(In)consistency is Key for Moral Growth

And, according to Philosopher Nora Hämäläinen, it’s also crucial for the kinds of complex lives we live.

Nathan Allen
Dec 1, 2020 · 7 min read
Photo by Daniel Mingook Kim on Unsplash

After going vegan, I struggled with many things. I was no longer eating beef hamburgers, but I was still wearing leather. I had stopped consuming honey, but I would still buy chapstick with beeswax as a main ingredient. I had the genuine belief that we could not just use animals is certain ways, so why was I still so inconsistent with my behavior?

The short answer? People are really frickin’ complicated. Really good people do bad things. Really bad people do awesome acts of kindness sometimes. And even die hard vegans (like myself now), sometimes do some very non-vegan stuff.

It turns out that psychology and philosophy have long recognized that human beings take the gold medal in mental and behavioral complexity. Psychology says that we are afflicted with the cognitive dissonance bug and, traditionally, philosophy tells us that a good moral framework should be consistent enough to weed out our psychological issues. What’s interesting is that emerging work, by at least one philosopher, suggests that inconsistency is a crucial tool for better morality and better human lives. Here’s what all that means and how to leverage your own inconsistency.

A Little Thing Called Cognitive Dissonance

What may sound like a real medical condition, is actually not at all. Cognitive dissonance, coined by American psychologist Leon Festinger, is a well known theory in psychology that:

“…suggests that cognitive inconsistency leads to a motivational state that promotes regulation, which comes mainly through a change of opinions or behaviors.”

What this means to you and I is that when something we would like to do, or are already engaged in, rubs against the beliefs we say we cherish, we pivot. Either we switch up our opinions and beliefs or we change the behavior. Or, we avoid situations altogether that we know will cause problems. The “dissonance” part is just another word for the discomfort we feel when our behaviors are not matching up with our beliefs.

For example, when I would use beeswax, I would tell myself something like, “the bees probably did not need it.” This way, I did not feel like I was doing something that conflicted with the belief that I should not unnecessarily interfere or cause stress to other animals. Problem solved (not really though, bees really need their wax).

This is not to say that we do not want to be consistent beings. We do. We just don’t always behave that way. Consider environmentalism. People who identify themselves as environmentalists may do some pretty odd things: use a lot of single-use plastics, eat a lot of beef, drive a gas-guzzling car, whatever. But, in many cases they still view themselves as environmentalists. This should cause dissonance, right?

According to economic psychologist John Thøgersen, what may look like ‘inconsistencies’ to the outsider are actually the opposite to the person behaving. These environmentally responsible behaviors, ERB’s, are evaluated on a case by case basis, rather than mediated by the environmentalist identity. He writes:

“…seemingly inconsistent behavior patterns may be caused by the actors failing to perceive the relevant similarity between the behaviors warranting a similar behavioral response. Hence, they themselves see no inconsistency.”

The point here is that humans act in all kinds of ways that are inconsistent. Either we recognize it and spin stories to appease our own internal discomfort or we don’t recognize the inconsistencies and keep acting them out.

Moral Consistency

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Speaking of controlling discomfort, let’s talk ethics now. In my intro to ethics class in college, I remember the insistence of my professor that a good moral theory ought to be consistent. If, for example, a core of Kantian ethics is that you never use humans as a means to an end, then under this framework you should never be able to consistently use people as ends. That would be a flaw in the entire system.

Moral theories, as I understand them, are meant to make a systematic stab at clear principles, character traits, and formulas that would simplify human lives. People, say the philosophers, are complicated and in need of a way to dissolve the inconsistencies in their lives.

Let’s take utilitarianism for example. This theory suggests that what is morally right is the act that brings about the best consequences. Depending on which philosopher you are talking with, “consequences” pertain to varying morally relevant features like pain, pleasure, suffering, happiness, etc. The point is that there is a right way to act in every situation; the consistency bit to this particular theory is that you always choose the act with the best overall consequences.

