Faultless Disagreement and Coordination Problems

Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited talkScientific


We examine the communicative function of public pronouncements about what is tasty, agreeable or attractive, typically followed by an equally public endorsement or rejection. The expected and anticipated reaction to contributions like ‘The chili is tasty’ or ‘The roller coaster is fun’ in a conversational setting is not ‘how come?’ or ‘How do you know that?’, but a reply that reveals one’s interlocutor’s attitude towards an object or state of affairs, and the result is the revelation, the coming to light, of either a conflict of attitudes or the discovery that one’s attitudes are aligned over the issue at hand. Conflict and alignment raise different prospects for further projects, and choices over which equilibrium shall be played by the interlocutors.
Judgements of taste (their content and the speech acts performed) are explored in the context of a cooperative view of communication developed by Michael Tomasello, which classifies communicative actions in terms of what we want from others when we communicate to them. We also use game theory. The game-theoretical connotation for a public dispute over what to like or to prefer is a co-ordination game like Battle of the Sexes. Speech act theory traditionally allows that speakers can perform different speech acts simultaneously. Combining both views, we argue that the public pronouncements that give rise to seemingly faultless disagreement have informative, requestive and alignment-seeking dimensions, which make different propositional contents salient. In a dispute over whether something is tasty (fun, …) a speaker and her intended audience usually play two games -- the game of letting others know something (about oneself), and the alignment of attitudes game, i.e. the game of making moves in the direction of seeking alignment over what to prefer, or what would be preferable, in a given situation. Both games make different propositions salient.
This general model – an active attitudinal disagreement modeled as pre-play talk that falls within the shadow of a suite of strategic choices to be made by both actors (represented in a game matrix) – will then be extended to epistemic disagreements and moral disagreements. An epistemic disagreement occurs when an outright assertion like ‘The bank is open’ is countered by the use of an epistemic modal as in ‘Hmm, it might be closed.’, which reveals that the second speaker is not willing to accept as knowledge what the first speaker says and thereby signals, through the use of epistemic evidentials, , that she (the second speaker) is not unconditionally prepared to join a project that assumes that the bank will be open. Or, put in different jargon: that the proposition that the bank is open cannot be added to the common ground.
Such discussions announce a coordination game which is known as the Trust Game, or (more familiar) the Stag Hunt (after J.J. Rousseau) – a case where the agents see each other as willing to collaborate (i.e. selecting an equilibrium), but only if they trust each other’s epistemic standing with respect to the truth of a particular proposition the joint project presupposes.
A Moral disagreement anticipates a Prisoner’s dilemma, where both agents see each other’s morally opposed positions (‘different moral positions’) as confronting them with the problem that the duty of one person is not in the true interested of the other interlocutor (this was famously pointed out by David Hume in An Enquiry into the Principles of Morals). When you follow your moral principles and I follow my principles, then we will eventually land in a bad equilibrium. A good (but intrinsically unstable) equilibrium must be such that we avoid that adherence to our own individual principles becomes unattractive for both of us. We should be sanctioned for exploiting our moral principles against the other.
Period20 Sept 2019
Held atErasmus Univ, Erasmus University Rotterdam, ESHPM, Netherlands
Degree of RecognitionNational


  • disagreement evaluative predicates