Agree to Disagree or Fight

“‘I don’t believe in argument,” he said…

…’You don’t?’ Erens said, genuinely surprised. ‘Shit, and I thought I was the cynical one.”

‘It’s not cynicism,’ he said flatly. ‘I just think people overvalue argument because they like to hear themselves talk.’

‘Oh well, thank you.’

‘It’s comforting, I suppose.’ … ‘Most people are not prepared to have their minds changed,’ he said. ‘And I think they know that in their hearts that other people are the same, and one of the reasons that people become angry when they argue is that they realize just that, as they trot out their excuses.’

Excuses, eh? Well, if this ain’t cynicism, what is?’ Erens snorted.

‘Yes, excuses,’ he said, with what Erens thought might just have been a trace of bitterness. ‘I strongly suspect the things people believe in are usually just what they instinctively feel is right; the excuses, the justifications, the things you’re supposed to argue about, come later. They’re the least important part of belief. That’s why you can destroy them, win an argument, prove the other person wrong, and still they believe what they did in the first place.’ He looked at Erens. ‘You’ve attacked the wrong thing.’

‘So what do you suggest one does, Professor, if one is not to indulge in this futile … arguing stuff?’

‘Agree to disagree,’ he said. ‘Or fight.’


He shrugged. ‘What else is left?’


‘Negotiation is a way to come to a conclusion; it’s the type of conclusion I’m talking about.’

‘Which basically is to disagree or fight?’

‘If it comes to it.’

-Iain M. Banks, Use of Weapons. London: Orbit, 2008.

8 thoughts on “Agree to Disagree or Fight

  1. Fear probably the wrong word, was joking of course…

    I See Antonio has a few youtubes, will watch and see what I think.

    Lately I have been doing a lot of contemplative work, interest in the mystics and the mystical. It has become my main interest for a few years now.
    I am going on a sacred tour of North India in February with Andrew Harvey, very exciting… he is a scholar, teacher and mystic who can be overly emotional and dramatic sometimes, but will be an amazing guide.

    I like the comment. “Women have been conditioned to outsource violence to men” that is true. I will also add something that came to me recently, Canada has for many years outsourced violence to the United States as have many other countries. Makes the state of play right now even more frightening. You obviously have thought about and have much more knowledge about these things than I do.

    I grew up in a home with a police officer as a father, husband worked as firefighter….so I have more exposure than some to that side of life.
    I hadn’t really thought of that before as an influence in how I regard violence both legitimate or illegitimate.

    1. And also consider that there are 18.2 million veterans in the United States (~5% of the population), and 50% of those are over age 65 (meaning that most served due to conscription that ended in 1973). Where does the burden for that violence lie? The poor, people of color, and due to our social prejudices, men.

      Enjoy your India trip. I lived in India for 10 weeks one year. It is something I often think about.

      1. That is almost half the population of Canada, puts it in perspective. Our military is so much smaller it is hardly obvious in our society.

        I am watching the impeachment news, this is so painfully slow…..and with no certainty of an outcome one way or another. One day at a time.

  2. I have come back to this a few times. I can’t link to the “Use of Weapons” so I haven’t read it.

    “disagree or fight” Fight as in physically fight?

    1. Yes, physically fight. The argument is that you can’t change people’s minds because ultimately, reason supports opinions and not the other way around. There’s a famous quote of David Hume’s that this is probably based on: “We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

      So, either you find a way to live with the difference of opinion or failing that, you fight until someone’s passion for living becomes more important than the other passion, or someone dies. Argument is simply our attempt to make that decision.

      Worth noting that this particular sequence is complicated by the fact that the person saying it, a sympathetic anti-hero of sorts at this point of the narrative, is unmasked as a monster by the end of the book. Iain was making the point, one most people don’t wish to believe, and then, softened it a bit so it would be easier to not believe it.

      “Use of Weapons” is the third book of the Culture series by Iain M. Banks. The Culture is a post-scarcity society run by artificial intelligent beings that value individuality. In that context, the book asks the question: Is it moral to use monsters to achieve, what is believed to be, moral ends? Are some people weapons, to be used in defending the opinions of a particular society when it has decided it is time to fight?

      1. Hmmmm…interesting, I will comment, although I fear it may end with me up to my neck in nuclear waste in a river full of crocodiles.:)

        I am not sure if my thoughts come from growing up female in a society where I did
        not have to physically fight for what I believed
        in or for my family or culture. Although in a way
        we are all fighting in some form every day through our thoughts and actions in an evolving world.

        “Argument is simply our attempt to make that
        decision” part of a very interesting paragraph. It is one that is both foreign to me but on some level I understand. I have never had anything to do with the military but the last question you ask brings that up. The wars that have been fought over religious opinion or more recently a toxic mixture of religion, passion, oil, power. More likely it has always been a toxic mixture of something.

        I would fight (physically) to protect others and myself from physical harm on a personal level.
        It is part of the human animal I think… if I were in a “post-scarcity society run by artificial intelligent beings that value individuality” not sure what the thoughts would be. I assume that these beings are soulless and lacking emotion but still act and think individually?
        Taking those two things out of the equation then I would lean towards yes to both questions that the book asks.

        …….but just as we face the dilemmas of life on planet earth today whose morals and opinions are ‘right’? I find more and more I walk away from those who want to prove to me they are ‘right’ when I feel they are wrong, saying to myself in a very self satisfied way “would I rather be right or happy?” and in saying that the irony of that comment is not lost on me.

      2. You have nothing to fear from me.

        Society, civilization as we know it, is predicated on violence. Certainly, women are conditioned to outsource violence to men. But, even with the violence implied in patriarchy, it’s also true that men are encouraged to outsource violence to state actors. Violence outside state roles, such as soldier, police officer and so forth are largely framed as illegitimate (illegal) violence. The fact that state violence is often illegitimate (immoral) is frequently overlooked because it is viewed as necessary. See the specious arguments about the U.S. policy of torture post-9/11, solitary confinement in “super-max” prisons, and the list of countries the U.S. has bombed since World War II for illustrations of the point.

        But, the fundamental violence is still there all the same. At some point, you might try to resist, like people in Hong Kong right now, but the threat there is that it might break out into something larger, a true insurgency of some sort that undermines the arguments of legitimacy of the state. In Chinese terms, we might call this “the mandate of heaven.”

        Beyond the question of fighting and violence, the point being made here is a deeper one about reason. The argument is that “soulless” machines “lacking emotion” would not be able to reason at all. Reason follows the passions. You need to be able to tap into emotions to assign value and choose among complex alternatives with various trade-offs. If you don’t have a preference or a way to discriminate between a protein shake, a steak, a bowl of ice cream or a bowl of broccoli, then any one will do. Given that most of our decision making is driven by preferences, emotions if you will, and reason comes in later, i.e., I need the protein in steak, then arguing about protein levels misses the point that it’s largely about preference, and preferences are rarely changed under the light of reason or by discussion.

        If you want to go deep down this particular rabbit hole, you could do worse than starting with Antonio Damasio and the somatic marker hypothesis, which seems in Hume’s lineage.

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