A Note On Moral Consistency

A little over a year ago I found myself exposed to a some ideas and paradigms that were mostly new to me. I won’t get into the specifics of those ideas – they form the majority of my topics here anyways. It all got me thinking that I should take a close look at my morals, ethics, and beliefs, as I had never really followed any sort of guiding principle in building them initially. What I ended up doing, essentially, was breaking down my existing set of beliefs and convictions and rebuilding them on a solid, logical foundation – a sort of Peano Metaphysics. This is a work in progress, and it’s not exactly a formal process, but it has turned out to be a far bigger task than I had anticipated.

My beliefs about existence in the natural world – my ontology and epistomology – haven’t changed very much. I’ve always been more or less scientifically minded, so I have a pretty good grasp of what constitutes evidence, what it is reasonable to believe, etc. I have certainly rounded out my knowledge of evolution, psychology, and philosophy of science, which has helped strengthen some of my beliefs, weaken others, and given me a great deal of insight into the nature of belief itself.

Building an internally consistent moral framework has been much trickier. What I would like to end up with is a relatively small and simple list of axioms that can be plugged into any situation and worked through to their logical conclusion to arrive at a satisfying solution. I used to operate on a case-by-case basis, judging each moral dilemma as unique, and full of shades of grey – not the kind of thing you apply rules to. On the surface, that sounds like the more reasonable position, but it often leads to contradictions, and I have come to think that a moral system without a logical, prescriptive nature is difficult to distinguish from an ad hoc, anything goes, whatever feels good right now system.

The problem with this endeavour is that a small and simple list of axioms followed to their logical conclusion often lead to quite unsatisfying answers. The choice then is whether to accept the seemingly objectionable conclusion, or modify the axioms. My usual approach is to try out the conclusion for a while, to see if it stands up to scrutiny. Sometimes I’m surprised by the result, and sometimes I end up looking like a lunatic and have to drag my tail between my legs back to the drawing board. I imagine this can be very frustrating for my friends, the unwilling participants in my personal experiment, who are being subjected to this madness.

I really do think that consistency is important. I can think of three people who really embody a truly consistent morality: Peter Singer, Penn Jillette, and Fred Phelps. They certainly don’t share the same morality; their underlying axioms are quite different. For example, Singer is a utilitarian who thinks we should offer certain ‘human’ rights to non-human apes, Penn is a fervent humanist who has said he would gladly kill every chimp on earth with his bare hands to save the life of a single heroin addict, and Fred Phelps says God Hates Fags.

Generally I tend to agree with Penn (though on the above example I’m with Singer), and Peter Singer offers some novel ideas that have really made me think (Dawkins has called Singer “one of the most moral people in the world“). Phelps has an ontology and epistomology so far removed from my own that we might as well be speaking different languages. Still, I have a certain kind of respect for people who are willing to follow the logic of their principles no matter where it may lead. When Penn says his heart lies with the kooks, I think this respect for moral consistency is what he means (the theatrical and scripted ‘Bullshit’ notwithstanding).

[Note: I use Phelps more as a representative of all religious fundamentalism. There are individuals whose theology is far more consistent than Phelps’. When I say I respect him, it is very heavily qualified. Given his assumptions, his conlusions are logical. It’s the fact that he accepts the premises he does that makes him a monster. Perhaps those who accept the same premises, but reject the necessary conclusions are no less monstrous, they just lack the conviction to carry out monstrous acts.]


~ by jbrydle on July 20, 2009.

23 Responses to “A Note On Moral Consistency”

  1. If you don’t mind sharing, what axioms have you got? Any that seem like permanent keepers? Any you have tried and discarded?

    I’m quite interested in this myself, but have never thought in terms of creating a small, basic set of axioms.

  2. I struggle with consistency. It always seems to land me in places I don’t agree with. For example I am vehemently opposed to using animals to eat… unless you would starve otherwise. But not if the person in question was an asshole junkie and the animal in question was my beloved pet. Should animals be food or not? Should people take priority over animals or not? To me, animals should never be used as food except in extreme need, and people should usually take precedence over animals… but not all animals all the time, and not for just any person at any time – and how do you logically-based draw the line? I don’t think I can. And of course as you know I have in fact eaten animals in the last month!

