Adapted from Herman Kahn's Introduction to Can We Win in Vietnam, Armbruster, F.E., et. al. Praeger: New York, 1968.

This is a quick post about an ordered sense of agreement. I find it serves two useful purposes:

  1. It gives a practical framework for how to achieve better agreement between parties in apparent conflict, so it is a tool for both conflict resolution and for problem-solving, and
  2. It replaces the binary structure of agree/disagree with a looser structure that allows people to exist in conceptual tension without feeling like they are involved in interpersonal conflict. 

Now a description of the levels, followed by a brief discussion.

First Order Agreement

The conventional understanding of agreement. All parties agree to the characterization of a resolution to the point of contention, what Kahn called "agreement on the substance of an issue". Scope is a particularly important characteristic to achieve first order agreement. What does the agreement cover and what does it not cover? 

In formal legal or institutional contexts first order agreement is instantiated in text where parties to the agreement indicate their acceptance of the resolution by signature or by the signature of an authorized agent. The agreement is ratified

Second Order Agreement

Agreement on why there is no first order agreement. All parties agree to the characterization of what precludes a resolution to the point of contention. Kahn called this agreeing on what the disagreement is about. 

Third Order Agreement

Agreement on why there is no second order agreement; what is conventionally called agreeing to disagree. All parties agree that there is a disagreement, but cannot agree on the characterization of that disagreement.  Generalizing a bit from Kahn, who saw this as largely the interference of emotion in rational discussion, one can think of third order agreement as the belief by one party (possibly both) that the other party is either unwilling or incapable of articulating their own position. For example, asserting "You don't know what you're talking about" indicates third order agreement even if it is hostile and hence counter-productive. Accusing one party of trolling or arguing in bad faith is also third order agreement.

Fourth Order Agreement

Agreement that no agreement appears possible, including whether there is a disagreement. Kahn described this as the assertion by one or both parties that the discussion itself is pointless. 


Kahn made one suggestion on how to better achieve second order agreement: each party tries to explain the nature of the disagreement to a third party, such that both parties to the disagreement then agree to the joint explanations. This anticipates more recent communication and conflict resolution strategies like reflective listening and steelmanning, which don't require a third party. So here's a simple admonition: no matter what the level of agreement (level of disagreement!) try to explain the other party's position to them in your own words, and see if they agree!

If you have fourth level agreement—this is pointless—try to characterize why the other party thinks you incapable of meaningfully participating in the discussion. "You think I lack sufficient understanding of X to discuss this issue." Can you work toward third order agreement, where discussion may be productive? "Here's my understanding of X...What am I missing?"

If you have third level agreement—agree to disagree—try to characterize the disagreement from the other party's perspective.  "You think we disagree about X." Can you work toward second order agreement by clarifying how and where you are in disagreement? "You think X means Y. I think X means Z." From personal experience, this is the most productive transition if you can learn to apply it without adding emotional energy. Try to articulate what the disagreement is about, which simultaneously demonstrates good faith and focuses attention on substance rather than emotion. Remember, though, people may not share your goals even if they are acting in good faith toward agreement.

If you have second level agreement try to resolve each remaining point of contention as identified by either party. "We disagree about the likelihood of X. You think it is highly unlikely but I think it is quite possible because Y and Z." 

Take a beat to celebrate the mutual achievement of reaching a new level of agreement, whichever it is.

See also: Causes of Disagreements, Better Disagreement, Aumann's Agreement Theorem.


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Maybe John Nerst's erisology is the "dual" to your essay here, since it's basically the study of disagreement. There's also a writeup in The Atlantic, and a podcast episode with Julia Galef. Quoting Nerst:

By “disagreement” I don’t mean the behavior of disagreeing. I mean the plain fact that people have different beliefs, different tastes, and react differently to things.

I find this endlessly interesting. A person that disagrees with me must have a different mind in some way. Can that difference be described? Explained? What do such differences say about the contingent nature of my own mind? Can this different mind to some extent be simulated inside my own? Can I understand what it feels like to think like someone else?

That’s one part. How we negotiate these differences is also interesting. How do we communicate our beliefs to each other? How to we interpret, model and counter others’ beliefs? How, and how well, does language work as a medium for connecting and comparing mind with mind, and with reality? Negotiating the differences — including trying to reshape minds in your own image through argumentation and rhetoric — tend to result in coordination and organization of ideas and beliefs across groups of people.

From one perspective it doesn’t matter so much if an idea is in a single person or distributed across many; the study of disagreement is perhaps best thought of as the study of differences and dissonances between ideas and systems of ideas and how they affect and are affected by the individual and collective mechanisms by which ideas are shaped and organized inside and among minds.

As I see it, this doesn’t exactly match any particular existing discipline, even though there’s plenty of relevant research and knowledge already. Psychologists and political scientists study opinions, anthropologists and historians study differences in how and what people think across space and time, philosophers study how concepts work, and machine learning specialists come up with ways to create them from data. Rhetoricians know how to argue convincingly, economists know what incentives we face when doing so, and biologists know why those things are incentives at all. And so it goes, for a dozen more disciplines (feel free to complain that I’ve overlooked yours). All these fields are relevant for understanding disagreement, but there’s no institutional structure for integrating it into a cross-disciplinary body of knowledge fit for public consumption.

I particularly liked A Deep Dive into the Harris-Klein Controversy, although it's long (9,000 words), and I frequently find myself thinking of The Signal and the Corrective and Decoupling Revisited as frequently-occurring failure modes in online discourse between smart well-meaning people. 

Excellent and thank-you! I'd somehow forgotten about Nerst and would have linked to his work directly.  I think the additional value Hahn's ontology brings to erisology is an explicitly positive gradient, in a hill-climbing sense. For any disagreement, Hahn's ontology allows the parties to accept some level of agreement (Where are we on the agreement landscape?) and have an objective target for improvement, assuming good faith on everyone's part. I'm inclined to try to communicate it to Nert based upon your linking the two!