This post contradicts itself… wait, no it doesn’t.

April 1, 2012    By: Jeff G @ 10:12 pm   Category: Ethics

The following thought experiment can be taken in a number of ways.  For some, it will be a fun little logic game.  For others, it will be yet further proof that philosophers are annoying people who ought to be avoided at parties.  And for others still, it illustrates a broad class of scenarios in which we might actually find ourselves.  So, without further delay…

Suppose we live in a world in which the following things are clearly true:

  1.  There are exactly two viable moral theories: duty-based ethics and consequence-based ethics. (It’s not at all important what these theories say, only that they are clearly incompatible with each other.)
  2. Whichever moral theory we believe in also dictates what we ought to believe.
  3. Duty-based ethics clearly dictates that we ought to believe in consequence-based ethics.
  4. Consequence-based ethics clearly dictates that we ought to believe in duty-based ethics.

In such a world, what ought we to believe and how do we go about justifying our beliefs to others?


  1. Jeff, I am not sure what kind of discussion you are looking for on this. I guess I fall into the camp of thinking this illustrates a broad class of scenarios in which we often find ourselves. That said, I am not sure it ever makes itself quite as clear as there being exactly two theories which are clearly incompatible but dictate that we should believe the other.

    As to moral theories, I tend to think that consequentialism does indeed recommend a good deal of deontological ethics and that deontological ethics often boil down to a bedrock of consequentialism.

    But I think you are getting at a larger point about how we deal with contradiction in our personal philosophical system and how we justify it to others. If so, my take is that if we analyze the roots of the contradiction we will find the answer for ourselves and we should use the same answer when justifying our beliefs to others. We will usually find either (a) that there are no options which do not contain a contradiction or that (b) removing the contradiction entails throwing out things which we are unwilling to throw out for one reason or another.

    If it is (a) then we would justify our position by demonstrating similar contradictions hiding in an opposing viewpoint being recommended to us. If it is option (b), it depends somewhat on the nature of the contradiction and the nature of things we would need to throw out. In some cases, I have in fact removed the contradiction by altering my beliefs. For example, I gave up my belief in God’s “simple foreknowledge” because the contradictions seemed quite bad and the evidence for simple foreknowledge seemed relatively weak. In other cases, I have chosen to live with a logical difficulty. But in my experience we are rarely faced with a bald contradiction. Usually it is more like an implausibility and those are easier to swallow.

    Comment by Jacob J — April 2, 2012 @ 2:12 am

  2. Your comment was exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. I considered extending the scenario at the end to having three theories in a kind of rock, paper scissors scenario and going up from there, but my biggest worry was closing off any of those little loopholes which people tend to exploit in moral or logical dilemmas.

    I like your response, if only because I think it sets a great tone for the thread. I hope you don’t mind if a push you a bit further on some details:

    Your defense in (a) was interesting, and certainly the knee jerk reaction I think all of us would have. But I’m not so sure about the “you’re wrong, therefore I’m right”, especially since the exact same reasoning is open to the other guy. I’m not so sure that you have justified yourself so much as told the critics to simply leave you alone.

    (b) is getting closer to where I am personally at (not that that’s a sign of being right by any means). I’m wondering, however, what is it about “the nature of the contradiction” or “the nature of the things we would need to throw out” that would matter? If we keep in mind that what counts as a “bad” contradiction or “weak” evidence is itself part of the theory we have chosen, then we are really right back where we started.

    Comment by Jeff G — April 2, 2012 @ 11:00 am

  3. Maybe the two viable theories are actually one theory.

    It’s like drawing a distinction between freedom and responsibility (there are differences between the two), yet they are closely linked in that you can’t have one without the other.

    Duty vs consequence seems to be another riff on responsibility vs freedom. You might as well describe a binary star system as two separate suns. Perhaps the yin-yang metaphor would be useful here.

    Comment by Bradley — April 2, 2012 @ 10:04 pm

  4. Thanks for stopping by, Bradley. I was about to pounce on the fact that the two theories are posited to be clearly incompatible with each, but I think this would only show my own lack of attention to the subject. After all, I’m pretty much asking a question which has no right answer and then asking everybody else to give answers that I can simply lay back and shoot down one by one. What a crock!

