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Morality and consistency

February 23, 2014

Emrys Westacott argues that consistency isn’t the sine qua non of moral belief. While I agree with the article’s argument for pragmatism, I think it misses the importance of consistency arguments in moral discussion.

First, note that consistency would be trivial so long as someone asserts only concrete moral judgments. “That use of someone else’s property is wrong.” “This use of someone else’s property is right.” Any set of such claims is logically consistent, so long as every act is judged once.

Of course, people don’t merely judge individual acts. They attempt to explain their judgments through appeal to abstract principles, advocate for those principles, and sometimes reason from those principles to their judgments. It is by pointing out the friction between those claimed principles and judgment in specific cases that we show the limits, relative priorities, and social constraints on the principles. On the abortion issue, for example, most pro-lifers show zero concern for the majority of embryos that naturally fail to implant, despite their rhetoric that every embryo should be treated as a person. Pushing on that inconsistency reveals, sometimes, how much of their morality derives from other notions, such as proper patterns of sexual behavior and where people should “leave matters to God” rather than exert control and choice through technology.

Consistency may not be that important in its own right. But the ways in which people are inconsistent can be quite telling. Exploring those form a large part of moral discussion.

(Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan for linking to Westacott’s article.)

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