What does consistency have to do with reasons?

I asked Allan Gibbard this post’s titular question earlier this year, and he patiently noted that many people value consistency because if one has inconsistent beliefs, one or more of one’s beliefs must be false. I responded that since he and I believe that all normative beliefs are, in some sense, false, this sort of consideration wouldn’t give us — or other anti-realists about value — any reason to want our “ethical beliefs,” whatever form they might take, to be consistent. I can’t remember where the conversation went from there, but I don’t think that he was particularly moved by my response.

But I was moved by it, and I still am. Sure, if I believe P and not-P, I must have a false belief. But if there aren’t any normative truths, then if I believe P and not-P with respect to some normative matter, I should probably just stop having beliefs of that sort, but if I’m unable to stop (as some anti-realists seem to hold), what harm could follow if I have inconsistent beliefs about such matters?

I recognize that only certain varieties of “anti-realism” about ethics hold that there are no normative truths. Perhaps Allan’s “quasi-realism” isn’t one of them — I can never keep track of what he does or doesn’t think can be true — which might explain his not being impressed with this line of thought. But if one doesn’t think that there are any truths of the form “X is good,” “X is right,” “X is reasonable,” etc., then it seems one doesn’t have any truth-related reasons to value consistency among one’s normative commitments, beliefs, statements, etc.

Leaving that aside, here’s another little pseudo-problem: Suppose, like Sharon Street, you hold that “to make a normative judgment is to ‘give laws to oneself.’ As soon as one takes anything whatsoever to be a reason, one thereby ‘legislates’ standards according to which, by one’s own lights as a valuing agent, one is making a mistake, … if one endorses certain other normative judgments.” (This is from Street’s “Constructivism About Reasons,” pp. 229-30.)

I take Street’s account of reasons and normativity to depend largely on an appeal to internal consistency of some sort. According to Street, one’s judgments about reasons can be judged as “correct” or “incorrect” from the standpoint of all one’s other judgments about reasons. Of course, since Street also holds that there are “ultimately” no normative truths or truths about reasons, I’m inclined to ask why we should continue to make “judgments about reasons” or take ourselves to have reasons if we agree with Street that there are ultimately no truths about these matters. She has an answer to this, of course: We can’t help but occupy the “practical standpoint,” and occupying this standpoint necessarily involves making normative judgments and taking oneself to have reasons. I’m not convinced that she’s right about that, but I’ll grant it for the sake of argument.

Assuming that we can’t help but occupy the practical standpoint, we’re going to make some judgments about reasons. Let’s say I have previously made a bunch of judgments about reasons, and I now take myself to have reason to make some tea. According to Street, we can determine whether this judgment is correct by comparing it to all my other normative judgments. If it can “withstand scrutiny” from the standpoint of my other normative judgments, it’s correct. I take it that “withstanding scrutiny” largely requires that the normative judgment under inspection not conflict with or be inconsistent with other normative judgments I’ve made.

Suppose that Street (or someone else, if I’ve got Street wrong) holds that consistency with one’s other normative judgments is at least necessary (and perhaps sufficient) for constructivist “correctness” of a given normative judgment. If so, the view seems to place a high value on consistency, or at least, it takes consistency to be centrally involved in normative matters. (Street argues that the requirement of being consistent with one’s reasons follows analytically from what is involved in “taking oneself to have a reason.”) This strikes me as odd.

Suppose I take myself to have reason to go pick up my daughter at noon and also take myself to have reason to pick up a book at the library at noon. (My daughter is not at the library.) These judgments about reasons are inconsistent. Of course, unless I have deviant priorities, it’s easy to tell which judgment has to go: I have most reason to pick up my daughter. Indeed, it’s easy to see where I went wrong in the first place. I should have taken myself to have most (or significant, or +5) reason to pick up my daughter and less (or trivial, or +1) reason to pick up the book. These judgments about reasons are not inconsistent, and they allow me to judge both as correct and still pick up my daughter.

But it seems to me that the reason I should pick up my daughter (if you’ll permit loose talk about “reasons” for a moment) is that I care about her, not that I have taken myself to have reason to pick her up and that this judgment is consistent with my other normative judgments. Contrary to the view I’ve sketched above, which takes consistency among reasons to be centrally important in deciding what you have reason to do, this consideration seems not to matter much at all. At least, it doesn’t matter to me.

