On Being Inconsistent

(On Being Just the Right Inconsistency)

Doing is quite different to preaching. I will argue that, in most situations, it is simply wrong to act according our beliefs about how everybody ought to behave. How I should act is intrinsically different to how everyone should act. I am making a case for hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy arises naturally

  1. Rules and roles

    It is helpful to consider the different roles of rulers and subjects. A ruler is able to make laws, whereas the subject must obey them. Ruling and obedience involve different modes of thought. There are different starting points, different palettes of actions, and different valuation systems - in short, ruling and being a subject involve entirely different decision-making rules.

    To be a subject of rule is to be the subjective I, a subjective being - unlike being a ruler. Rulers must take the third-person stance, and to an extent, deny their own subjectivity. The two roles involve two incomatible modes of the will. And no matter who we are, we all have a bit of a ruler in us! I might point out the fortuitous link between the two contemporary meanings of "subject": the subject of a ruler, who is subject to being ruled, and the subject who acts on his own internal motives, independently of the objective or abstract motives.

  2. Two modes of deciding: abstract and practical

    It is fascinating that each human mind has the capacity to switch between these two modes of thought. We can think things through from both an impersonal, bird's-eye perspective, or from the egocentric standpoint, where the primary role of thought is to turn perception into action. Many conflicts, both internal and external, may have arisen from the switch.

    Whenever one distinguishes two psychological processes, one must be clear on the two things: first, the start and endpoint of each process must be clarified - at what point do the inputs diverge, and at what point to the outputs converge again; and second, the extent to which the processes overlap or have blurred bounds. In postulating that we have these two thought systems, we commit to saying that

    1. they do not occur in parallel with other processes but in series,
    2. that they both access semantic facts about the world,
    3. that they are both constrained by certain tacit assumptions we globally make, and
    4. they are both stateful, relying on an independent body of memory / knowledge / beliefs.
    These similarities can be demonstrated by considering the streams of thought that may come into awareness as we deliberate over some mundane activity. The abstract and practical stances can therefore be said to stand as alternatives when making choices. Similar divisions that are used in ethics include acting considerately versus in ones own interests - but my distinction is an orthogonal one, based on classifying psychological processes. Having two alternative competing decision modes suggests that conflict can arise. However, these two particular processes seem to be imbued with an asymmetry in their competition.
  3. Competing contexts for abstract and practical thought

    Although the faculty of abstract versus practical thought is a general one, people's ability to apply abstractions to practice is indeed heterogeneous. Over the last 100 years experimental psychology has built a picture of a simpler process 'controlled by' a complex one. This does not entail that practical processes are automatic whereas abstract ones are volitional. But it does suggest that abstraction is somehow harder or more effortful than practical consideration. It may also vary more between individuals and from moment to moment. In the study of behavioural inhibition (or equivalently the phenomena termed executive function, or cognitive control), the variety in health is great, and pathology yields even further diversity. The practical faculty is more suited for action, because
    1. it is faster and action often requires online monitoring and correction
    2. the information required for practical decisions is available to hand - usually involving self-state, desire, and immediate sensory input (perhaps the information is even imposed upon the will)
    3. it does not require immediately available liquid resources, and action may be needed when we are temporarily low on resources.
    In contrast, the abstract faculty is more suited for contemplative thought. The upshot is that although we may start with the same information, abstract and practical decisions (arising in contemplative or action-related contexts respectively) can lead to radically different choices. The difficulty of uniting the abstract with the practical, is one that characterises the history of western law and morality. Later I will argue that it is necessary for structured society.

Hypocrisy is right

  1. Norms need contexts

    Though I have been demonstrating that hypocrisy arises naturally, I have not yet shown that is in fact a good thing, or a fortiori the right way to be. So many great ideas of how we should act fall back to theories of the Other. Christianity often justifies behaviour with 'as you would wish others to do unto yourself'. To assume we can impute concepts to other minds is a large step, so Kantian ethics circumvents the existential problem by the notion of universality: my ability to wish something to become a universal law. However the issue at stake is the same one, relying on the notion of homogeneity of minds. This notion is coming to be regarded with suspicion, particularly in light of present understanding of cognitive psychology, psychopathology and neuropsychology: minds vary their internal structure, processing and capability, and more importantly, are contingent on physical state. [I will skip the theoretical problems of determinism in cognition here, though see article "neuroscience is to ethics".]

