Disagreement in the Digital Age:

Philosophical Reflection About/With New Technology

This seminar will focus on the problems—and potential—presented by online communication platforms. Specifically, we will set out to consider the conditions—material, political, technological—that encourage productive discussion and disagreement, and those that undermine it. We will examine the value of open communication and disagreement in both a theoretical way—by reading and reflecting on philosophical texts—and in a practical way—by experimenting with diverse discussion formats, online and IRL. The aim throughout is to assess the (in)compatibility of novel communication platforms with the communicative values we currently hold.

Readings in this course will focus both on what makes good discussion good—e.g., how disagreement should affect our commitments, what makes argumentative models problematic, when should we defer to authority—as well as how technological change shapes how discussion is currently practiced. For this latter topic, we’ll consider both specific issues like fake news, echo chambers, and anonymity on the internet, as well as broader topics like the real-world effects of online hate speech. The goal of the first week is to thoughtfully reflect on the role of disagreement in our lives, why we value discussion, and whether technology has strengthened or weakened those values.

Week two will continue our examination of the harms presented by online speech, and this will be complemented by reading sections of John Stuart Mill’s classic On Liberty. Our main concern in this course will be to consider how technological change might challenge or reinforce Mill’s (perhaps familiar) arguments. Does the reach and speed of online communication suggest that incitement—a type of speech Mill considered outside the bounds of his defense of free expression—is much more prevalent than Mill could have imagined? Do automated content moderation algorithms, which tailor information specifically towards personal tastes, erode the shared starting-points necessary for productive disagreement? Does information inundation make research and open debate more time-consuming than is individually rational? These and other contemporary questions will drive how we evaluate this classic text of Western philosophy.

Learning Goals/Methods: One of the main aims of this class is to engage in reflection about how discussion and disagreement can go well, and why they (often) do not. To that end, we will be continuously trying different modes of discussion in order to better understand the structural, material, and normative constraints each mode makes salient. In class, we will try a variety of structured discussion techniques (e.g., snowball, think-pair-share, jigsaw), along with different technologically-mediated platforms (e.g., wikis, forums, social media, vlogs) all in an effort to make their differences vivid, and to put our philosophy into practice.

Throughout the whole course, we will reflect on what we want out of discussion, along with what can and should be done—by us as individuals, by tech companies, by governments—to help us achieve those aims in the here and now. At the beginning of each new day, we will reflect on what aspects of discussion the previous mode of discourse strengthened, and what aspects it weakened. This class, therefore, may be considered an experiment in learning. We’ll all be co-investigators as we set out to uncover how technology might aid in promoting interesting and productive philosophy discussions. At the same time, by engaging in sustained reflection on this topic, we’ll also be encouraged to examine our own communicative habits—both online and IRL—in a new light.


Day 1: Conversation, Disagreement, and Learning From Each Other

  • Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Facts on the Ground,” & “Moral Disagreement,” in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006).

Day 2: Disagreement – in Theory and in Practice I

  • David Christensen “Disagreement as Evidence: The Epistemology of Controversy,” Philosophy Compass 4 (5): 756–767 (2009).
  • C Thi Nguyen, “Escape the Echo Chamber,” Aeon (2018)

Day 3: Disagreement – in Theory and in Practice II

  • Michael Patrick Lynch, “The Outrage Factory,” in Know it all Society: Truth and Arrogance in Political Culture, Liveright Publishing (2019)
  • Janice Moulton, “A Paradigm of Philosophy: The Adversary Method,” in Discovering Reality (1983).

Day 4: Authority & Anonymity

  • Rebecca Hanrahan & Louise Antony, “Because I Said So: Toward a Feminist Theory of Authority,” Hypatia 20 (4): 59-79 (2000).

Day 5: Anonymity

  • John Suler, “The Online Disinhibition Effect,” CyberPsychology & Behavior 7 (3): 321-326 (2004).

Day 6: Anonymity (and Freedom

  • Karen Frost-Arnold, “Trustworthiness and truth: The epistemic pitfalls of internet accountability,” Episteme 11 (1): 63-81 (2014)
    • Re-read: John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ch.1 (1789).

Day 7: Free Speech and Knowledge

  • Regina Rini, “Fake News and Partisan Epistemology,” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal.
    • Re-read: John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ch.2 (1789).

Day 8: Lashing out

  • Kathryn Norlock, “Online Shaming,” Social Philosophy Today (2017)
    • Re-read: John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ch.3 (1789).

Day 9: Dissent and Feedback in a Democracy

  • Elizabeth Anderson, “The Epistemology of Democracy,” Episteme 3: 8–22 (2006).

Day 10: Charting a Way Forward

  • Sarah Jeong, The Internet of Garbage (selections), The Verge (2018).


Note: Aside from On Liberty, these readings are all contemporary, (largely) jargon-free, (reasonably) accessible, and (fairly) short. So, students are expected to read On Liberty in advance, but the other readings may be first read during the course (though students are welcome to pre-read those as well). Given the contemporary nature of this topic, additional short readings drawn from the media will supplement these theoretical texts.

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