A Taxonomy of Disagreements

I share my world with people with whom I disagree. The question is how and when to act upon it.

Not every disagreement deserves the same reaction. It’s not strictly necessary that I find common ground in every disagreement, and not every disagreement requires my engagement. Even among the cross product of these categories, I can respond in different ways.

I view disagreements along two axes which I’ll call triviality and consensus. By triviality I mean that the subject matter has little impact on at least one party’s life. Consensus means that agreement must be reached; this is not an agree-to-disagree situation.

I’ll lay out what each combination means.

  • Trivial, non-consensus disagreements—disagreements about an unimportant subject which doesn’t strongly impact all parties, or does so unequally. Food preferences are a perfect example. If one person likes mayo, another likes Miracle Whip, and yet another thinks they’re both kind of unpleasant, this is a trivial disagreement. It’s also pretty irrelevant to disagree because nobody has to change their lives too much over this disagreement. Live and let live.
  • Trivial, consensus disagreements—disagreements about an unimportant subject which impacts all parties and for which a single decision needs to be made. This is common in families and offices, like setting the thermostat or choosing where to go for dinner. Contention over shared resources, or picking common tools or workflows at work, can lead to a lot of nitpicking, but the problem is solvable, sometimes even with a coin-toss.
  • Nontrivial, non-consensus disagreements—disagreements about a subject which impacts all parties strongly but for which consensus is not needed, or is even impossible. The most salient example is any question of faith. Faith doesn’t respond to reason and occupies maybe the most important part of some people’s self-identity and self-determination, but agreement over the details of faith or religion are impossible to bring into accord. It’s unrealistic to try. Yet we have to try to find some way to live with people of different faiths. The very intimate, personal nature of their beliefs makes them immutable—non-consensus, as I’m calling it—since we can’t all share a singular faith and probably wouldn’t want to.
  • Nontrivial, consensus disagreements—disagreements which impact all parties strongly and which require agreement. This is the really hard stuff: fundamental human rights, ethics, land-use rights, traffic laws, and so on. For these disagreements, I permit no quarter for non-consensus because I believe that aspects of human rights are both of paramount importance and cannot be yielded to, appeased, or ignored. To do so—to say “live and let live,” “agree to disagree,” to fundamental questions of humanity, dignity, life and death—gives those viewpoints with which I disagree a place to dwell, a platform from which to speak, and an implicit permission for action. The crossover between non-consensus and consensus for nontrivial disagreements begins at the threshold for potential harm.

Within the triviality axis, the consensus degree of freedom actually can be a bit blurry. Taking the trivial disagreements to start with, it’s easy to see where certain topics that should have been non-consensus have blended into consensus in people’s lives—like food preferences, which culture has buried with spades of shame and influence in order to make people eat the same things in the same ways. I work in tech, where similar things have happened for decades, such as the Editor Wars: who edits what and how on their own computer should be an agree-to-disagree situation, but it became a holy war.

Unfortunately, at the other triviality extreme, the same kinds of confusion take place. Nontrivial disagreements which should be non-consensus (which should look like agree-to-disagree) have become literal holy wars. Worse yet, disagreements about basic human dignity and rights have begun to look like agree-to-disagree situations.

I believe we all have a similar taxonomy in our heads, that we believe we’re “entitled to our opinions,” regarding certain questions of faith and politics. In some matters, we are. We’re entitled to our opinions regarding how much funding the Federal Highway Administration should get. Whatever my beliefs about interstate highways, I could break bread with a person who believes in gutting their funding.

However, the idea that we’re “entitled to our opinions” leads to a simplified taxonomy that doesn’t take into account which opinions—which disagreements—are over harmless questions and which are over potentially harmful, dehumanizing, or traumatizing ones.

More complicatedly yet, matters of faith—a place within many of us untouchable by consensus or persuasion—have enabled some people to spread the non-consensus umbrella over many other areas of their worldview, seeing them all as speciously linked by faith and therefore unimpeachable. As such, their political opinions about personhood, their ethical behaviors, their votes—no matter what their source, they are all placed into a category beyond rational discussion.

I have found myself exhorted to meet these people in the middle, to attempt to understand them, to “agree to disagree” with them, or to attempt to include them in wider political efforts to advance my own political will. These efforts often come from centrist-liberal sources.

What I’m here to tell you is that if your politics touches a human, if it has the potential to visit harm and suffering, if it detains a person, I have no place for you at my table, in my home, or in my life. If you use the idea of free expression to shirk the responsibility of examining your own ideas, you have abrogated your duty as a citizen under the guise of entitlement.

The Shareholder Primacy Myth

I used to hold a common misconception about corporations in the United States that I’ve seen commonly shared by friends and strangers online. I believed that the executive leadership of corporations was legally mandated to prioritize and maximize profit for shareholders, putting this duty above all other considerations. I’ve since learned that this misapprehension is, at best, controversial, and at worst, outright false and dangerous.

The doctrine of prioritizing shareholder interests above all others is called shareholder primacy. It appears to have been promulgated in particular by theorist Milton Friedman (an economic theorist who advised U.S. President Reagan and UK Prime Minister Thatcher, espousing free-market policies with minimal government interference).

The initial notion of shareholder primacy in the U.S. seems to come from a misinterpretation of a case called Dodge v. Ford Motor Company. That took place back in 1919, when Henry Ford wanted to take surplus profits from his publicly shared company and, rather than continuing dividends, reinvest those into his factories and workforce. Shareholders took him to court, and the court forced him to pay dividends.

The judgment in this case, its interpretation, and its context are more complex than I feel willing to stretch as a non-lawyer. However, I understand most definitely—based on that case and case law afterward, which states unambiguously what limits courts have to interfere in business decisions—that Dodge v. Ford Motor Company did not establish the shareholder primacy doctrine as it lives, in myth, today. In that case, the court ruled that (emphasis mine),

courts of equity will not interfere in the management of the directors unless it is clearly made to appear that they are guilty of fraud or misappropriation of the corporate funds, or refuse to declare a dividend when the corporation has a surplus of net profits which it can, without detriment to its business, divide among its stockholders, and when a refusal to do so would amount to such an abuse of discretion as would constitute a fraud, or breach of that good faith which they are bound to exercise towards the stockholders.

Subsequent case law has only underscored the original intent. Case law has evolved into a doctrine called the “business judgment rule” in many common law countries, including the U.S. It gives corporate business leaders generous autonomy in making business decisions, even ones that sacrifice short-term profit or reduce shareholder value, so long as those decisions aren’t outright profligate, fraudulent, and so on. Duty to the shareholders is grounded in dealing fairly, not submissively.

The business judgment rule allows that, “in making business decisions not involving direct self-interest or self-dealing, corporate directors act on an informed basis, in good faith, and in the honest belief that their actions are in the corporation’s best interest.”

So it seems clear that the shareholder primacy myth was predicated on, charitably speaking, a misunderstanding of case law. If there were any doubt about the interpretation of the judgment in Dodge v. Ford Motor Company, there are subsequent cases which have provided clear precedent and tests of the court’s powers in matters of executive decision making.

The next time someone tells you that corporations exist only, or first and foremost, to serve the shareholders, you know now that belief has no basis in law, if not reality. Where CEOs and boards hold themselves to the standard of conduct that shareholder primacy implies—always capitulating to shareholder whims, prioritizing share price and profit in every decision—they are imposing their own independent values and beliefs on corporate governance. Shareholder primacy is itself a leadership decision, not a law.