Why care about consistency?

The expression, “I just care about consistency,” sometimes comes up in political arguments. It is interesting because it suggests a potential warrant for arguments that would otherwise be simple cases of “whataboutism.” “Whataboutism” or “whataboutery” (which sounds much more fun) is a mainly conceptualized as a case of the ad hominem tu quoque fallacy, in which A’s assertion that p and A’s previous assertions that not-p or actions suggesting not-p supposedly entail the conclusion that p is false.

Whataboutery, however, can be something other than a mistaken attempt at a deductively valid argument. For example, it might be analyzed as a case of a statistical syllogism: most of A’s claims are correct, A claims that not-p, therefore, probably not-p. Or it may be intended as an undercutting defeater for p. Instead of directly refuting p, the argument may simply remove evidential support for p. This doesn’t show that p is false, only that A’s assertion that p doesn’t provide evidence for p.

Another possibility, and what interests me here, is that whataboutery calls attention to the badness of inconsistency itself. This raises the question — what’s so bad about inconsistency? And why care about when other people are inconsistent?

There are familiar reasons why we ourselves should care about inconsistency in our own beliefs. It can lead us to form contradictory expectations about the world or prevent us from acting (in the sense that actions are rationalizable). The badness of inconsistency also depends on how obvious the inconsistency is and the importance of the beliefs in question. The inconsistency in our beliefs may be sufficiently hard to detect that it would be far too cognitively taxing to discover. Moreover, if finite creatures spend too much time trying to make sure our beliefs are non-contradictory and “closed under implication,” they will not be able to reason about matters they actually care about. This point is related to something Gilbert Harman calls Principle of Clutter Avoidance (“do not clutter your mind with trivialities”) in his excellent book Change of View. Consistency is also essential for giving others reasons to trust us, especially in repeated interactions. It is difficult to see how you could trust someone whose beliefs and desires were not largely consistent over time. It would be unwise to rely on their testimony or their promises.

Generally when someone observes an inconsistency in our own beliefs or desires, however, the point is that we have more reason to endorse one of our inconsistent attitudes than the other(s). A consistency norm is valuable because it makes us assess the relative merits of inconsistent beliefs, or whether they are equally reasonable. One the whole, this norm is necessary (but not of course sufficient) for boundedly rational creatures like us to revise our beliefs (or degrees of belief/levels of credence) in a rational way.

This is far more abstract than general complaints about inconsistency in public discourse, however. For any token complaint of genuine inconsistency, its badness will reflect the difference between our reasons to accept the different horns of the dilemma. So if your complaint is that someone is inconsistent for condemning the January 6 riot/attempted insurrection in Washington, D.C. by Trump supporters but condoning riots associated with last summer’s protests regarding police misconduct, the badness of the inconsistency depends on the reasons for supporting/condemning each of the events. The badness of inconsistency depends on the badness of how you might resolve the inconsistency.

A related version of this discourse plays out in the case of “double standards.” One reason double standards are bad is that they lead to inconsistency in our judgments about relevantly similar events. But if someone has applied a double standard, this prompts the question of what the appropriate standard is. It could be one, or neither. In any case, the badness of a double standard reflects the fact that someone has applied an inappropriate standard rather than a correct one. The problem is that this more basic question — what is the appropriate standard, anyways? — tends to get lost in accusations about double standards and hypocrisy.

Judith Shklar argues in her classic essay on hypocrisy (ch. 2 of Ordinary Vices) that ideological conflict favors accusations of hypocrisy, because moral disagreement means that each side can only point to how the other fails to live up to their own ideals, and that it is easier to expose hypocrisy than to criticize the political convictions of your rivals. Even when we don’t agree politically on much, many people seem to agree that insincerity is a vice. What is puzzling about this, however, is why we should criticize hypocrisy and inconsistency when it leads to results that, by our own lights, we should value. It’s obvious why hypocrisy is bad when you endorse the same ideals as the hypocrite. But what’s so bad about someone failing to live up to her own ideals when the critic thinks those ideals are wrong?

There are several other reasons for why charges of hypocrisy/inconsistency are common, I suggest:

  1. Inconsistency in our opponents’ reasoning is cognitively salient to us. This is the so-called “argumentative theory of reasoning” developed by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber. Mercier and Sperber argue that human beings evolved a capacity for reasoning in order to win arguments rather than to acquire true beliefs about the world.
  2. Inconsistency and hypocrisy do not require the critic to assert a controversial position or make controversial criticisms of their opponent’s position. This makes it attractive for political competitors wishing to minimize their own exposure while criticizing their opponents.
  3. Inconsistency in the form of “double standards” can reflect unfair treatment of different people under the same procedure. Americans in particular are attentive to procedural unfairness. I suspect this reflects, in part, the adversarial nature of the American legal system and the role of procedural fairness in our notions of legal justice.

Charges of hypocrisy, double standards, and insincerity all begin with an observation of difference, whether between our own statements or between how an institution treats different people. The valence of this difference for good or ill depends, however, depends on the underlying statements, treatments, and such. The objection that someone has inconsistently applied a rule in different contexts matters for its force on whether we think the rule, in fact, applied in any of those contexts.

Take again the case of police misconduct. Why does it matter that police are more likely to use physical (if not lethal) force against black than white suspects? Why does this double standard in the application of force matter? It matters in part because it reflects disparate treatment by the same public agency of relevantly similar persons. If we think it is important that public institutions show respect — and thus equal respect — for all citizens, then the fact that some receive more unjust treatment compared to others matters in its own right. But it matters, more fundamentally I think, that cops treat black suspects unjustly — period. We aren’t indifferent between a world where cops are as violent towards white as black suspects and one where cops are just as restrained towards black as white suspects. The double standard matters because we think no one should suffer unjust physical violence from agents of the state, even when they are suspected of committing a crime.

We should perhaps care about consistency a little less, and for different reasons, than many commonly seem to care for it. Inconsistency, hypocrisy, and double standards may be vices in general, but token charges of each are only as bad as the underlying judgment or rule and we often seem to leave questions regarding those untouched.

Political theory PhD. I write about politics and (social) science.

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