Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Philosophers and Inconsistencies

Generally I’ve found that philosophers tend to care more about societal/ethical issues than the average person. This could be because they read mountains of blogs every day (political and philosophical) or because they often study political and ethical theory in philosophy classes and participate in discussions about such theories in lectures and conferences and with each other.

Wherever they pick these things up, I have discovered that most philosophers I know have very strong opinions on things like food ethics, animal welfare (many philosophers are vegetarians or vegans), political systems, welfare, the organization of welfare, race and ethnicity, and education.

One of the problems that non-philosophers often encounter with philosophers who care so much about these ideas is that to us it seems that these philosophers may not put into practice the theories that they believe in. We see our ethicists talk about treating all members of all social classes equally, but they act particularly unkind to a waiter/waitress. We see our Marxists refuse to attend a sporting event because they don’t want to interact with the proletariat who annoy them. You get the idea.

This is an old problem in academia, across the subjects: An English professor might study Dickens, but is completely unaware of the poverty in her/his local community. A professor who studies feminism might be particularly unkind to her/his female office staff members. A, economics professor who believes that tax revenue is important to fund government programs that help the needy might cheat on her/his taxes so they don’t have to pay out.

What makes philosophers different than other academics in this area is how they handle inconsistencies being pointed out to them. Philosophers like to think that they are living “the examined life.” If a non-philosopher points out to a philosopher that they seem to believe one truth but act contradictory to this truth, philosophers generally become hostile, as almost everyone does, and then react with fierce philosophical attacks. Remember, philosophical work is all about making arguments. But, the important thing to remember is that philosophers—because they really are trying to live “the examined life”—will often change their behaviors as a result of someone drawing attention to inconsistencies.

So, instead of getting angry with your philosopher when they spout strong ethical/political views but never practice them, I encourage you to point out these inconsistencies (in a gentle way) and steer your philosopher back into the real world. One of the best things about philosophers I’ve noticed, that works in your favor, is that they all have an incredibly serious guilt complex, which is very effective if you can tap into it.

Here are some ways that you can point out inconsistencies your inconsistent philosopher:

1. Wait, then note.

Wait until the situation is past (or the person your philosopher said/did something to is out of hearing) then point out the inconsistency. Addressing the inconsistency while the person is close or can hear will just make your philosopher feel like you are trying to make them look bad, which will make them even more bristly.

2. What would [X philosopher] say about what you just said/did?

Some philosophers do not need much prompting to feel guilty about their behavior. A simple question will help them draw a connection between what they just did and what they actually believe.

3. I remember that you’ve explained [X ethical/political theory] to me before. It seems to me that it is inconsistent for you to say [X] and do [what you just did]?  Do you think that my interpretation of this as an inconsistency is correct?

Some philosophers find this method very patronizing. Some philosophers really need to be reminded of their political/ethical views and feel that you also understand them, though, before you can express any contradictions in their own behavior. I don’t recommend this for many people.

4. Note inconsistencies in your own behavior and try to change them.

Sometimes acting ourselves can be enough of a wake-up to a philosopher. You probably won’t even have to mention anything about how you are trying to demonstrate your commitment to idea X. Encouraging your philosopher to participate with you in this action—and having your defenses ready in case they try to pull the “I’m too busy for this” clause—will be motivation enough for them to act.

5. Hey, you’re doing it again.

If you and your philosopher have discussed inconsistencies before, sometimes a simple reminder (a nudge, a significant eyebrow raise) is enough to bring on a little philosopher-guilt.

6. If all else fails, gear up for a battle.

Some philosophers need direct philosophical attack in order to recognize inconsistencies. If your philosopher is this type, prepare yourself by reading summaries of the type of theories your philosopher believes. Approach the battle with questions such as, “In [situation reminiscent of one where you witnessed your philosopher being inconsistent], would [theory X] say that this person was acting immorally?” “What about [another situation]?” Then a simple, “Sometimes you do [situation]. Is there a reason why you do this? Are you really following [theory X] if you do this?”

