Periscope Depth

I watched the children scurry in circles around a two-way mirror

From a high enough perch, all of us are hypocrites.

Conservatives praise the power of the free market to fulfill desires, then rant about indecently dressed pop starlets and the drunken crowds downtown. Liberals insist that the government “keep its laws out of my bedroom,” unless, while in your bedroom, you enjoy consuming trans fats or homeschooling your children. Press either side on the apparent inconsistency and they can argue their way out of it (it’s a question of degree; this is an entirely different case; I’m not saying it should be illegal). And in many cases their arguments hold water. But inconsistency isn’t hard to find.

And I’m not excluding myself in this. I complain about how easy credit and cheap oil are ruining this country all the time. But I know how long I’d survive without my disposable contacts and allergy meds (smart money says nine months; I’m starting a pool).

So none of us are perfectly consistent.

I don’t raise this point to drag everyone down in the mud with me (“we’re all bastards; let’s own up to it; immanentize the eschaton; WAAAGH”). I raise it because I think consistency is a false flag. It’s not a useful tool for weighing ethics.

Break it apart: why is inconsistency such a bad thing? If I accuse someone of inconsistency, I say, “You chose one thing in one context and you chose another thing in a different context.” But we’ve already challenged the notion that there’s a single homonculus living in our brains that pulls the levers to make us go. Empirical science and the philosophy of consciousness suggest that our mind consists of multiple calculating modules. There’s not one “you” that’s “choosing” things, but several.

So if you wrote a six-part article series for the Globe exposing nursing home abuse, then sat on the subway today while an old woman with a cane stood, that’s inconsistent. But the latter action doesn’t make your former choice a mere posture. Maybe you were wrapped up in your reading and didn’t notice her. Maybe you were tired after a long day and decided that someone else ought to offer a seat before you did.

Not offering an old woman your seat is a dick move, to be sure. But it doesn’t render all your previous pro-elderly efforts invalid.

We make different choices when hungry, or tired, or surrounded by people we want to impress, than we do when we’re writing an essay, or watching the news, or driving past the scene of an accident. We do this because the human brain – the result of evolutionary processes – did not evolve to be consistent. It evolved* to fulfill our needs, safeguard and propagate our genes, and to run a series of complex parallel calculations. But since it evolved into the form we recognize today, humans also invented a thing called culture. Culture changes a lot faster than the genetic makeup of its inhabitants, complicating the process even further.

We have a lot of competing data points that go into our decisions. Our declared ethical code is one of these points.

Consistency simply isn’t a natural behavior in the human brain. If it were, morality would be easy. You’d simply make the decision to adhere to a given code of ethics, once, and that would be it. Flip the switch to “Good” and keep walking.

But every code of ethics describes the process of “being tempted” or “acting irrationally” or “losing one’s way.” This is inconsistency rearing its head. A young priest vows eternal celibacy; ten years later, he takes notice of a statuesque blonde. A finance manager volunteers four hours a week at a soup kitchen; coming out of a train station on a business trip, he shoulders by a man asking for spare change. If we view the ethics as natural and humans as inferior, then these acts are frustrating lapses. It’s not useful to call behavior that every human being engages in a “lapse” (lapsing from what?). If we view ethics as an invention and humans as natural, then these acts make perfect sense.

The mind isn’t designed for consistency; it’s designed to constantly recalculate.

Why am I harping on this? Because I’m still curious about “what’s the best way for humans to behave,” and I don’t think “with perfect consistency” is part of it. Every ethical system has its inconsistencies. And even if someone invented a perfectly coherent and logical system of ethics, no human could consistently adhere to it.

We’re all hypocrites. We’re all struggling to figure out what’s right.

P.S. Of all the posts in the mind-body dichotomy series, I’m least happy with this one. But none of my thoughts on the matter have been fully polished, so why should I feel self-conscious today? That’s why it’s a weblog, not an article for the Atlantic: so I can get feedback from friends and ill-intentioned strangers. Hitting “Post”; have at it.

* When I say “it [the brain] evolved,” I mean “the human species evolved in such a way as to have a brain which possessed these characteristics.” Forgive me the shorthand, as we forgive the shorthand used by others.