    And then there is the issue of using animals for research, which I support, though it utterly contradicts all my other moral stances on animal usage. If they have autonomous rights to freedom and protection (as moral patients), then it is as wrong to test aspirin on them as it is to eat them. Yet I can’t see my way to trying to stop medical research insofar as it relies on animals – in this case I guess I take the perspective that the enormous benefit to humans outweighs the enormous costs to animals – a kind of speciesist utilitarianism.

    Not sure what the point of this was (lol) other than to illustrate my personal lack of consistency, none of the term of which I would currently be willing to change. (Except the slips into animal eating, that shit is stopped.) To me, it’s okay to be inconsistent.

    Or is it? Arrgh, your post is tying my brain in knots!

  3. I haven’t exactly been writing anything down. Perhaps I should try that, actually. The vegetarianism, for example comes (partly) from thinking about the minimization of suffering as a basic moral precept. If mammals suffer in a similar way to humans (I believe they do) then it would be contradictory for me to oppose causing human suffering, but ignore it when it gets in the way of tasty burgers.

    A lot of my crazy politics comes from following the idea of freedom to its extreme. If it’s simply wrong to force people into certain decisions against their will, what does that mean for government intervention, even if the intervention ultimately achieves its goals? Does the end ever justify the means? Is it ok to violate a basic moral principle even slightly for “the greater good”? For a lot of that stuff, I think going for a voluntary, opt-in charity style solution allows for doing public good without restricting anybody’s personal autonomy. The problem with that is we tend to get less done in a voluntary system.

    I suppose another axiom is that it’s worse to actively cause harm than to allow harm to happen which could have been prevented. If that’s the case, then I have to say the end doesn’t justify the means, and if a solution requires the violation of a moral rule then the solution is inherently wrong.

    I’m not at all claiming that I’ve achieved consistency. I’m the same as you with animal testing, and tons of other examples. Maybe it isn’t possible to work out a consistent and satisfying set of rules. After all, we didn’t evolve for consistency, we just evolved to work, and cognitive dissonance is damn useful for stuff like this.

  4. I like the idea of morality as being black and white, right or wrong, with no exceptions. It would be great if there were a consistent and satisfying set of principles that you could always use and never violate any of them in the slightest. That is starting to seem like more and more of a pipe dream though. The messier route of fuzzy logic, weighing options, choosing the lesser of two evils etc. is probably the only way to get anything done. Of course, even with that kind of system you can still examine your methods and strive to be as consistent as possible.

  5. 1. Why should we consider consistency good? It feels right to me to strive for consistency but darned if I can come up with a proper reason to do so. Other than, “So people won’t accuse me of inconsistency,” which really just asks the question in a different way. Perplexed!

    2. When you say cognitive dissonance, were you using it to mean a mechanism that allows us to hold contradictory thoughts and act on them both without undue discomfort? If so, may I offer a correction in the form of a… dramatic music!… technical definition? Only if you are interested. πŸ™‚

  6. Blogosaurus, I am not trying to pick holes in your vegetarianism (if you can go without eating meat, I think that is fairly admirable), but what about animals that positively require meat diets (this is probably the most extreme with felines, but there are other creatures that need meat too)? Should we stop breeding cats, or do we accept that we need to kill some creatures to feed our feline friends?

  7. 1. Inconsistency would mean that you arrive at two or more different and incompatible solutions to the same problem based on alternate readings of your moral code. I.e. having to violate one moral principle in order to satisfy another. If you have a way to deal with that, some kind of meta-morality that helps choose which solution best fits each situation, then that could be considered part of the initial set of rules, and it takes care of the inconsistency. Seems to me it’s like making an argument using false logic and arriving at a reducto ad absurdum.

    2. Yes, that’s what I meant. The laymen (but, dare I say, not invalid) definition πŸ˜‰ . I would certainly be interested in the technical definition.

