What If We Can’t Agree?

Win-WinWhat if we just can’t agree about some issues?

Suppose that we’ve had calm, rational conversations with people on the other side of the dispute. It does happen occasionally.

And suppose that each side understands the other. People on each side believe that the people on the other side are sane, well-informed, and acting in good faith. But on some issues, we still can’t reach agreement. Our differences are too fundamental.

In such a situation, we have several options:

  • We can separate. Each side goes it alone, bidding a fond (or not so fond) farewell to the other.
  • We can compromise. Each side gets something it wants, but neither side gets everything it wants.
  • We can agree on a process for deciding such issues, and then abide by the results of the process.
  • We can fight until all the people on one side surrender or are killed. The winning side gets its way, unless both sides destroy each other. Then nobody wins.

Except for the last option, the options aren’t mutually exclusive. We can combine them. For example, suppose that half the population strongly supports policy X, while the other half thinks that X is horribly wrong.

The strong feelings make compromise difficult, but not impossible.

Both sides want to impose their views on everyone else. However, if different regions have different majority opinions about X, they could agree to handle issue X and similar issues separately. California might be pro-X, Utah anti-X, and Missouri somewhere in the middle ground. 

In its own neighborhood, each side could enforce its beliefs about X. Anyone who didn’t like it would be free to move. Neither side would get total victory, but both would get partial victory — and without a shot fired. The bitter X dispute would be resolved.

From each side’s viewpoint, it would be less than satisfactory. But compared to the practical alternatives, it might be the best we can do.

And even if the best we can do isn’t perfect, it’s still not nothing.


Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. One reader said “I got a kick out of the chapter on Spinoza. It’s quite a feat how the book bridges the gap between the ancients and the moderns.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Human Relations, Political Science, Society and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.