On civic friendship

John Haldane outlines how reasonable disagreement should work in a divided society.



John Haldane outlines how reasonable disagreement should work in a divided society.


I think it’s an ironic and problematic feature of contemporary liberalism that it stems from a tradition that has encouraged open debate, that it’s actually becoming increasingly ideological and closed in. Now, you know, why that has happened is an interesting question. I think it’s to be explained in part in a general tendency of human beings to try to consolidate their positions politically, to try to sort of quell resistance that, you know, that everything’s a battle for power, a battle for ground, and once you get it you make sure you entrench it and you build high walls and so on. So it may simply be that.

But I think it is deeply problematic at a time when we have so many disputed questions both within societies and between societies. It’s very problematic if we can’t engage in that without maintaining a level of civility and mutual respect. Now, I myself think that the best way of cultivating mutual respect in public debate, or indeed even in private conversation, is by recognising that if we’re dealing with contested issues, that’s because we are in the area of reasonable disagreement. If there weren’t something to be said on either side of the issue it wouldn’t be a contentious issue, right, it simply would have been resolved and would have been off the table. So with regard to anything on the list that would be familiar to people – whether it’s questions of abortion, assisted suicide, same-sex marriage, you can just … you know, climate debates and so on – there’s going to be something to be said on either side or we wouldn’t be discussing these things.

So I think it’s trying to understand the nature of disagreement and how it’s possible to be reasonable on either side of a position. Once you start to understand that – which I would say is just a matter of intellectual maturity, and it may be a feature of our culture that there’s not a lot of that around – but once you achieve that then this induces in you, this brings about in you a kind of form of what I call civic friendship, the recognition that we’re all trying to do our best to understand and resolve these questions. And that makes us kind of allies in the quest.

It’s not just that, as well, we should be tolerant of one another. That is true. I think we should do more than that, I think we should sort of evince and express a kind of friendship with one another. And I think, were we to do that, then that’s not to solve the debated questions, but I think it is going to solve the question of how we can set about discussing those in a way that’s mutually respectful.