  8. It’s funny you should post this, because one of the things I did over the weekend was have a minor philosophical breakdown. You see, I have been thinking a lot about ideology and utility since the whole Chris Mooney-PZ Myers book review bollocks, and in that debate I come down on the side of ideology. To me, the accomodationist stance is a bankrupt one because you are essentially compromising the truth as you see it for the imagined benefit of appeasing religious moderates (I have more to say on the matter, I just got stalled in writing it down thanks to this philosophical quandry). However, in virtually every other sort of policy decision, I tend to advocate an utilitarian sort of rationality. For example, in sexual education, I am absolutely against abstinence-only education not only because I lack the moral qualms about sex of the deeply religious, but also because it simply doesn’t work. For a religious politician, though, who is ideologically against sex outside of marriage, even if it doesn’t work they feel they must advocate for abstinence only education. Of course, I have been shown no evidence that bluntly forward atheists like PZ Myers actually hurt scientific support, but if it were, I’m still not sure I would change my stance on accomodationism based on my ideology. Therein lies my quandry. I condemn the religious politician for clinging to his ideology over the empirical well-being of his constituents, but I am not sure I would abandon my own. The only difference I can see in this is that I feel my ideology is philosophically sound, and his is just plain wrong. Anyway, sorry for blathering on for so long… this comment seems to have gotten away from me.

  9. Re: cognitive dissonance.

    Cognitive dissonance is the state of anxiety experienced when a person realizes they hold contradictory thoughts – when you use it to mean a mechanism that allows us to hold contradictory thoughts and act on them without undue discomfort, that is actually nearly the opposite. Cognitive dissonance drives us to bring our inconsistent thoughts more into line with one another, thereby reducing the feeling of anxiety; in other words it drives us to become consistent. The diagram is:

    realization of holding two inconsistent thoughts –> dissonance (anxiety) –> change thoughts/behaviours to become consistent –> reduction or elimination of anxiety.

    Alternatively, cognitive dissonance can trigger mechanisms (defenses) that prevent you from realizing or acknowledging your inconsistencies, but in this case the thing that feels good is the activation of the defense, not the dissonance. Dissonance (anxiety) always feels bad. It would go like this:

    realization of holding two inconsistent thoughts –> dissonance (anxiety) –> activation of defenses –> reduction of anxiety.

    In this case the inconsistent thoughts still coexist (and you can act on both) but the individual no longer experiences the inconsistency as anxiety provoking, and will not even really be aware of the conflict on a conscious level.

    I suspect what you were getting at was more this latter case, where people happily hold contradictory thoughts without too much trouble, because they have some cognitive or emotional work going on under the surface that keeps awareness of the conflict to a minimum or even nonexistant.

  10. Re: Cats

    If I had a pet cat I would feed it meat products, though I would do my level best to source products that minimally involve cruelty to the feed animal. I would feel conflicted about this for sure, because I don’t relish the thought of paying for meat which to me feels like paying someone to kill someone else, but there isn’t a choice. I don’t think this counts as an inconsistency in my personal moral code because clearly a cat needs meat and clearly the meat isn’t for me. The only lingering issue is whether the meat in the cat’s food came from an animal that needlessly suffered – in this case its death was not needless.

    As for whether we should stop breeding cats… well, it’s a good question. Probably we should. I’m an animal lover and have loved having pets (and hope to have pets again) but I think that life as a pet is usually not so great for the animal. It’s much more about pleasing the person. We isolate cats and dogs away from their own kind, away from nature, often leaving them alone for hours and hours while we are at work, with little to do and no one to do it with. That seems wrong to me. Mind you, most modern cats and dogs wouldn’t do very well on their own in the wild, and there are certain luxuries and securities that come with being owned. I don’t know if there is a simple solution. My sense is we should reduce pet ownership, and somehow find ways to make pet ownership more centred around the needs of the animal rather than the pleasure of the owner.

    Perhaps over time pet ownership can transition to be (for example) more like farm cat life rather than apartment cat life: largely free, with some perks of human association, with none of the restrictions of condo life? Insofar as we have bred cats to be pets, it would irresponsible to just set them loose in the wild where they would probably die miserably.

  11. btw your addressing the problem of inconsistency as necessarily involving a violation of at least one of your morals seems very powerful.

