the dangers. And this faith rests, almost invariably, on some combination of agreement and moral fortitude.

The good people among us have a duty to follow the agreed upon path. Those who bring change into the world, or who best understand it, have to use their moral sensibilities to restrict undesirable uses of knowledge, technologies, or social structures: scholars have a moral responsibility for the consequences of their ideas, scientists for their inventions, technologists for their creations. And the rest of us have a responsibility to expose and contain abuses that escape.

If both agreement and moral duty are denied, or made practically difficult, then the entire enterprise of progressive solution seeking – whether through knowledge, freedom, science, technology, prosperity, democracy, or ethics – turns from conscientious to reckless, from optimistic to frightening, from wise perseverance to naive stubbornness, from noble altruism to selfish curiosity. It can no longer be justified as unambiguously superior to the alternatives. And every person who disagrees makes this outcome more real.

Foundation of Identity

Disagreement is far more personal and consequential than an attack on a particular action hierarchy or even on the concept of progress.

Our identity pursues a vision of worth, integrity, justice, and recognition. These concepts come to be defined, measured, and pursued through action for external visions, such as those of our community or its potential replacements. These visions are accepted by being justified to be true, ethical, and desirable beyond alternatives and thus the best way for us to be a good and worthy person. Our sense of meaning and worth, and our individual and communal effectiveness, are tied to these justifications. Our identity becomes enmeshed with external visions as we learn, work, and sacrifice within their constraints.

When disagreement challenges justifications of our action hierarchies, it simultaneously challenges the universal foundations and global aspirations that guide and inspire us. It attacks the perception of their unambiguous superiority which grounds our moral fortitude, perseverance, and sense of meaning.

Those justifications validate our identity. Therefore disagreement assaults our goodness. We relied on them to make sacrifices and set expectations for future rewards. Therefore disagreement threatens our due. We depended on them to choose skills to master and sphere of influence to develop. Therefore disagreement trivializes our capability and worth.

It takes a long time for us to accept that foundations of our identity are really being challenged. Though our pride may react violently to insults latent in disagreement, we tend to be as unaware of contingent circumstances of our truths as we are of the air we breathe: valid disagreements about them strike us as unbelievable.

We justify individual sacrifice with appeals to successful execution. We justify coordinated execution with appeals to effective strategy. We justify compliance with strategy with appeals to worthy goals. We justify desirability of goals with appeals to shared values, models, and desires. When our justifications are insufficient, we fault our skill or understanding. Then we blame skill or understanding of others. Then we condemn individual ethics. Then systems at ever-larger scopes.

Although we ostensibly argue about external action hierarchies, we feel compelled to argue because goodness and truth are at stake. We learn what is good by accepting communal agreements, we prove ourselves good by acting within them, and we become good by internalizing, living, and defending their sacredness.

How can we allow unethical ideas to pass unresisted in action or in speech without silencing what has become our conscience? How can we not rebel against unfairness or insults without silencing our sense of justice? How can we not demand due recognition without silencing our sense of dignity? And if we do, what distinguishes us from those who never developed such moral senses in the first place? How can we then prove ourselves good? How can we retain faith in our identity’s vision? And from where are we to derive meaning, purpose, and energy?

The feelings, habits, and incentives that compel us to convince, even when it makes no practical difference, are the same feelings, habits, and incentives that compel us to act ethically even when it is against our obvious self interest, and are the same feelings, habits, and incentives that compel us to pursue virtuous ends even when they are distant, uncertain, expensive, or dangerous. As such, they are responsible for great adventures, noble deeds, daring pursuits, and extraordinary accomplishments. And they are grounded in the presumption of absolute truth and the possibility of agreement.

3 thoughts on “Significance of Agreement

  1. I’ve had some related thoughts recently, and I think they mesh with your conclusions but it’s a bit unclear. Let me know what you think.

    1. Long-term sustained, coherently directed, massively distributed action is much easier when the agents have a strong sense of purpose.
    2. This sense of purpose (≈ meaning) and motivation is supplied by an ideology. It is more effective when the goal is BIG (or impossible).
    3. All agents have some ideology of varying coherence. Ideology = ontology + values
    4. Agent motivation is risked when an ideology is questioned without a good response, and there are two ways they get questioned:
    4a. Morally: imperfectly correlated ideologies, with different value systems, will make one question the validity of a given system.
    4b. Practically: imperfect plans bump into reality and give unexpected results

    4a is tough… “Philosophy is the solvent of ideology”. If you’re a moral relativist, you might say all ideologies are equally susceptible to this, and so you can’t do much beyond maintain some semblance of logical coherence.

    4b is tractable. Openness to feedback from the environment and epistemology allows those interested, and willing to admit imperfection, to update their beliefs and plans and thereby increase the probability of success in the long run.

    My interpretation of being “grounded in the presumption of absolute truth and the possibility of agreement” would then be an embracing of epistemology and the fact that even though an ideology’s plans will smash into reality over and over, it can collect data about these collisions and reduce their frequency in the future.

    1. Seems broadly right. Your split of ideology into ontology and values, which then correspond to 4b and 4a, is interesting. If I am correctly interpreting it as basically ‘what is true’ + ‘what is right’, then it seems that values are usually derived/defended from ontology. At least in cases when ideology is a strong motivator.

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