On What do we Agree? Finding Ethical Consensus in the Midst of Factual Confusion

by Isobel Marston

Essay originally from Counterweight.

On what do we disagree?

This is a question which admits many answers. We might offer the safety of vaccines, the cause of COVID-19 or the best way to achieve social justice, to name but a few points of contention in 2021. In fact, entertain pretty much any belief that you hold to be true and—no matter how much you think the evidence points to the unquestionable veracity of your belief—somebody will disagree. What I find interesting, however, is when topics become so emotionally charged that people all over the place apparently—and vehementlydisagree over moral issues to an authoritarian-stifle-your-opponent-extent, when I am convinced their morals are really not so far apart. Our discussions around racism often work like this. For this phenomenon, the more interesting question becomes: on what do we agree, and further, why have we found ourselves disagreeing?

Before we answer these questions, let’s take a step back and explore how disagreements can serve to help or harm a given society, how the current disagreements around racism are falling into the ‘harm’ category, and why finding at least some ethical consensus in this domain is vital for the functionality of our society.


The social significance of disagreement

That members of the human race find themselves in constant states of disagreement with one another is indisputable (challenge me if you like, you will only be supporting my point). From genetic dispositions and personality traits to personal life experiences and even indoctrination, one will find no lack of sources to point at and blame for such a state of affairs. Luckily though, throughout the western world disagreement and conflict are much less likely to degenerate into violence than in times gone past. Since all of you reading this have survived thus far, and have probably had your fair share of disagreements, it seems that it is not disputes per se that are inherently dangerous and threatening. Instead, it is how differences of opinion are handled that distinguishes a society liable to degenerate into intra-societal tribalism and warfare at the drop of a hat, from one that can capitalise on differing opinions to the advantage of everyone.

The latter is the ideal of a liberal society.

Liberal societies are predicated upon viewpoint diversity and utilise disagreements to keep hashing out ideas until we find the ones that work best, whilst allowing people the freedom to retain their own personal beliefs. Upholding freedom of belief is crucial for functional societies since it serves to circumvent the outbreak of violence and repression that can occur when we start to think that everyone ought to believe what we believe, and that they should be made to do so by any means necessary. Of course, the totalitarian impulse can still rear its head when it comes to sensitive moral issues; it becomes harder to respect another’s freedom of belief if, say, that belief is one in which torturing a child or killing a puppy is thought to be justifiable. But the belief, if it has not transformed into action, is still one that people have the right to hold.

In our current discussions regarding racism, we can see this totalitarian impulse raising its head.

Emotion, hysteria and endless moralising are entrenched within the topic of racism, and understandably so, but, whilst understandable, this state of affairs is hardly optimal. Why? The political orthodoxy on matters of race no longer allows for disagreement. So, not only are people being pressured to accept things that they don’t believe to be true, but important social issues that require varied perspectives if there is to be any hope of progress, are being viewed through a one-sided lens.

The justification for rigid etiquette on what can, or cannot, be said about race and racism is grounded in the moral importance of the cause. When fighting for liberation, you know your cause is morally good, you know those who oppose you are morally bad, and therefore there is no time for nuance or liberalism when lives are at stake. The problem, then, is that when people begin to feel that they are operating from the unequivocal moral high ground and that anyone who dissents is morally bankrupt, they begin to think that their own morality must be imposed onto the world and that all dissenting views must be stifled.

This, of course, is an untenable belief to enact in a liberal and free society. We all know what can happen when we ditch individual freedom and autonomy in favour of the “common good”. Consequently, finding ethical consensus can help to ameliorate totalitarian impulses by humanising those who think differently to us. So, let’s apply this to the racism debate by figuring out what we are disagreeing about, why we are disagreeing and how we might resolve at least some of those disagreements to find some ethical consensus.


The redefinition of terms

So, what exactly are we disagreeing about?

In the cacophony of polarised voices that have become the defining feature of our cultural times—and, indeed, our Twitter feeds—one might be forgiven for thinking that those on either side of the loudest debates are operating from ethical frameworks that share very little in common. In fact, they cannot even agree on what constitutes immoral treatment of a particular race. After all, the “woke”—a term I use with some hesitancy for its propensity to simplify and homogenise a wider variety of voices than it is sometimes credited for—are ardently against racism. The “anti-woke” also claim to be ardently against racism. It is the racism of “wokeness” that often leads people to become aggressively “anti-woke”.

