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The Ethics of Consistency

Research Topic
The Ethics of Consistency

Lead Researchers
Brownstein Michael, Associate Professor, John Jay College and The Graduate Center, CUNY

Kelly Daniel, Professor, Purdue University

Host Researcher
Masataka Nakayama, Assistant Professor, Kokoro Research Center, Kyoto University

People care a lot about consistency. Voluminous research on cognitive dissonance, for example, illuminates the discomfort people feel when holding inconsistent beliefs, and the lengths they’ll go to reduce it. Classic works of literature like Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye valorize “being true to oneself,” or living consistently with one’s “real” feelings and values (Kadlac 2018). Western intellectual history is rife with references to related ideals of sincerity and authenticity (Trilling 1971, Taylor 1989). Contemporary cultural debates—for example, about the ethics of “code-switching”—are often premised on the putative wrongness of acting inconsistently across different contexts (Morton 2014). New research in moral psychology suggests that the consistency of one’s moral values may be the bedrock of folk conceptions of identity (Strohminger & Nichols 2014).
We have here a family of related concepts that emanate from, and indicate concern with, forms of consistency: integrity, sincerity, authenticity, genuineness, dissembling, hypocrisy, two-facedness, phoniness, fakery, etc. These “consistency concepts” are distinct in important ways, of course. A villain like Iago’s private thoughts are inconsistent with his public actions, while a hypocrite tells you one thing but tells me another. Consistency concepts are also not mutually entailed. One can have integrity, for example, but fail to be autonomous (if one’s beliefs are the product of manipulation, for example).
Consistency concepts are clearly related, however. They typically involve two relata, and there is often general agreement within cultures about how the relata ought to fit together to satisfy a particular consistency concept. These concepts also generally share a valence. People want to have integrity, authenticity, and so on, while inconsistency in its various forms is usually despised. For every Scout Finch, with all the courage of her convictions, there is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, embodying a frightening embrace of inconsistency.
The aim of this project is to consider why we care so much about consistency. Why is there usually agreement within cultures about how we ought to be consistent? And why is there disagreement, when there is? We expect to identify and distinguish two broad families of answers. Prof. Uchida’s expertise will be integral in helping us along both fronts, as we describe below.