    Virtue ethics often surmount the difficulty at the expense of parsimony. We stipulate that the best action satisfies a set of criteria; such stipulation is useful, and this in itself justifies the criteria.

    But here I am suggesting that neither approach does justice to the real issue, which is that the human mind wishes different things in different contexts, and that definitions of the best action must be sensitive to the context of thought. A poignant thought here, is that to think "Everybody should pay taxes" may easily be thought simultaneously with "I do not want to pay taxes". Other corollaries include "I want to want to pay taxes, but I don't want to pay taxes". Classical norms conflate such contexts, although they are often specific about other elements of context. In particular, they almost exclusively regard acts, as opposed to utterances (except insofar as they are acts) or thoughts.

  2. Inconsistency of universal and particular will is illusory

    To what extent are such pairs of sentiments 'inconsistent'? The human mind remembers a vast number of facts, that could be expressed as propositions. It so happens that they are seldom expressed as propositions. If all remembered facts were tokenised into a 'semantic web', some simple literalisation and application rules could be used to generate thousands of contradictions. So long as they remain nonverbal, no contradiction is apparent - yet we acknowledge the latent contradiction as an inconsistency.

    A simple psychological example occurs in mental maps, where we may recall at one moment that it is 15 miles from Fareham to Portsmouth, and at another moment that it is 15 miles to Southampton in the opposite direction, and at a third moment, believe it is 20 miles from Portsmouth to Southampton. Only once we simultaneously bring all three facts to consciousness, and further, apply some linking-rules of application, do we declare a contradiction in our semantic web. The law of contradiction seems to instruct us, that one of our beliefs is false, and we generalise this to 'ought' statements. Literally, a linking-rule is invoked:

    "If everyone ought to phi, then I should phi."
    Any epistemic warrant we have for such a claim relies on the dubious transition from "Everyone should phi" to "(For every person x) x should phi". If this is not intuitive, consider that such predicates are often good only if everybody phi's. The error arises from fallacious parallels with non-deontic statements, which behave in a simpler way.
  3. Ensemble will is all that matters

    Certain things only work in an ensemble. A major criticism of universal-based and other-centred ethical accounts is that, even with the best will in the world, acts designated good may end up doing overall harm, unless everybody else in the world also applies these ethics. Skeptics from Malthus to Hume recognised that without some impositon from above, most systems fail even in theory.

    From the skeptic's viewpoint, there is no need for an individual to ever act according to what he contemplates to be right. The only true 'ought' is that environment simply has to be designed such that it is best for each man himself to act according to some global will. This point is made more forceful if one considers a situation where there are multiple possible ways a man contemplates the best way to behave. Say, individual 1 believes that A is the right way, whereas individual 2 believes that B is. Further suppose that if everyone in the world does A, there is a great benefit, and if everyone does B, there is an equally great benefit, but if people do different things then there is global loss (Matching pennies). Clearly in this simple scenario there is requirement for intervention by a government, even before we introduce any personal motives, or any variability in individual cognition faculties. In short, everyone acting according to an abstractly good rule is likely to be insufficient.

    A parallel argument can be formed based on variability in reasoning capacity. The greater the variability, the greater the need for imposed rules. Imposed rules work optimally when people act using practical rather than abstract will. Such an argument would traditionally be seen as grounded on human fallibility. However, phrasing in this way makes clear the quantitative dependence on game-theoretic considerations of the proportion of defaulters when reducing n-player games to n-1-player games by coalition-formation (von Neumann & Morgenstern 1944). The intuition is that, when coalitions are large, there is a critical proportion of defaulters, above which it makes economic sense for everybody to default from a coalition. This proportion is, of course, related to the risk involved if one defaults (Fehr & Fischbacher, Nature 2003). By this argument, greater variability in reasoning capacity would require greater penalties (either in magnitude, or in risk of penalty) for defaulting a rule.