  12. Moz, I agree the ideology vs. utilitarianism problem can be really frustrating. I have a hard time blaming someone for following their ideology, but so often I see their ideology as standing in the way of my progress. However, I do the exact same thing to others, and don’t appreciate being told to just get with the program. I’d like to say that one should address the underlying disagreement that is informing the conflicting ideologies, but when that disagreement is whether or not God exists, or whether the Bible is right, it seems any debate is futile.

    Blogosaurus, as usual I stand utterly corrected. I wasn’t using a laymen definition, I was just wrong :P. I should have known that too, but I won’t make the mistake again.

    There’s something I want to bring up related to what you say about pets, but I haven’t got it clear enough yet. I’ll mull it over and perhaps write back later.

  13. The pets thing is a hard issue for me. Basically, I believe it is wrong to confine animals, period. No one should have pets. But… I love having pets, and there is the pragmatic issue of their unsuitability for survival without people, after all these generations of selective breeding.

  14. Do you not think that, if you allow me to anthropomorphize, pets would choose to be pets if they had the faculties to make such a choice? It’s a pretty good deal for them on the whole. Sure, some pets are mistreated, and that’s wrong, but the average dog gets good food, companionship (which they seem to enjoy at least as much as we do), safety from natural dangers, and even health care. If a wolf gets sick or injured, it’s pretty much as good as dead.

    To take it a step further, might a cow or pig living in somewhat ethical conditions be much better off than a wild animal? What exactly is the principle that guides your thoughts on animal rights? If the pain and suffering were removed, and an animal had a nice, happy, safe life, then was humanely slaughtered, is it still wrong? If it were a human, then I would say yes. I think humans have a right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness on top of life. I feel to extend that to a pig (or a clam) kinda cheapens the whole concept.

    Seems like to keep pets and raise livestock, but as ethically as possible, goes with the pragmatic utilitarian view, and to eschew animal ownership all together, allowing the brutality of nature to take its course without directly causing any harm ourselves goes with the black and white idealist view.

  15. You correctly point out many of the advantages of being a pet animal. I think there are additional factors though. Mistreatment includes confinement to an apartment or house. Even domesticated animals will exhibit a host of natural behaviours when given access to an outdoor habitat – and all animals will try to get outdoors for at least some of the time if they can. Perhaps this is the pet version of pursuit of happiness. Think of it as “pursuit of natural drive satisfaction” – animals want to be free to socialize as per species protocols, free to exercise and be in nature, etc. Imagine if you were locked up for your whole lifespan in an apartment, even though you had food and a loving member of a different species to care for your health needs – it would be hell! I am not at all convinced that pets would choose us plus our confining city living spaces over freedom in nature with others of their own kind. Animals might choose farm life so as to get the benefits of both worlds.

    So this is a question of what does it mean to be better off. Is it better off to be protected from predators than not, if the price for the protection is lack of natural habitat, control of or preventing natural mating urges, loss of one’s young shortly after birth, maybe no socializing with your own species, maybe no access to the outdoors, etc? To me it seems like a bad deal. I am not at all sure animals would pick it. There’s a reason we walk dogs on leashes and don’t walk cats at all.

    Also, even if pain and suffering are removed before slaughter (which should be the minimum legal standard for meat animals IMO), it is STILL WRONG. It is still SO WRONG I am resorting to caps. Killing is killing! Animals don’t want to die. They may not be able to have a discussion about mortality, and may not even really know that one day they will die, but ALL animals will fight to survive – attacks from predators, the elements, difficulty finding food, etc – and will fight to the death to protect their young from harm. It is painfully clear to anyone who cares to look that animals want to live. Taking life from them is wrong, in that it goes against what they want for themselves. This is the same reason homicide is wrong. Particularly when we talk about the usual meat animals, they are sentient, social creatures who can play, form emotional bonds to others of their own kind or even other species, who care for their young, who take pleasure in their own existences when life is going well, and who will fight to stay alive if they can – it is absolutely and totally wrong to murder such a creature. Even if it has not suffered on the path to the slaughterhouse, even if the death is painless. In the immortal words of Clint Eastwood, when you kill [someone] you take everything he’s got, and everything he’s ever going to have.

