On The Alleged Undesirability of Inconsistency

Inconsistency in our beliefs–and thus actions–is often held to be not just a cognitive failure, a breakdown of rationality, but also a moral failure of sorts. Sometimes the inconsistent are accused of hypocrisy, of disingenuousness. We are urged to forensically examine their utterances and actions, sifting through the traces they leave, all the better to indict them of a catalog of epistemic and ethical sins. The expression of an inconsistency is also often taken to be a cover-up for a truly held belief, a masking of a sordid reality; there are the things we ‘really believe’ and then there are the things we only pretend to believe.

Perhaps we should be more tolerant of the inconsistent–especially as most of us, if not all, are guilty of it.

There is a simple apologia we can offer for this widespread inconsistency; we are creatures of limited reasoning power; we may find it too cognitively expensive to check our enterprise for consistency. We often satisfice, rather than optimize, the sanitation and hygiene we impose on our beliefs.

But there might be something even more fundamental at play. The accusations leveled against the inconsistent often presume there is a genuine, authentic self, one covered up and disguised by incompetency, for nefarious purposes. They suggest we are whole and are fractured by this tolerance of rupture within our corpus of belief. But perhaps–as many have suggested before me–we are a shifting conglomerate of sorts. We play host to many selves, many drives, many desires, all at once; if these drives and desires and instincts may conflict with each other, then why not our beliefs? Beliefs are revealed by actions, by visible exertion and the spoken word; these issue from our inner being, each bearing the impress of the turbulence that gave rise to it. Unsurprisingly, the agent who has been assigned their ownership appears singed by incoherence at the edges. But this incoherence may instead be a pleasurable medley of a kind.

I do not think there is much, if any, novelty in what I have noted above. But consistency continues to hold sway as an epistemic and moral ideal. It is still put down as a signpost, as a marker, for our aspirations. We are urged–when we have the time and the energy–to look closely and carefully under and around ourselves, and to conduct search-and-destroy missions for all and any inconsistencies.

We are too harsh on the inconsistent. In a fit of self-righteous rectitude, we indict them of too much. To be sure, some inconsistencies are harmful; for ourselves, for those impacted by our actions. The inconsistency of the powerful hypocrite is a particularly damaging one. But all too many variants of this supposedly deadly sin are not. At worst, they may only puzzle and perplex us, impatient as we are to categorize, all too neatly, our friends and family and acquaintances. But we should be more tolerant, and treat these visible faults in action and belief as spurs to a more sympathetic investigation of the human condition and the complexity of the inner life.

3 comments on “On The Alleged Undesirability of Inconsistency

  1. Hi Samir.

    Maybe you’b be interested in knowing one recent line of research of mine in combining Logic and Probability. It starts avoiding the question of whether reality may be inconsistent, but affirming our capability of perceiving our beliefs as being inconsistent and, furthermore, of imposing a measure on their inconsistency. A result in that area is that minimizing this measurement of inconsistency increases the probability of being in a consistent state. Another, practical/computational result is that one should not try to minimize this inconsistency until the end (it may take tooooooo long), but just a few steps in the minimization are often enough to bring one to a state where a (computational) decision can be safely made.

    This whole work is being written up, once it is ready, if you are interested, I would like to receive your comments. Warning: it is quite a technical discussion, involving Logic, Probability, LInear Algebra and a bit of Measure theory.



  2. People criticise hypocrites to avoid being convicted of their own moral failings. As though if a murdered called you out on a murder you would thereby be justified.

  3. elkement says:

    I agree! Perhaps a mundane example … but often think along similar lines when trying to scrutinize my own or others’ “green and sustainable” life-style.

    It is very easy to puncture our theories by fossil fuel enthusiasts as nobody is really able to live off the grid.
    But I think it is just a clever rhetorical attack. The extent of (in)consistency and efforts to reach consistency – and after all the awareness of inconsistency – should count as well. It makes a difference if you, say; happily use a big car all the time driving in a city well-equipped with public transportation and stating that as long as everybody else does you won’t make a difference anyway (not recognizing the inconsistency between your usage of resources and general limitations or world-wide unequal access to them), or if you now and then use a car reluctantly having ruled out all other options. I suppose this can be extrapolated to inconsistencies of any sort.

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