Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Is Asking for Consistency Extremism?

by Tibor R. Machan

In my business ethics class, someone recently brought up the issue of consistency—why is it desirable to be consistent, why are contradictions frowned upon? Maybe it is some kind of Eurocentric prejudice, all this emphasis on logic and rationality.

Certainly among the famous thinkers and writers there have been some who complained about insisting on these ideals that were hammered out in ancient Greece, mostly by the philosopher Aristotle. Herman Hesse, the poet, and the famous Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky—especially via his main character in Notes from the Underground (who may or may not be giving views with which he sympathizes)—have advanced the idea that reason and logic are restrictive. Indeed, much of contemporary multiculturalism carries that implication—all that emphasis on logic and rationality has no universal validity at all but amounts instead to virtual coercive impositions by those of one culture on those of the rest.

OK, this is a huge topic and only a bit of it can be treated here; namely, why consistency is desirable. First of all, because reality itself is governed by principles that are the basis of logic and rationality. It really is the case that one cannot both be at home and not at home at the same time, in the same respect; nor can one be both a fireman and not one, nor can something be round and not round all at once. And so with everything—the law of identity just isn't flexible. This is why a proposed scientific theory which contains a contradiction or inconsistency is dead in the water. And why self-contradictory testimony given in court completely discredits the witness.

As already noted, some have argued recently, along lines of the Underground Man, that all this stress on logic and reason is nothing more than Eurocentric prejudice, indeed a kind of wrongful cultural imperialism. Why should we adhere to views hatched in ancient Greece, by such folks as Socrates and Aristotle? Their prevalence is but a sign of their power, not of any superior virtue or wisdom. That's one of the themes of multiculturalism. All cultures are alike; none is superior or inferior to any other. That's not only a point about the ethical views being championed but even about the fundamental criterion of what makes sense and what cannot make sense.

A milder version of the multicultural thesis is that insisting on consistency in human affairs is too idealistic, certainly unrealistic. That is often said about politics, especially, where we are urged by some to be more tolerant of messiness, of murkiness, of fuzziness.

Here the problem is not only that trying to remain consistent and insisting that public officials do so as well is exactly the same as insisting on being reasonable, on staying true to the nature of reality. Another problem is that such a request confuses what is reasonable to expect with what is reasonable to insist on.

Of course human beings aren't likely to be consistent, logical, and rational all the time and in all matters. Some may well be so but most are likely to fall short. That's a bit like expecting total fitness from people, or only healthful eating practices. Such expectations are unreasonable themselves, which is why one should be wary of them.

But as far as insisting on logic and rationality, consistency and abstaining from self-contradiction, these are completely unobjectionable, indeed fully justified. We ought to strive to be consistent, logical, sensible, and rational—it is indeed our basic human responsibility to do so. Just as standards of good health should be kept in mind whenever possible, so with standards of sound thinking.

Moreover, just because it is not likely that everyone will live up to such standards, it doesn't follow that trying and urging us to do so is unreasonable. In fact, failing to try is just what produces more and more confusion, more and more incoherence and, indeed, chaos, say, in politics, marriage, child-rearing and so forth. It also gives people the excuse that there is nothing amiss when they hold contradictory ideas and promote contradictory policies. That we aren't likely to constantly live up to those standards is not a reason to abandon or especially deride them, anymore than the improbability of living a completely healthful life supports the idea that we ought to deride trying to do so.

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