    A separate issue (which I am not qualified to discuss) is whether the magnitude or probaility of rewards and penalties should be modified when implementing a law. Presumably one needs to make assumptions about risk aversion, reward sensitivity and novelty seeking to decide.

  4. Testimony's value does not correlate with hypocrisy

    Being hypocritical is a way of teaching people, when the teacher understands but is not capable of the good behaviour. The insight here is twofold: firstly that there is variety in the abilities of people to follow morals, and secondly that this ability may be absent even in those who possess the ability to understand and conceive of what is good. In this way, the hypocrite whose argument is sound, even though he may sin, does good to society. He can be qualified to teach, even if he is incapable of practicing, being good.
  5. Stick to your role

    A natural part of coming to a deliberative conclusion, and forming abstract reasons for actions, is discourse. The simplest use of discourse is to discover what to do in order to get what we want. We might be told what we need to do in order to achieve an internally specified goal. We might reason, by cause and effect, what actions need to be done to give the desired endpoint.

    However, a second function of discourse is to demonstrate that, for any given choice of actions, two of our goals conflict. For example, our short-term and long-term goals might give opposite instructions on how to act. Through discourse, we may come to realise that what we previously thought of as the best option may be (for example) suboptimal with a different temporal discount function. Discourse thus highlights different psychological parameterisations of what counts as optimal. In other words, we can talk about what we should want. Ethics and morals must be built on this discourse.

    So, discourse about what to do in order to obtain goals, and discourse about what our goals ought to be, have different functions and different structures.

    The big danger is to confuse these two functions of discourse. Discourse of the latter kind highlights the many ways of framing what is good, and crosses an is/ought ravine, which only philosophers may build bridges across. It is neuroscientifically plausible that we can have knowledge of causes and effects. Our representations of how to attain what we want are ingrained by practice, trial and error, phronesis. Discursive mental states of the first kind can be truly said to represent, in virtue of this acquisition (Gianfranco Soldati, Proc Arist Soc 2012). However, in the second kind of discourse, it is to me unclear how mental states represent. We have multiple formulations of value, and no way of knowing which is best for me. Whence can we obtain practical experience of different value systems? To judge between valuation mechanisms we need to be au courant with the outcomes of whole systems of individuals, when different value systems are chosen.

    So I am asking that we grant that only certain types of experienced individuals can be justified in discourse about what we should want. The kind of experience is of an unusual kind, and (contraversially) perhaps historians, philosophers and politicians are the only current genus of people who have such experience.

  6. Hypocrisy drives the advance of civilisation

    The very presence of inconsistency presses the government into making stronger rules. If everyone had the capacity to repress inconsistency - that is, to always act as they believed one ought to - then what would drive legislation? As a race, we have a natural variety of abilities. I will not make any case here to suggest that intelligence is correlated with behaving more morally. However, I would like to put it in this way: conforming to one's own standards is not always a natural thing. And it is this feature of humanity that drives all social structures, including power, economic and legal. These vast and pervasive structures allow the individual to remain an individual: that is, they allow us to make decisions locally, without understanding the whole structure of civilisation, and still act for the benefit of humankind. These structures make it economical for me to emit 'good' actions. People who are not sufficiently competent to understand the global ramifications of their choices, are now able to choose for themselves.

    Even within this totalitarian world view, local freedom can be achieved. Freedom arises precisely through the making of a value decision. The optimal decision is always the one that is in my best interests, that is, it leads to the least expected punishment or the most expected pleasure. Whether the values are imposed by rules or not is irrelevant; these sorts of choices are the only truly free choices. You will see this plainly if you consider any other case of freedom you might please; the environment constrains what is valuable, and the freedom is in the selection of the optimal value.

  • Freud is rarely incorporated into ethical theories. I can see why, but at the same time, I think that ethics of repression need to be laid to rest once and for all.
  • Example: I may believe that charity is wrong, but I still donate.
  • Microeconomic and macroeconomic profit and the first person.
  • Action and logical thought have different neural and psychological underpinnings.
  • Pure vs practical reason/wisdom.