What is going on here?

The explanation for such a phenomenon is already out there. It goes something like this: we do not all mean the same things by our terms anymore. Words like racism have been weaponised by a linguistic sleight of hand. The redefinition of racism has two main ramifications in that it changes a) who can actually be racist and b) what constitutes racism.

Let’s begin with (a): who can be racist?

Those who buy into Critical Race Theory (CRT) think that people without power cannot be racist, and they hold that determining who has power and who doesn’t can be figured out by the quantity of melanin in a person’s skin. The reasoning for such a position rests on the view that we live in a white supremacist system; racism operates on a systemic level and thus cannot be reduced to the attitude of any one individual. Whilst a black person’s prejudice might be unpleasant, a white person’s prejudice serves to perpetuate social inequality. Consequently, the former cannot be a case of racism, whereas the latter can be. Those who use the traditional definition of racism tend to think that anyone can be racist since they believe it to be a racially prejudiced attitude that an individual holds. Thus, Critical Race Theorists are fine with making derogatory or stereotypical statements about race, as long as that race is white people.

Now, let’s move on to (b): what constitutes racism?

For CRT, what constitutes racism is, at the risk of sounding facetious, pretty much anything. Any unequal outcomes are racist, subtle body language is racist, things that feel racist are racist, not being actively anti-racist is racist, science is racist, believing in the principle of colour-blindness is racist. You get the point. Those who utilise the traditional definition of racism have a much more specific state of affairs mapped out for determining what constitutes racism: that is, an act that is prejudiced or discriminatory against a particular group and individuals within it on the basis of their membership in a particular group, where the group is defined racially.

Consequently, the paradox of both sides thinking the other is racist partially parallels what is sometimes called a “merely verbal dispute”, in so far as the paradox dissolves when you realise they mean something different by their terms. Except, in this case, the dispute is clearly not merely verbal. If we were all using the same unambiguous terms, the conflict would not simply resolve itself and vanish into thin air. For at least some of the population, however, I am inclined to think that while the disagreement can be traced back to these terminological differences, it is not the result of buying into the CRT definition of racism; instead, it is born out of ignorance that such a radical redefinition has even gone on. For this group, at least, using agreed upon terms might just dissolve the dispute.


How the redefinition of terms misleads us

Few among us would be quick to stand in the way of a movement that advocates for social justice, yet support for such movements often comes too quickly due to a paucity of knowledge regarding the different approaches to it. Critical Social Justice (CSJ) has diametrically opposed starting assumptions and values to Liberal Social Justice. Thus, it seems likely that, for some of us, our differences would fall apart if we were working from the same brute facts, instead of accepting second-hand interpretations of reality, as conceived by CSJ activists.

Take, for example, the frenzied debates over cancel culture and its existence, or lack thereof. Some hold that it would be more aptly named “consequence culture” and is therefore morally justified (of course, the moral righteousness of a mob has dubious ethical standing if our history is anything to go by). If those who condone or dismiss cancel culture took the time to look into the unveiled circumstances—as opposed to relying on hyperbolic hit pieces—that have caused some to be fired, censured and lacking in job security due to allegations of racism or bigotry, I am sure a lot of them would think, like I do, that “consequence culture” or “cancel culture” is not something that ought to be frivolously dismissed as nothing to worry about.

After all, oftentimes those who come under the “woke” banner do not really ascribe to different theories of truth or spend their time reading obscure philosophy and arguing about the merits of differing accounts of social constructivism. Not everyone is concluding “that’s racist” because they mean something different by racism; instead, they have heard—from people who truly do have a different definition of racism—that something racist is happening. They assume it’s true and then they parrot it. Maybe they have read a scathing article denouncing all those right-wing white men that are intent on silencing the oppressed by circulating delusory fantasies of censorship. Since the free-speech debate is certainly not new (and can often be more delusion than reality), they assume that the current furore over cancel culture is just more of the same.

