Friday, June 30, 2006

Do I Contradict Myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes)

-Walt Whitman "Song of Myself"

Something that has been bugging me lately is the idea of hypocrisy. I can't really understand why it is that I should care whether or not I, or anyone else for that matter, is a hypocrite. It seems to be a very common way of attacking other people's beliefs- to argue that they are not internally consistent- and it's very common in philosophy. But, I can't see any reason that we shouldn't be as skeptical of the idea of internal consistency as we are of any other metaphysical idea.

And we are, of course, very skeptical of metaphysics. At some point in the modern era, belief in God declined sharply in Western countries. Not sharply enough for some of us, but the fact is that, as opposed to the pre-modern era, arguing for moral standards by appealing to a God is no longer intellectually fool-proof. In universities, for example, most ethical questions are not solved by appeal to God.

The problem is, if we don't believe in God, and we don't believe in metaphysics, then how should we ground a universal standard of ethics? Kant believed that we could appeal to a sort of human nature- if the majority of rational humans would find a behavior to be shameful, then it is unethical, and we should therefore try to behave in a way such that our actions could constitute a universal ethical imperative. But, of course, Kant's argument isn't really much stronger than the metaphysical argument, and it was, in my opinion, soundly demolished by Schopenhauer.

The real dangers of a world without metaphysics were best explored, also in my opinion, by Max Stirner. His work is both exciting and somewhat terrifying. At least, it was for Marx and Engels who devoted more pages to attacking Stirner than Stirner ever published himself. If we accept that all forms of order and authority rest on false concepts, then at some point we have little reason not to accept thievery, for example, or even murder. Stirner seemed to realize the possibilities of a world without any firm metaphysical concepts in a way that prefigures Nietzsche (who surely read Stirner). If God is dead, then why do we still think in ways that necessitate a belief in God?

Of course, few of us would want to live in a world without ethics, because it would likely be brutal, short and ugly. So, if we have to accept ethics that rest on essentially empty concepts, we'd rather let the majority of people believe in those empty concepts, so they'll be safe, and we can keep the radical skepticism to ourselves, thank you very much. If Socrates was killed because he couldn't shut up, then perhaps it's better to shut up!

But, there are others that try to work an argument based on intellectual consistency. Peter Singer would be a good example of an ethicist whose work often relies on ideas of consistency. For instance, if we are willing to kill an animal and eat it, why are we unwilling to kill a mentally retarded child? Singer realizes that this seems horrible, but uses it as an argument against meat eating. And alas, the argument does not seem to rely on metaphysics, or the idea of God, but instead on internal consistency. If we believe X, we should also believe Y, or we are hypocrites.

But, my question is, why is "internal consistency" anything but an empty concept as well? Surely it requires a belief in a sort of metaphysics, and it orders the world based on little more than random mental constructions. In fact, I would say that it requires us to make arguments that are similar to Kant's- Why should we do X? Because we really should.

Internal consistency only appears solid. For example, people will argue:

"If you are pro-life, you should be against the death penalty?"
"If you are a vegetarian, you should never wear leather."
"If you support a war, then you should fight in that war."

Essentially, the argument is "If X, then Y."

But, there's no real reason to believe that one necessitates the other. The argument only appears solid. When we ask 'Why must you do Y?', there's nothing more solid than "In order to be consistent", which is a judgment based entirely on empty mental concepts. They seem solid, but in fact, appeal to nothing more than an empty concept of 'consistency' which doesn't genuinely exist without metaphysics, as much as it might seem to.

One way to show how invalid the argument is, is to show how random it is. Therefore:
"If your favorite color is blue, then you should not live in a white house."
"If you believe in the existence of God, then you should also believe in the existence of Santa Claus."
"If you are opposed to war, then you should be opposed to all disagreements and avoid arguing with people about wars!"
Do you see the problem here? Consistency only exists in our concepts, which we accept, if we do, for no better reason than "Well, they seem solid to me." But, because we have no better reason to accept them, they aren't solid at all. We have to believe in a metaphysical concept of consistency, and like in Kant, believe in it because we really should.

Another problem with the argument is that it seems to lead to a sort of compulsive behavior. Should vegetarians go for walks knowing that they may step on bugs? Should they breathe in microscopic organisms and kill them? Consistency eventually produces the Puritan, or worse. There is a sort of mind that orders the world in an obsessive way, that tries to make everything logical and orderly and consistent. But, this simply limits thought and behavior to the compulsive and thoughtless.

So, should we have no ethical standards? I don't see why we shouldn't. We simply need to understand how ad hoc and individual they are. In a sense, this allows us to live more honestly. Ideally, this will allow us to accept other people's ethical standards as individual and ad hoc as well, but not necessarily false. While it can lead to a sort of 'moral relativism', or simply 'nihilism', I don't see any particular reason that it wouldn't lead to a sort of Buddhist resignation and constraint. That person who seems like a hypocrite to you is no more than you yourself are, and recognizing the emptiness of the concept doesn't mean that you have to abandon all standards of behavior. But, it makes forgiveness easier, and without forgiveness, there can be no empathy.


Anonymous said...

The reason why the claim, for example, that:

(a) vegetarians should never wear leather to avoid being inconsistent

has any force is to do with the background concepts of why people are vegetarian. Unpacking the concept of vegetarian enables us to understand why (a) is true or not true. If the reason why someone is a vegetarian is that they believe that ingesting the dead flesh of an animal makes them impure (which is, I think, part of the problem with eating pork in Islam and beef in Hinduism - but don't quote me) then there is no inconsistency in that vegetarian wearing leather (assuming that they have no other relevant beliefs). If, however, someone is vegetarian because eating meat almost always involves killing an animal (which they believe to be wrong or wrong in most circumstances), and it is true that the production of leather also almost always involves killing an animal, then it would be inconsistent of that someone to both claim that eating meat (or producing meat) is wrong on that principle but that wearing leather (or producing leather) is not wrong. This is not, then, an argument of the form "If X, then Y" (which is not an argument but rather a premise). It is an argument of the form:
P1 Person B believes B1.
P2 Person B is arguing B2.
P3 B1 and B2 are mutually contradictory.
C Person B must (resolve P3 for us or) re-examine B1 and/or B2.

You are right to say that internal consistency of beliefs is a major principle in philosophy and that it is primary (in that it doesn't depend on anything else). I think that it would be hard, however, to plausibly argue that consistency is NOT a desirable character of beliefs/propositions, especially given that consistency does 'seem' to make so much sense.

As for your counterexamples, I would argue that if a person's belief in God is based on nothing but 'faith' (which is belief based on a lack of or insufficient evidence) then it is inconsistent to say that they do not believe other things based purely on faith. Such as Santa Claus. For me, the way I resolve such an inconsistency (P3 above) is to not have my belief in God based on faith. As for the war example, it seems quite obvious to me that being opposed to war on the basis that war involves the deaths of innocents (although why the death of innocents is worse than other deaths is a big, and contentious, topic) is not inconsistent with being in favour of arguments or disagreements that do not involve the death of innocents.

Another point is that people do not "make everything logical and orderly and consistent". Everything IS logical. It is in the nature of logic that it covers everything, even if it be to say that a particular belief is false or that an argument is invalid.

Rufus said...

Well, my point wasn't that logic shouldn't be internally consistent. It was that the arguments mistake the map for the territory, so to speak. If we're right about metaphysics being a load of bunk, then internal consistency is how we make sense of the world, but only that. We can say that these people aren't internally consistent, but I'm not sure that that really says very much at all.