A theory that promotes really inconsistent rules is deemed a failure and thus defunct. If utilitarianism were to promote the best consequences in this situation but the worst in another, then it would be a bad theory…in theory.

What makes this even stickier is that even if the theory promotes consistency, it still may be flawed because, as philosopher Michael Stocker puts it in his article “The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories”:

What is lacking in these theories is simply — or not so simply — the person.

What Stocker is aiming at is modern ethical theories’ obsession with things like duties, rules, and jargon about utility. He calls these symptoms of a kind of “moral schizophrenia” where there exists, “a split between one’s motives and one’s reasons.” The problem here is that you could live your entire life — in a morally consistent way — without ever acting in such a way because you wanted to. You lived your life that way because you thought you were supposed to.

So how might be mend this? How do we put the person into the theory? Incorporate human inconsistency. That’s how.

Morality in the Real World

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Philosopher Nora Hämäläinen, in her article “Inconsistency in Ethics” has a lot to say, but I will keep it brief to the really good stuff. Her aim in the piece is to show that moral inconsistencies in our daily lives ought to be of “central concern” for moral philosophy because they:

“…are a central part of the plasticity of moral frameworks: their capacity to be renegotiated to match new situations, and more generally to be open to change.”

These inconsistencies actually drive moral adaptation. She does not contend that all inconsistencies are useful. Some truly are the results of really bad thinking and decision making. Others though are very helpful. When we discover mental or behavioral inconsistencies in ourselves and others we often find other ways of looking at situations, alternate routes forward. Moral philosophers are guilty of training each other to prematurely prune these inconsistencies out of theorizing altogether.

Hämäläinen goes a step further and describes that these inconsistent behaviors are:

“in fact an irreducible trait of any functioning morality. They are, namely, part of what makes moral frameworks capable of constructive adjustment to new conditions.”

Moral frameworks — the theories that allegedly guide you toward the good and away from the bad — are constantly changing because humans, even with our big brains, never have all the facts. Without these, we get things wrong, and we act inconsistently with our held beliefs.

Why This Should Matter to You

In short, it should matter because — no matter what the Ivy Leaguers say — you are yourself a moral philosopher in training. Going about your day, you are constantly negotiating between choices. Is it okay to speed here? Am I allowed to be late to this appointment because of an emergency? How often do I wear this mask (if you are reading this is 2030, we are in the midst of a pandemic right now)?

What is different between the professional philosophers and yourself is that you aren’t theorizing, you are living! The inconsistencies that you will face — and that others will undoubtedly point out in you — could actually be life changing.

Interrogating your own inconsistent actions is the real task that I hope you will take up. Here’s some questions to consider when you get that “uh oh” feeling that accompanies cognitive dissonance:

  • What was the behavior?
  • What belief does the behavior pertain to?
  • How are they inconsistent?
  • What am I going to do about it?
  • And just in case: Do I actually hold these beliefs?

So let’s get back to our environmentalist example for a test run. The beliefs that I generally hold are 1) I care about the environment and 2) I should act in accordance with that. Well yesterday, I went on a two hour drive to absolutely nowhere in an old beat up, gas guzzling pick up truck. Here are the questions:

What was the behavior?

Driving the truck for really no reason other than that I was bored.

What belief does the behavior pertain to?

I am an environmentalist! I care about the environment.

How are they inconsistent?

Well I did not need to go for that drive. I could have just read a book, or went on a walk. I used a lot of gas that I did not need to.

What am I going to do about it?

I will go for that walk next time! I will try to only drive as much as I need to.

As you can see, it’s a really short exercise that takes all of 3 minutes of your time. Getting that sticky feeling following accusations of hypocrisy can be overwhelming sometimes, but there is a cure, as long as we are willing to interrogate ourselves and align our beliefs and actions.

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Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Nathan Allen

Written by

writer. illustrator. manic collector of pens and notebooks. bug guy from North Carolina. see my work at www.nthnljms.com

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Nathan Allen

Written by

writer. illustrator. manic collector of pens and notebooks. bug guy from North Carolina. see my work at www.nthnljms.com

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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