However, you can see here for a list of around 90 people de-platformed, cancelled, or fired within British academia and here for a list of around 100 cancelled academics in America and Canada. The sins that have led to ruined reputations, loss of jobs, de-platforming, and public shaming range from positing that the police are not all inherently racist, to suggesting that college students can decide on their own Halloween costumes or indeed for simply writing an essay about the importance of academic freedom. The problem far surpasses the realm of academia and celebrity culture; these are simply the most high-profile and easy to track cases.

So, how many among those who condone cancel culture would really think that all police are racist? Or that writing an essay on academic freedom is a fireable offense? I am willing to bet not as many as it might appear. For some, our differences are not primarily moral or ideological, but informational. We are not armed with the same facts.

At a stretch, I think this point may be extended even to those who have settled on different definitions of racism.


How dodgy information encourages acceptance of redefined terms

Ask yourself, why might individuals have accepted the CRT conception of racism in the first place?

If we keep our answer in relation to the average person, thus excluding the enthralling nature of Foucault’s prose from the equation, we might better understand why CRT’s assessment of society has been accepted by people who are unlikely to be familiar with the academic literature of CRT.

Put simply: it provides a ready-made explanation as to why certain identity groups do not do as well as others within our society. When our social feeds were overflowing with videos of black men being brutalised by the police, some explanation was called for. Discrimination is illegal. Racist views have been deemed socially unacceptable by the majority of society. How is this happening in the 21st century?

The answer: racism works through an invisible power system, perpetuated by hidden biases, discourses and institutions. When we are bombarded with statistics showing time and time again that black people do worse than white people, it seems like racism must be everywhere, we just cannot see it. So, we listen to the “experts”. We accept redefinitions of racism because it appears unavoidable that traditional definitions of racism are not sufficient to fill the explanatory gap that has opened up.

Of course, unequal outcomes and police brutality are not nearly as black and white—pardon the pun—as they are presented in the media and Facebook or Twitter posts (those well-known sources of accurate, objective information). Since the realities of these two topics require careful consideration, I do not have the space to go in-depth within this article. However, Coleman Hughes wrote an excellent piece in Quillette, The Racism Treadmill, on what he calls the disparity fallacy, elucidating why it is a mistake to assume that unequal outcomes are always the result of discrimination. Further, our most current evidence to date, a study conducted by Roland G. Fryer, Jr., indicates that racial bias is not an all-pervasive force that leads to the state-sanctioned killing of black men by the police. In fact, they found no evidence of racial bias when it came to white police shooting black men.

Maybe if everyone knew this, then they would be less likely to accept the new definition of racism. Unfortunately, once a particular worldview has become entrenched, it is usually resistant to change on the basis of new information.


Cause for hope

Whilst the above paints a pretty drab picture of the discourse on race, I do think, probably naively, that not agreeing on the same facts might give us at least some reason to be optimistic. Perhaps it is not the case that our morals or principles are miles apart from one another. Perhaps we just think we know different things, and as such have different perspectives. If this is the case, then we have a lot in common. Both I and those who dismiss cancel culture think that people ought to lose their jobs if they commit objectively racist acts. Both I and the BLM supporters think that black lives matter and that racially motivated state-sanctioned killing is morally reprehensible. Both I and those who fight for (Critical) Social Justice abhor the notion of white supremacy and believe that a person’s worth is not determined by their immutable characteristics. I could go on; in the ethical domain, we have more points of consensus than we do disagreement.

To be clear, I am not trying to imply that if we all knew the same things, we would all think the same things, nor am I trying to imply that such a state of affairs is desirable. It isn’t. However, in trying to understand how we each got to our conclusions and perspectives and in trying to find points of consensus between those with radically different world views, communication is made possible once more. It’s hard to engage in real debate when you assume your opponent is bad, morally bankrupt or totally absurd.

No matter how vast and unbridgeable our divides may seem, creating caricatures of our opposition is unlikely to do us any favours. When I see the views I share being denounced as “fascist” or “racist”, I resist the urge to dehumanise my opposition in the way some of them might do to me. I bear no ill will to people who have been misled by redefinitions or people who accept redefinitions on the basis of their access to dubious “facts”. I assume they are operating from similar moral landscapes to my own until I have good reason to believe otherwise. I simply hope that in time—and with the concerted effort of the swathes of people who are interested in unearthing the truth—more people might come to see that our differences are really not so great.


Isobel Marston is a student of philosophy at the University of Southampton and the Content Coordinator for Counterweight.

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