4

Imagine someone who you know is a defender of an idea, let's call it idea A.

Than one day, you see her defending the opposite idea, idea B, in a group that you know supports idea B. When you confront her, she just says that she changed her mind.

Than again, a few days later you catch her defending idea A again to a people who are pro-A. Again, when confronted, she says that she changed her mind back. In the following days, you see the same pattern of seeming to have changed her idea whenever it suits her.

So even though I know that she seems to be doing something ethically wrong, I can't put my finger on exactly what is wrong.

I imagine that there can't be a 'ethically allowed number of times for people to change their minds'. So, technically, she can say, that she changes her mind infinitely many times without doing anything ethically wrong.

So my question is this: is there something ethically wrong with this behavior? Just saying that 'she used to be a person who defended the opposite idea the other day and she is conflicting with her former self' seems like 'ad hominem' to me.

PS: I know I must have screwed up a lot of terminology here and I probably haven't phrased the question in the right way. I hope that it still makes sense to you.

  • Attorneys and debaters are expected to be able to forcefully argue either side of a position. How is your situation different? Is this about someone you know? – user4894 Apr 8 '14 at 2:57
  • It is possible that ideas A and B are actually solutions to different problems that appear inconsistent because you don't understand the context. Perhaps you should try asking the person about the apparent inconsistency. – alanf Apr 8 '14 at 10:07
  • The problem is that changing one's mind repeatedly is sufficiently unusual that it seems likely that the individual is lying about their intentions and state of mind. Lying is typically considered immoral. – Rex Kerr Apr 8 '14 at 20:26
5

There could be something wrong with such behavior but there are several features that are necessary to make sense of it. First, we are going to need some manner of moral theory. Without that, we are just grasping at straws. There are three main moral frameworks considered by contemporary ethicists in the West (whether this is good or bad we leave aside):

Consequentialist frameworks evaluate actions on the basis of their outcomes. They seek either to maximize or minimize some quantity ("happiness", "justice"). Such an account will actually have the hardest time identifying what is wrong with a person who is inconsistent in this regard. This is not to say consequentialists cannot give a reason why such inconsistency would be wrong -- just that it would be complex.

Deontological accounts emphasize rules. Here, you could have a view that contains a rule of consistency or self-disclosure. (Truth-telling may not suffice if the person claims their views are genuinely changed). But it seems sensible to be responsible for what one says and does.

Virue ethics accounts look at the development of character. Clearly, being inconsistent is an inverterate form of behavior that isn't going to develop the character of the individual involved. Here, the moral fault would be in having the sort of personality that can flip between such strong emotions rather than being more mellowed on an issue where one is uncertain.

Returning to the consequentialists, they can argue that there is something awry about the consequences insofar some sort of inconsistency leads to a reduction in goods (e.g. if I can trust my business partners only 50% of the time, then this makes it impossible to work to maximize profits).

But the word "wrong" can also be used in a legal context. It's hard to see how this is illegal unless the speaker is under oath in both cases.


Of course all of this is more complex if the agents have a duty to perform in certain ways that appear inconsistent but are not. E.g., lawyers and advocates. In such a context, it is understood that there is a responsibility to argue passionately for the position one is entrusted to defend. (N.b., there are still cases where advocacy represents a moral failing).

  • Small typo: there's a t missing in "virue ethics". First time I read it, I thought it said "virus ethics" and got very excited that I was about to learn something interesting and new :) – goblin Feb 26 '16 at 4:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.