Suppose I had been an awful father until today, in that I previously judged myself to have no reason at all to take care of my daughter. (How could you think that of me!?) Then this morning, like the Grinch, my heart grew three sizes, and I decided that I cared most about my daughter, not my huge stack of checked-out books that I never get around to reading. From the standpoint of my previous normative judgments, this latest normative judgment is quite inconsistent and therefore constructively incorrect. But I don’t care about that; my heart just grew three sizes, I’ve changed my normative priorities, and what I care about now is what matters to me, whether it is consistent with what I used to care about or not.

There’s probably a constructivist way to explain away this example, e.g., my new normative judgment is of such overwhelming intensity that it swamps the old, one-third-hearted judgments about reasons. But I don’t think that erases the worry I’m trying to motivate. If an account of reasons requires us to accept that consistency among reasons is of central importance, it should be able to explain why it’s so important (assuming, for the moment, that there are truths about what is or isn’t “important”).

Should I want my reasons to be internally consistent? (What if I don’t care about that?) If I discover that one of my judgments about reasons doesn’t withstand scrutiny from the standpoint of my other normative judgments, do I therefore have reason to revise my judgments in order to be more internally consistent? What if none of my judgments about reasons states or entails that I take myself to have reason to seek or value consistency among my judgments about reasons?

Street’s answer, I think, might go as follows:

Constructivism’s “purely formal statements about what is involved in the very attitude of taking something to be a reason …. make no substantive assumptions about what reasons there are; they merely state what is involved in taking something to be a reason in the first place. If someone ‘violates’ them, then she is not making an error; she is merely not taking anything to be a reason. This is similar to the way in which a child who pretends that a pawn is riding a knight is not making a mistake; she is just not playing chess.” (“Constructivism About Reasons,” p. 229.)

OK, so if I somehow found myself able to stop playing the “reasons game” in which consistency is centrally important, and I started playing another “reasons game” in which what I cared about at any given moment was most important, what could/should I think about my new “normative” practices? Would I be indulging in an impermissibly deviant sense of “reasons” if I described the output of my inconsistent “reasons game” as “reasons”? Would I have reason to stop playing my game and play Street’s game, instead?

Street is not unaware of these sorts of worries, as readers of her work will know, but I’m unsatisfied by her responses. Since I’m already over 1400 words, I won’t describe her responses here; I’ll leave interested readers to have a look at Street’s responses or provide some of their own. You could also look at the recent exchanges between John Broome and Niko Kolodny — I’ve read some, but not all of it, and I thought it was interesting, but some of the formal stuff went over my head.

But before you read any of that stuff, please tell me what you think of my abject confusion about normative matters.

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3 Responses to What does consistency have to do with reasons?

  1. Sven Nyholm says:

    It would seem odd to require that our *reasons* be consistent, since we can have reasons to do various different things all of which we couldn’t possibly do. We then look to our reasons to see which, of these incompatible courses of action, we should take. Where consistency matters more—from the standpoint of somebody who is asking why be consistent?—might be with regard to the adoption of goals and plans. Suppose I adopt and try to carry out two inconsistent plans. Since these plans are inconsistent or incompatible in the sense I couldn’t possibly carry both of them out, I fail when I try to do so. I might conclude that it’s a bad idea to adopt plans that are in this practical sense inconsistent. This seems to offer a justification that almost anybody could buy into for why not to adopt plans inconsistent with the possibility of carrying other plans we are also trying to carry out. Or, do you also reject this type of purely practical need for consistency?

  2. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    Thanks for commenting, Sven. I agree that we do seem to have practical reasons, intuitively speaking, to seek consistency in our plans. This could also be cast as a sort of factual inconsistency, if the plans are claims about or predictions of what you will do, e.g., the claims “I will pick up my daughter at daycare at noon” and “I will pick up a book at the library at noon” cannot both be true. But the practical worry that I couldn’t carry out both plans would remain even if I didn’t care much about whether my claims about my future behavior were consistent or true.

    However, this reason to avoid inconsistency is contingent, in that I only have it if and to the extent that I care about thinking clearly about my plans and ensuring that I don’t make plans I can’t complete. For example, if I plan to throw a rock at a tree at noon and also plan to practice my pirouette at noon, I can’t do both, but I don’t care, so long as I do *something* fun at noon. Moreover, even in cases in which I do have reason to avoid inconsistency, it’s because I care about the content of the plans, not because I have reason to avoid inconsistency, per se. In other words, I care much more about seeing the plans through than I care about avoiding inconsistency, so I can agree with you here without making consistency centrally important in the way I criticize in the original post.

  3. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    Wow, this post was way too long. It killed Go Grue! (Except for the occasional unhinged insulting commenter and/or viagra pusher.)

    Here’s the short version: Consistency doesn’t have anything to do with reasons.

    Now, please feel free to go about your posting business.

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