Imagine, for a moment, if, during the tense final hours of the recently concluded negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 world powers, Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif decided to set aside their remaining differences regarding the inspections regime and stockpiles of enriched uranium and turn for a moment to the fundamental questions that divide the two nations. Not differences in policy but in first principles.I can imagine everything except that last part. Fully understanding that you are negotiating with someone who has a vastly different idea about justice is not going to encourage you to negotiate in a "conciliatory manner." It's going to completely undermine your confidence that your partner is negotiating in a manner you would recognize as just. How can you take a huge risk like this on someone whose view of justice is so different from yours?
Imagine Secretary Kerry explaining to his Iranian counterpart the philosophical roots and anthropological assumptions of American liberalism. And imagine Foreign Minister Zarif similarly providing an account of the Islamic republic. Imagine this debate continuing, fueled by endless cups of tea, long into the night, as Kerry discusses, say, John Locke and James Madison and the American founding, and Zarif discourses on Mulla Sadra and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the Iranian revolution, as they argue about the nature of the human being, the purpose of the political community, the origin of law, and the meaning of justice.
And imagine that, as the morning sun finally rises over the city of Vienna, the two exhausted statesmen slump back to the negotiating table, now with a more sophisticated understanding of and respect for one another, and, over strong coffee, hammer out the final niggling details of the agreement in an amiable and conciliatory manner.
Plato gives us a picture of something quite like this in his Protagoras. Socrates shows up at a house where several other thinkers are gathered. He is accompanying a friend of his who wants to study with one of these thinkers, Protagoras. Socrates tests the quality of Protagoras' teaching by engaging him in a philosophical debate of just the kind the fellow here is proposing. It does not end in agreement, friendship, or anything good: in the end, they are exhausted with each other and firmly set in their disagreement. Both positions, though, have been proven untenable: Socrates argues that virtue is knowledge but that it can't be taught, whereas Protagoras argues that it isn't knowledge but that it is his business to teach it. Neither position even makes sense, yet they have both given their reasons and are committed to them. Socrates is the better man, the dialogue implies, because he is at least willing to admit that his position can't be true. The discussion, though, doesn't increase their friendship or mutual understanding. It only increases their desire to be rid of each other.
Eventually almost the whole of Athens felt that way about Socrates. It's why they killed him.