Ethics 07 - Consistency

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Our next three chapters sketch a practical approach to moral rationality. Since the approach stresses consistency and the golden rule, I call it the "GR consistency view." It develops tools of moral reasoning that practically any approach to ethics could use.

This chapter gives four basic consistency principles. The following two chapters discuss the golden rule and other elements of moral rationality. The resulting moral methodology resembles that of prescriptivism, except that it's developed further and doesn't rest on a prescriptivist analysis of moral terms.

These questions are about Chapter 7 of Harry Gensler's Ethics: A Contemporary Introduction (Routledge: 1998 and 2011).

Avoiding an impasse

How should we reason about ethics? There seems to be a permanent impasse (or stalemate) on this, since people continue to disagree on how to understand moral judgments.

I'd like to suggest a way out of the difficulty. There may be moral consistency principles that make sense from various perspectives and give powerful tools for moral reasoning. We'll develop this idea in this chapter and the next two. We'll start with four basic consistency requirements: logicality, ends-means consistency, conscientiousness, and impartiality.

Logicality and ends-means consistency

Logicality says "Avoid inconsistent beliefs." I violate this if I accept incompatible beliefs -- or if I accept a belief without also accepting its logical consequences.

Ends-means consistency says "Keep your means in harmony with your ends." I violate this if I (a) have an end, (b) believe that to fulfill this end I need to carry out certain means, and (c) don't carry out the means.


Conscientiousness says "Keep your actions, resolutions, and desires in harmony with your moral beliefs." This forbids inconsistencies between my moral judgments and how I live.

Consistency can be useful in arguing about ethics -- for example, in arguing against a racist who says that blacks ought to be treated poorly because they're inferior. Our strategy for criticizing racist arguments has three steps:

    1. Formulate the argument. The premises must be clearly stated, and the conclusion must clearly follow from the premises.
    2. Criticize the factual premises if necessary.
    3. See if the racist applies his moral premise consistently, especially to his own race.


Impartiality says "Make similar evaluations about similar actions, regardless of the individuals involved." I violate this if I make conflicting evaluations about actions that I regard as exactly or relevantly similar.

To test my impartiality, it can be useful to ask whether I'd make the same evaluation about a similar case in which the parties are in different places -- in which, for example, I'm on the receiving end of the action.

Why be consistent?

We could base these consistency norms on practically any approach to ethics. For example, we might see them as based on social conventions, personal feelings, self-interest, God's will, or self-evident truths.

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