    I think it’s only fair that I lay my own cards on the table, if only to give everybody else a chance at shooting ME down. Originally, I was going to accept and live by each of them depending on which was better suited to handle the situation in which I found myself(logical inconsistencies be damned!).

    Accordingly, my post could be asking which of the 4 facts would you choose to ignore. Jacob’s answer, it seems, was to ignore (2). I think mine is (2) as well. Bradley’s seems like (1). Everybody else is…..

    Quiet on the matter, which, it turns out, is a perfectly legitimate answer to the question. If a certain subject is going to force us into saying and believing things which clearly go against the rules, then it seems like a perfectly good strategy to simply avoid the subject. Brilliant!!

    But in this light, we might be tempted to think that Bradley chose wrong. I don’t think this is right. To be more specific, I think Bradley’s answer amounts to an attempt to explore the ways in which we might possibly find a space for both theories to remain more or less intact. Of course, people (like me) are going to shoot him down, but I think it is people like him that allow for “progress”, “continuing revelation” or however else you want to look at it.

    Comment by Jeff G — April 2, 2012 @ 11:02 pm

  5. Jeff G: I’d be interested to see your argument for the truth of the premises since your conclusory premises are nowhere near as obvious to me as to you. For instance, what is the basis for asserting that a deontological ethic (say Kant’s or W. D. Ross’s) must necessarily entail consequentialist ethics.

    Comment by Blake — April 3, 2012 @ 7:45 am

  6. Blake,

    I was afraid my post lent itself too easily to that misinterpretation. Those “facts” which hold true in my imaginary world were not meant as premises to any kind of argument. I actually chose to use those two ethical theories primarily because (ironically enough) nobody seems emotionally invested in either one being exclusively true. Thus, I was hoping to construct a simulation of sorts to see how people deal with a choice between two conflicting paradigms which is itself determined by those same paradigms.

    Yet another purpose was to suggest a scenario which leads to a dynamic equilibrium in paradigm selection rather than the static equilibrium we are accustomed to thinking about.

    Comment by Jeff G — April 3, 2012 @ 10:06 am

  7. The conclusion of the argument is either the law of noncontradiction is false, or no moral theory is viable.

    Comment by Anon — April 3, 2012 @ 6:00 pm

  8. But I’m not so sure about the “you’re wrong, therefore I’m right”

    I didn’t intend it as “you’re wrong, therefore I’m right” but rather, “your position has the same problem you are criticizing in my position, and all positions suffer from a similar problem, so it does not help to arbitrate between the available positions.”

    As I said, I think my (b) is the situation we often find ourselves in. Alternate positions don’t usually share the exact same problem as ours, but rather, they often have similarly egregiousness problems and we are left to choose between options which are all unacceptable in some sense. This reminds me of my Kobyashi Maru post.

    Comment by Jacob J — April 3, 2012 @ 10:13 pm

  9. Anon,

    Thanks for dropping by. I’m actually pretty partial to a loosening of the law of non-contradiction, but I do want to press the matter a bit further. In particular, I’m wondering from what perspective you would be able to make that assertion? Since, the law of non-contradiction tells be what I “ought” to believe, it too must be built into at least one of the theories for it to matter. And if no moral theory is viable, does this mean that anything goes in terms of beliefs as well. In other words, you seem to be saying either the law of non-contradiction is false or it (along with a bunch of other things) is false. I’m trying to bust your chops for being wrong, since we are all going to be wrong in this thread, but I would love for you to elaborate a bit.


    How in the world did I miss that thread? Looks like I missed a good one there.

    I see that you what you meant about generalizing the problem, but instead of focusing on the “problem” which is common to both positions (is it really a problem?), might it be possible for either perspective to say good things about itself? Rather than pointing out each other short-comings maybe each theory could illustrate the strengths of the other and where they are particularly applicable.

    Indeed, a part of me really wants to suggest that this would be a really good world, rather than a really good one. People from both sides of the fence would be all too willing to embrace those on the other and take what good they have to offer. The question of which one is “true” would probably just become a non-question altogether, a question whose cost in addressing far outstrips the benefits of doing so. Sometimes people use one theory, and other times they are perfectly comfortable using another, depending on what the task at hand is.

