On Disagreement: the Vice Disguised as a Virtue

A laughable state of affairs arises when people think they are covert in their misdeeds, all the while being anything but covert to any outside observer who is not wearing blinders. Most especially laughable are the occasions where we find someone who disguises a vice as a virtue to serve only their own ends; or in other words, when a virtue becomes a vice if the virtue is employed in a manner not intended by the annunciator of virtue.

The general problem, then, is when someone takes some act and deems it a virtuous act, only so they may then justify their doing said act by appealing to its virtuous properties; all the while claiming the same act to be a vice when used in a manner they find non-preferable.

The specific problem, thus, for us, is disagreement. Some among us say disagreement is a virtue, on one occasion, an occasion wherein which they most certainly disagree with what someone else is saying, but also, on yet another occasion, say disagreement is a vice. Of course, if we separate these two occasions by a sufficient amount of time, then entirely plausible the thesis that said person has simply changed their mind indeed becomes. But to suppose the plausibility of that thesis entirely negates our suspicion of something otherwise is mistaken. For I do believe people indeed use the notion of vice and virtue, in relation to disagreement, to justify their disagreeing with someone or to justify their immunity from disagreement.

To understand more thoroughly, let’s walk through the mechanics, with examples, of the behavior, so we can better see the duplicitous ploy in action.

Suppose I have invited John to dinner, after we have both read the Wealth of Nations. And during our dinner, we begin to discuss what we have read. I make a few comments, and then so does John. But John’s comments are, instead of general commentary, stern disagreements about the book. Suppose now that I have complimented John for his disagreements, for he has changed my opinion about the book and has given me a more enlightened view. To which John responds, “we all need disagreement in our lives, it is the virtue that keeps us both grounded in perception yet agile in thought”. Here, John has framed disagreement as a virtue.

But let us now fast-forward three months. Now, John and I have read another book called “the critique of pure reason”. We are again eating dinner and discussing the book. This time, however, when John makes a comment on the book, I disagree. And as a result, John says, “this conversation is not about whether you agree with me or not, and so you should stay focused on the book, it is a bad habit to become distracted like that”. Perhaps John could even accuse me of bad manners. What has happened here, then?

John, in one situation, has called disagreement a virtue, and welcomed my agreement with him as well; yet, in another, but also essentially identical situation, John has dubbed disagreement a vice. John accepts that disagreement can grant us enlightened views about books, and help us think more clearly about a subject; yet when the disagreement is about what he said, disagreement is soon seen as a distraction, bad manners, or off-topic.

That is basically how this problem plays out, and it happens all too frequently in society as well. Scientists, politicians, and even romantic partners do this sort of behavior; they relabel things as vices and virtues, depending on when they need to justify their own behavior.

A scientist will preach the virtues of disagreement when they are critiquing the work of their peers; but when a student disagrees with the work of said scientist, it is suddenly a vice. To disagree with a scientist is to commit the vice of “disagreeing without having prior knowledge or education”. Somehow, the status of the student warrants the conclusion that their disagreement is a vice.

Likewise, when we consider political discussions, we have at times people espouse the virtues of disagreement on issues like taxation or immigrations; yet when disagreement comes for their own ideas, they begin to suppose that the disagreement is a vice; that anyone who would disagree with their ideas are not in fact engaged in the virtue of open discussion but are instead being racists, bad actors, or uneducated in opinion. If only mere mortals could see how wrong they are to disagree with the politically righteous.

And this duplicitous ploy of labelling disagreement as a virtue, to then only call it a vice when used in a way that is not convenient, unsurprisingly, manifests in personal relationships. When a couple discuss their flaws with one another, one partner can espouse how wonderful it is that they can openly disagree about behaviours and subjects of discussion, yet that same partner will invariably say “we are a team, don’t challenge me so frequently,” or, “don’t be argumentative,” or some other expression.

Moreover, there is another problem which we should discuss before ending our discussion. Though slightly different it shares many similarities to our first problem.

Those who point to the virtue inherent in an act, such as being open, will also at a later time point to the vice inherent in an act. In the case of disagreement, what happens is that some will indeed call disagreement a virtue when it suits their needs to do so; however, those same individuals will deem the tendency to argue, which necessarily accompanies disagreement, a vice. What happens here is also rather tricky and duplicitous.

When affairs deem fit, people will justify their behavior by appealing to the virtue or vice of an act. As though the scale for vice and virtue tilted one way or another based on the needs of the user. We can, assuredly, agree that an act has both vice and virtue, but to selectively highlight, so as to add emphasis on those elements which justify your current behavior, seems to assign a new inherent weight in those vices and virtues most readily associated with the act; and whenever we need to call upon either a vice or virtue of an act, so as to justify ourselves, we simply reset those inherent weights to whatever arrangement of mass most favors our needs.

To give examples for the many ways in which this occurs, let’s go back to our scientist. A scientist can, on the one hand, rely on the virtues of disagreement to critique a colleague, while, on the other hand, rely on the vices of interrupting a lecture to stifle disagreement. In other words, the weight of the vice for interrupting a class outweighs the weight of virtue for disagreement; at least until that same scientist wants to then some days later interrupt a colleague, or worse yet a student, during their presentation.

So, that then leaves us with two duplicitous tricks. We have the declaring of a single act either a vice or virtue, or we have the selective highlighting and weighting of an acts virtue or vice, all so that someone can be more justified in their own actions. Now we are left with one last question.

Why might this happen? Many reasons, I suppose. But the most important to us are as follows: people seek to be justified. Whether it is being justified in critiquing their colleague, whether it is being justified in arguing with their spouse, or whether it is being justified in downplaying someone’s political views, people want to be justified in doing so. And that is a primary reason for this behavior to emerge.

Thus, we are to now conclude: disagreement is only welcomed when it conveniences others most; that a virtue is a vice when it needs to be so, and that a vice is a virtue, all the same, when it needs to be so. Likewise, the weights of vice and virtue are relative to the circumstance at hand. At least that is so for all those who are embodying a vice while espousing virtue; for those who are themselves vices disguised in empty virtues.

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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