    So, does it cheapen the concept of a pursuit of happiness to extend it to animals? Not at all. Why is it that humans need to have exclusive access to the pursuit of happiness for it to have meaning? Happiness for you and me might include poetry and a nice retirement fund, but for a pig might it include a sunny meadow, some truffles, and the companionship of a herd. Rather, we should say that the pursuit of happiness is so important that it must be extended to all who can benefit from it. No one who can feel deprivation must be restricted from seeking whatever species appropriate satisfactions they can, within their natural setting and capacities.

    I fail to see the utilitarian argument for eating animals, unless one considers only the pains and gains of humans. There is no pragmatic necessity in the modern west to eat animals. We do it for pleasure and out of tradition. These are shitty reasons to kill sentient beings.

    Even if food animals never suffer in their lifetimes, do not discount the fact that they pay the highest price possible when we “pragmatically” eat them – they die. If you were kept in perfect comfort throughout your youth until you reached physical maturity, at which point we painlessly killed and then ate you… don’t you think your death outweighs whatever comforts might be afforded the beings that feasted on you, considering they could have had some lentils instead? Giving your very life for someone’s pleasure/tradition is bullshit.

    Having said that, there are places in the world where people need animal products for survival, and if (say) the efforts of the rest of the globe to feed these peoples with plants was not sufficient for their needs, I would say it is right to prioritize human survival over animal survival. Human carnivorousness must represent a true necessity to be justified.

    I am not troubled with nature red in tooth and claw. We can’t control all of nature and I am of the opinion that people use this reason (we are protecting animals from the wild) as nothing more than a post hoc rationalization for doing what we would to anyway. We don’t bring ugly or prickly or noisy animals into our homes to protect them from the brutality of the wild – only creatures that please us because they are cuddly or we can eat them. I think the real motivation is pleasure, not some kind of protective altruism. The beneficial side effects of living with humans are real, but they are not the primary purpose. Always ask, what is the motivation? If it’s to eat you, then it hardly seems to matter that on the way to being eaten you don’t have to worry about being hunted by wolves. If it’s to keep you as a housepet, then maybe it’s less clear that you are being used – but insofar as your natural urges and desires are thwarted, you are in fact being used. We again land at the question I asked earlier, what does it mean to be better off?

    Wow this got long.

  16. Actually… one addition: regardless of what we think, animals *do* pursue happiness! They are self determining, autonomous beings that will try to socialize, play, mate, etc., in keeping with their desires. They aren’t waiting for us to grant them that right – they’re trying to live it already! The most we can propose is to try and thwart their efforts. That feels wrong.

  17. I think I am talking myself into a position against keeping housepets.

  18. Your points are well made. I don’t think I feel as strongly as you, but I admire your consistency πŸ˜‰

    I’m reminded of a quotation… I’m pretty sure it was Richard Dawkins, I can’t find the exact wording. He looked at farm animals from another angle, suggesting that they’re using us more than we’re using them. A sheep has no need for natural defenses, hibernation, etc. A whole host of evolutionarily expensive strategies for survival have been outsourced to the farmer for the price of some wool, which isn’t needed anyways, as barn and blankets are provided. Perhaps it is them who have ‘tricked’ us. Of course, he was talking about artificial selection and coevolution, not the morality of domestication.

    There may be something to be said for animals that have been domesticated long enough to have evolved significantly away from their wild cousins. Individual dogs who genuinely preferred their station over a feral life would have had a strong selection advantage. Of course, they would have evolved to be working dogs with lots of space, lots of activity, and no leashes. It’s probably just plain wrong to keep cats and dogs in an apartment, period.

    • Yeah, I heard him talk about the sheep thing in one of the documentaries. It was neat. And yeah, you can’t just turn a sheep loose in the wild and expect anything remotely okay to happen to it – selective breeding has turned them into major bimbos. So two things come from that, to my mind: one, is it okay to bimbo-ize animals (maybe), two, bimbo animals still have the right to not be mistreated. WHich is basically in line with your line of thinking to do with reducing suffering in life and death for captive animals, I think,

      By the way, my position in animals is (as is probably obvious) a rights based position. I was heavily influenced by a book by philosopher Tom Regan called The Case For Animal Rights. UNlike me he is consistent and carries his argument for the rights of animals to the logical conclusion, and argues for no pets, no animal testing, no zoos, etc. It’s a hell of a good read if you’re interested.