    I guess the question which comes to mind is this: Are these theories in antagonistic competition with one another or are they in a kind of synergistic cooperative relationship?

    Comment by Jeff G — April 3, 2012 @ 11:59 pm

  10. I was being humorous with respect to the law of non-contradiction – thought you philosopher types would appreciate it.

    It seems to me that if all moral theories held to be viable are self-contradictory, then they are all false – which makes them nonviable.

    Do we need a viable moral theory? I would argue not. Nobody has yet come up with a complete, convincing theory of the Atonement consistent with all known facts, for example {sorry, Blake!}, but we sure seem to get a lot of application mileage out of our unique, subjective understandings of it.

    I shan’t muddy your waters, however. Lurk mode on!

    Comment by Anon — April 4, 2012 @ 1:49 am

  11. I wish lurkers would become commenters more often.

    Walt Whitman: “do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.”

    Morality is relative, but not always.

    Comment by annegb — April 4, 2012 @ 9:50 am

  12. Awww, don’t do that, Anon! I think your comments are almost exactly those that I thought while writing the post. If I understand you correctly, you are suggesting that theories and logic simply wouldn’t play as important of a role in that scenario. Anyhow, that’s exactly what I think.

    Comment by Jeff G — April 4, 2012 @ 10:59 am

  13. In practice I don’t think the two approaches gets one as far as one thinks precisely due to figuring out what to do where the rubber hits to road. Famously utilitarianism has a pretty difficult to conceive of calculus. And deontological approaches aren’t really much better. What tends to happen is people appeal to intuitions about particular thought experiments and generalize from there. But then the key factor is less the deontological or the utilitarian than it is the biases from which to judge.

    That’s not to deny some important differences. But I’m not as convinced they are as drastic as it appears.

    Comment by Clark — April 4, 2012 @ 3:09 pm

  14. Yeah, I almost wish that I had simply put “moral theory A” and “moral theory B” so that the actual differences (or lack thereof) wouldn’t distract us from the issue which I thought was more interesting. Unexpectedly, this thread has actually helped me clarify where I stand on some pretty fundamental issues (not utilitarianism vs. deontology). I’m considering posting a follow-up to this in which I (finally) put my mental cards on the table.

    Comment by Jeff G — April 5, 2012 @ 12:50 am

  15. might it be possible for either perspective to say good things about itself?

    Yes, definitely, but both are important I think. In the post you talked about “justifying” our beliefs, which of necessity will involve defending them against criticisms as well as highlighting the strengths. Anon mentions Blake’s atonement theory above and I think our discussions of that theory on this blog have been good examples of both kinds of justification. Usually if we are discussing our beliefs with someone else it will be either with the intent to persuade them or to simply explain them. Either way, the human mind is such that they will care about both kinds of justification, which I think is entirely appropriate.

    And since the law of non-contradiction came up, one more link: Why Obey the Laws of Logic?

    Comment by Jacob J — April 5, 2012 @ 7:56 am

  16. That looks like another great thread that I missed out on! I response to that post:

    The laws of logic are just like other moral laws, no more, no less. Of course they ought to be obeyed, but sometimes moral dilemmas do arise. All moral rules have their exceptions and those of logic are no different.

    Naturally, if you do not follow the rules of logic, then it logically follows that problems arise. But what if we simply do not play the logic game to begin with? Then it doesn’t matter what “logically follows.”

    I’m not saying logic doesn’t matter. Just that it is not the one law to rule them all.

    Comment by Jeff G — April 5, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

  17. Yes, the book I referenced in that post is devoted to exploring the idea that logic seems to lead us to all sorts of problem when left unconstrained. The chapter I discussed in that post tries to motivate why we should be fearful in dismissing logic (specifically the law of non-contradiction), but the next chapter is all about why logic continually lets us down and makes us want to reject it (a la Walt Whitman in annegb’s comment above or Nietzsche, etc.). He draws heavily on Wittgenstein for his discussion of logic games and suggests that experience must be used to constrain logic. I agree with your points in #16.

    Comment by Jacob J — April 6, 2012 @ 11:14 am

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