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Fred D’Agostino


Fred D’Agostino

Fred D’Agostino


Fred D'Agostino was educated at Amherst College (BA, 1968), Princeton University (MA, 1973), and the London School of Economics (PhD, 1978). He was Research Fellow in Philosophy at the Australian National University from 1978 to 1984, and worked at the University of New England from 1984 to 2004, where he was Associate Professor of Philosophy, Associate Dean of Arts, Head of the School of Social Science, and Member of the University Council. He is now Professor Emeritus of Humanities and was President of the Academic Board and Executive Dean of Arts at The University of Queensland. He has edited the Australasian Journal of Philosophy and PPE: Politics, Philosophy and Economics and has published four books--Chomsky's System of Ideas (Clarendon Press, 1986), Free Public Reason(OUP, 1996), Incommensurability and Commensuration (Ashgate, 2003), and Naturalizing Epistemology (Palgrave, 2010). He is co-editor of the Routledge Companion to Political and Social Philosophy. His current research is on disciplinarity and complexity. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

The Discussion

The conversation revolved around the complex issues of wicked problems, social media, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants discussed how these issues can cause polarization and demonization, emphasizing the importance of civility, compromise, and mutual respect to find solutions. They also explored the role of government in brokering compromises between different perspectives and portfolio responsibilities, as well as the value of institutional settings in bringing together diverse viewpoints.

Fred pointed out that 2023 marks 50 years since the introduction of the concept of wicked problems and the development of cell phones, ethernet, and the TCP protocol, a precursor to the internet. He explained that the COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example of a wicked problem, which is interconnected and where solutions to one aspect can have unintended consequences on other aspects. Every proposed solution produces a positive effect on the targeted issue but makes other problems worse, creating a complexity catastrophe. Different people can have reasonable but incompatible ideas about how to approach wicked problems, reflecting different perspectives and responsibilities.

Fred noted that the pandemic response reflects different portfolio responsibilities. Health and the economy are both important but potentially incompatible during a pandemic. The Queensland government mediated between different perspectives to find a compromise solution. Fred posited that the function of government is to broker compromises between opposed interests, especially in addressing wicked problems on a whole-of-society basis. The Brisbane Dialogues was put forward as an example of how people with different perspectives can discuss and disagree well, leading to partial solutions. Compromise and partial solutions are central to dealing with complexity and wicked problems.

Fred also discussed the impact of social media platforms, which can create echo chambers where people are encouraged to become more extreme in their thinking. Social media echo chambers lead to polarization, demonization, and a disregard for other perspectives. To combat this, he suggested practicing civility, where we try to understand other people's perspectives and listen to them, leading to new insights and a better understanding of the problem.

The TBD model provides an alternative to demonization by emphasizing collaboration, listening, and mutual respect. During the pandemic, mutual humanization and compromise were necessary to avoid what Fred referred to as ‘the bitterest spots’. Politics played a role in deciding among mediocre solutions based on what society could bear.

Fred highlighted that institutional settings like cabinet government or civil discourse organizations such as The Brisbane Dialogues bring different points of view together. By recognizing our interlocutors as people like us who have prioritized things differently, we can find common ground and work towards a shared solution. The heart of the Brisbane Dialogues model is listening to learn, and exercising discipline in such settings helped during the pandemic.

Brisbane Dialogues is very grateful to Fred D’Agostino for sharing his valuable contributions and insights on this important topic.

Charlie Trenorden, 6 May 2023

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