  19. I hate to draw this out too far, but it’s an interesting discussion.

    We do need to confine animals to keep them from running away. It’s a good argument for their desire to be free. But we also confine babies and children who would otherwise wander off. We do it because they don’t know any better, and we make it our responsibility to keep them safe and healthy. Do you think the same can apply to animals? The difference, of course, is that babies will become autonomous adults if we protect them temporarily, whereas a cat is a cat its whole life.

    Mammals do pursue happiness, certainly, and I would extend the principle of liberty to them without feeling it was significantly cheapened. What about fish? Insects? Bivalves? Sponges? Is there a line to be drawn, or is it a spectrum? Is there a point on the spectrum where your morality changes?

    • Good points. There probably is a apectrum about which animals should be accorded rights. It seems clear that while aphids don’t have rights, baboons do. I follow Regan in according rights to mammals and birds. When we first went veg, we continued to eat bivalves on the grounds that there is no evidence that they have a nervous system sophisticated enough to support social behaviour or even pain reception. (We stopped eating these because meat-texture got gross to us.)

      I don’t know that I could argue that a fish has much in the way of rights based on parallels with mammal happiness-seeking, but having fished myself, it is quite obvious that they flip their shit when you take the out of the water and will flap around like mad trying to get back in, not to mention the gasping… they want to live. Feels wrong to kill ’em. My main argument though with fish farming is environmental devastation.

      Again, the argument for protection of animals doesn’t persuade me on the grounds that I consider it a smokescreen for the real motivation – pleasure or food for the human. If we consider the case of the bimbo animal, then there is probably some stewardship obligation that humans have incurred and therefore we must protect them insofar as they cannot do it themselves (because of how we bred them). In the case of a cat at the SPCA it’s probably similarly acceptable to keep it as a pet because it cannot really survive on its own and again, this is down to us.

      I suppose the long term goal should be to slowly liberate animals from their dependence on us, as a reversing of the process that made them dependent and “bimboed.”

  20. I just want to chime in with the pet thing… one does not always have to confine pets their whole lives. My family has never confined our pets beyond their youth, and when we were moved from Canada to the U.S. (so they could get used to their new house). We walked our dog on a leash only when she needed to be on one legally, and we let our cats outside when they wanted to go out. They did not run away, but came back (well, one of our cats adopted our neighbours because they spoiled him, but that was his choice). I think Jesse is correct when he draws the analogy to the confinement of children – pets should be protected from the world in their early years, but with proper care and training they can gain a measure of autonomy themselves. Many pets adore people. What I think is important is the enforcement of animal welfare protection, because some people can be just plain shitty to their pets. But done properly, I do not think you have made the case at all for the dissolution of domestic animal care.

    That said, I think there should either be laws or at least a lot of education put in for people wanting to buy a pet to make sure they have the proper facilities. A cat or small dog can be relatively happy in an apartment with regular walks or trips outside (and some people do walk cats – they just are rather annoying to walk because they don’t usually pick linear routes), but unless you are spending hours with them at the park, large dogs are going to be quite unhappy.

  21. Yes, youor observation about indoor-outdoor pets is basically what I was getting at with the “farm cat” example somewhere above. The animal gets freedom plus security – sounds like a good deal for a domesticated creature.

    I am not sure all animals need human intervention in their early years to survive – cats are a good example of this. In a habitat where there is sufficient prey, kittens will be well cared for by their mother and have no need of us. They would probably be easy to de-domesticate. The point is, animals are autonomous in and of themselves. They will care for their own young. The only exceptions are animals we have messed with through seletive breeding, and in these cases our obligation is to care for them with kindness during a de-domesticating process of however long it takes, such that they can be freed from dependence on us and become, as they once were, autonomous in the most meaningful sense.

    But I readily confess, the line about walking dogs on leashes was a cheap shot. I wondered if I’d get busted for it… I totally did! πŸ™‚

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