April 01, 2019
Reaching Common Ground Through Cooperative Reasoning
One of the exciting innovations in my pedagogy is teaching students to talk with each other when they disagree or even feel offended by someone’s beliefs. Students, faculty and staff hunger for a way to work through the divided times in which we live.
American philosopher Maureen Linker offers a method to help us have better conversations when we disagree instead of attacking each other or totally disengaging. The key is engaging what Linker calls “cooperative reasoning,” meaning that two people listen to each other with the goal of understanding why people believe what they believe.
Most of us rely instead on adversarial reasoning, and Linker invites us to let our defenses down to collaborate with others instead of trying to persuade or defeat them. This collaboration involves the effort to establish “conditional trust,” first by being willing to listen openly to and consider relevant counterevidence.
The other aspect of developing trust is to reassure those we disagree with that we do not mistrust or dislike them for asking critical questions or raising the possibility that some beliefs are driven by implicit bias. This type of reassurance helps connect people, hopefully enabling them to continue their discussion long enough to reveal some common ground about which both interlocutors agree. However, the cooperative reasoning method does not ask that we affirm the other person’s beliefs or that we compromise to “meet in the middle,” which are common misperceptions of Linker’s project.
To encourage my students to practice talking across disagreement, I have assigned projects in courses such as “Race, Class, and Ethics” and “Feminist Philosophy” that invite students to seek out people they disagree with about something important to them and to practice the skills Linker advocates. This assignment calls for students to reflect upon where they succeeded in using cooperative reasoning; where they faltered despite trying to avoid adversarial reasoning; what it felt like to disagree with their interlocutor; whether they uncovered any common ground, and if so, what that felt like; and finally what they could do in the future to improve their cooperative reasoning.
My students took up conversations on various topics pertaining to their course work, including questions such as “Is industrial food production unethical?” “Is mass incarceration unethical?” “Should cannabis be legalized at the federal level?”
“Should the Equal Rights Amendment finally be ratified?” and others of their choosing. Students had these conversations with their friends on campus back home and from their GO program destinations, with their siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and with people they didn’t know very well.
Students reported that these conversations were never easy but that they benefitted from a tremendous improvement in their leadership roles on campus as well as in their personal relationships. Cooperative reasoning and intellectual empathy are not to be practiced because they are polite or “P.C.,” but because they enable us to do high-quality, critical thinking instead of attacking or merely disengaging when we disagree with others.
Coleen Zoller, Ph.D., is professor and head of the Department of Philosophy and program director of GO Greece.