  1. Sometimes hypocrisy is a cry for help

    Indignation is the usual response to somebody who accuses other people of something that he also does. It is natural to feel cheated, unjustly accused, or chafed by such events. Biblical examples again abound, from casting the first stone, to logs in eyes. Is this visceral response the right one? Not always, I believe. There are sure occasions where the hypocrite knows he does wrong - be it rarely or often - but yet criticises others. His reasons for criticising may vary, from genuine despair at his own failings, to an insecure attempt to belittle others. If the intention is uncertain, or if it is apparently beneficient, then what reason have we to feel wronged? However if it the intention is selfish and inconsiderate, then feeling wronged appears more reasonable. On the other hand, there are occasions where hypocrites do not even know that they themselves are guilty of the same misdeeds. On these cases should we be indignant or hurt? It is clear to me that this form of hypocrisy is abundant; when the hypocrite is confronted, how often have we heard him cry "Surely not, not I?!" In this situation, it must be beneficial for the hypocrite to be made to understand his own failings, but why should there be negative emotions? In social contexts, punitive negativity is generally retributional, but when the hypocrite's issue is purely conceptual, it seems like the equivalent of shouting at a child for not knowing something that he has never been taught. Mutual education in these situations can occur without negativity, even when an educator is guilty, or when both parties are guilty.
  2. Pros and cons for my own sanity

    Inconsistency may or may not be psychologically healthy. If it is unhealthy, it is because people feel bad about saying one thing and doing another. I have argued (effectively in reverse) that such bad feelings provide evidence that inconsistency should not be treated as a bad thing. But in fact what is at stake is much larger here: is it healthy for us to be obliged abide by global rules, when the net yield is worse for me as an individual? Two examples are theft and excess fuel consumption. In both cases, for society to function, the individual must forgo immediate reward. In the case of theft, the global rule (common law) renders it economically beneficial for me to not steal - in the longer term I will be caught and imprisoned. There is no question of inconsistency: I believe theft is wrong, and I do not steal. However when the global rule does not exert sufficient economic pressure, in the case of saving the environment, inconsistency arises. I believe we need to consume less, yet I consume excess.
  3. Disguised hypocrisy: acting for different reasons

    A little consideration reveals that often, although I believe "theft is wrong", and I also do not steal, these two things (belief and action) come apart. My ground for belief that "theft is wrong" descends from an understanding of the global: I want nobody to steal; general theft would end in mass suffering. However, my actual ground for not stealing is at least partially practical: I don't want to end up in jail. Behaviour is motivated through a different route to belief.

    This means that, in moral cases, my logical beliefs are not the motivation for my action. To explain my take on this, I will take the example of knowledge (Gettier 1963). For beliefs to count as knowledge, they must track truth - i.e. be connected to truth in the correct way, and to some extent follow truth in other counterfactual situations: If things were different, my beliefs would be different (Nozick 1981). Similarly, I argue that beliefs that are not connected to actions "in the right way" cannot be reasons for action: If my abstract/global beliefs about theft were different, my actions might not change! For example, imagine that I believed that the state of nature is more authentic than law-abiding civilisation. In such a state, theft is common, accepted, and leads to evolution of intelligence, say, like magpies or cuckoos competing. Even if I held this belief, it is unlikely that I would steal, because I still don't want to go to jail!

    Thus action often comes cleanly apart from reasoned beliefs about how things ought to be, simply because we can imagine counterfactual scenarios where action would not cleave to the belief. I conclude that this kind of disconnect is pervasive amongst our thoughts, and is tantamount to a hypocrisy, though it is usually well disguised. It is not just that we believe X is right but do Y (classical hypocrisy). More subtly, we belive X is right, and it just so happens that we do X, but not because we believe it is right! (disguised hypocrisy). This case counts as hypocritical because we act for reasons different from those that we say we acted for.

  4. Corollary...

    One interesting consequence of this opinion is that, I now bear the burden of explaining why hypocrisy has, throughout the ages, been considered a sin. If inconsistency is natural and the right way to be, then not only must we revise the conception of hypocrisy, but also explain why it was for so long considered a bad thing.

    So I tried to give an argument that it is right to be hypocritical. But I don't always act hypocritically, because I don't believe that one should always act as one believes one should. The great thing is, even if you argue that I am wrong and that people should do as they preach, no harm done if you still act hypocritically yourself!