Good luck.
You can follow me on twitter (@philosiologist) or friend me on facebook (Philosiologist Qed). You can also send me an email if you have a question, comment, post idea, or want to chat about philosophers. As a note to a very confused anonymous,  I also enjoy thinking and talking about things other than philosophers, obviously, but I'm not making this blog about me. You can also email me about Victorian literature, if you're tired of hearing about philosophers.

~The Philosiologist~


  1. Knowing the path vs. walking the path...

  2. Conversation among my philosopher, his mother, and me:

    Enlightened Person: "Mom! Why did you buy ground beef? We *don't* eat ground beef in this home. Do you *know* what kind of stuff is in ground beef??? You shouldn't be eating this stuff! This is not good for you!"

    Mom: "Enlightened person, no... I didn't know that... But it is *very lean*... it shouldn't be too bad, right?"

    Me: "Enlightened person, you do know that you ate a Big Mac two days ago, right?"

    Enlightened person smiled and dropped the issue.

    True story.

  3. My family accuses me of inconsistency from time to time. I care about environmentalism, recycling and so forth. Also, when I am in the car, I spit out my chewing gum on the road. My mom and my sister would be disgusted, and they challenge me by asking: Isn't that polluting the environment? I say: These highways are already a blemish on the environment, but I'm doing what I can to help fortify the pavements; if everyone did it, it would probably save lots of cost on repair work. I don't do it on the sidewalk because all those dark blotches look disgusting, but I do it while driving on the road.

    My mom and sister will then reply: you are probably costing road maintenance huge amounts of money removing all the gum from the pavement, and it's uncivilized.

    I like to think I'm right, but I'm not sure.

  4. "Although I do not mean to assert that it is usually the practice of renowned and learned sages, to shorten the road to any great conclusion (their course indeed being rather to lengthen the distance, by various circumlocutions and discursive staggerings, like unto those in which drunken men under the pressure of a too mighty flow of ideas, are prone to indulge) ; still, I do mean to say, and do say distinctly, that it is the invariable practice of many mighty philosophers, in carrying out their theories, to evince great wisdom and foresight in providing against every possible contingency which can be supposed at all likely to affect themselves."

    - Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist


  5. @ Joe: All quotes by Charles Dickens are welcome on this blog :-)

  6. This entire post is based on the (false) premise that any person who has their hypocritical actions pointed out to them is going to inevitably respond with anger. We're not all 11 (or adults who act that age).

  7. @ longshadow: I suppose you did not see the clause "as almost everyone does."

    Perhaps you do not work the kind of job where you have to point out things that philosophers have done incorrectly all day, or you might change your view on this point. You would be surprised at how many "adults" act like they are 11 years old when a non-philosopher points out something that they did incorrectly (and something that they are required by law to do). In fact, I keep a "hate mail" folder for all of the childish reactions I have encountered.

  8. The philosopher G.A. Cohen wrote a brilliant book on (part of) this subject with the title "If you're an egalitarian, how come you're so rich?"

  9. Oh man! I'd love to get a glimpse at that folder!

    -a proto-philosopher

  10. smartass philosopher12 May 2011 at 09:27

    But the assumption, if it is your assumption, that being legally binding implies a moral obligation is, in fact, a quite controversial one...

  11. @longshadow: Well, *I* usually respond by lashing out briefly. After a few minutes of guilt, I acknowledge the point, apologize for lashing out, and change my behaviour. I'm eternally grateful to my partner for suffering me, and for helping me to improve myself and my outlook.

  12. I still love this blog :D I gave it a mention on my latest post :D at the bottom

  13. A philosopher's live is not a extension of a philosophers argument. When one debate with a philosopher one debate against the argument the philosopher put forward, not his or her life.

    therefore, inconsistencies are not a problem.

  14. Honestly, it's probably best to address it in writing.

  15. @neouto: Inconsistencies are not a /philosophical/ problem. They are still a problem.