Inconsistency and moral decision-making


I was looking the other day at an article concerning the inconsistency, the hypocrisy involved in decisions to allow refugees from Ukraine to enter various countries, including the UK, but not allow them to enter if they came from other countries.

It seems that our psychology makes the inconsistency inherent in hypocrisy uncomfortable for us. We suffer from cognitive dissonance. We have, however, at the same time developed mechanisms to enable us to reduce or even overcome that discomfort. One such is compartmentalisation or dissociation  - an ability to put things which are in fact very similar into different boxes so that we don’t really see them as in conflict with each other. The other way of combatting the discomfort caused by hypocrisy is cognitive distortion - an ability simply to exaggerate differences.

The author had brought together a series of explanations of why, according to various politicians, we should favour Ukrainians as opposed to say Syrians or other persecuted groups around the world in deciding whom to welcome.

Many commentators tried to justify the distinction between Ukrainians and others seeking refugee status on the ground that the Ukrainians are a lot more ‘like us’. Rather disturbingly they have spoken of the Ukrainians as having blue eyes and blond hair. 

Charlie D’Agata, a reporter for CBS brought a twitter storm on his head when he said: “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, which has seen conflict for decades. This is a relatively civilised, relatively European…city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope (sic) that it’s going to happen”. A reporter for Al Jazeera said: “...the refugees...are prosperous, middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from the Middle East or North Africa. They look like any European family that you’d live next door to”. Indeed. as a Polish reporter put it: “This is not a developing third world nation, this is Europe”! Bulgaria's Prime Minister, Kiril Petkov, said: “These are Europeans whose airport has been just bombed, who are under fire…These are not the refugees we are used to...These people are intelligent, they are educated”. The Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szíjártó justified his countries different treatment of Syrians and Ukrainians, saying: “I must reject drawing comparisons between those fleeing war and those trying to get into the country illegally”.

But is the civil war in Syria not then ‘war’? All these are in fact clear examples of cognitive distortion with a touch of dissociation.

Now whether compartmentalisation (dissociation) or cognitive distortion is the main line of defence in our differentiation of the Ukrainian refugees from those from other countries is of little importance. What I feel ought actually to be thought about is the question of why we have the discomfort brought on by hypocrisy but also have the psychological tools needed to combat or even ignore that discomfort.

As others have pointed out, the ability to dissociate is very variable, ranging from the exceptional ease with which it is done by the psychopath to the reduced, but still real ability of most of the rest of us to do it. Our cognitive distortion is a striking ability to ignore reality in order to find artificial distinctions between things or somehow perceive inconsequential distinctions as really important differences. This in turn enables us not to have to accuse ourselves of hypocrisy in the first place. In this way we avoid the cognitive dissonance which would otherwise ensue. Again though, this is a ‘gift’ more likely to appear in some than others.

Now many would wish to define hypocrisy as simply immoral (Partygate?). But we then have to decide why an equally natural response which alleviates our own discomfort over our own hypocrisy is a ‘bad’ thing.

In the absence of an absolute morality, we have to look at evolution for an explanation of the existence of morality. I would suggest that we subscribe to the idea of ‘morality’ because natural selection has meant that we have accepted that living according to commonly held rules reduces the likelihood of conflict. Those rules form over very, very many generations and can change with time and are different in different places.

And, of course, apart from the ones we’ve already highlighted, there are also other strong psychological factors which push us to act in various ways, such as a desire for fairness and giving priority to family and friends. Indeed, giving priority to family and friends of itself produces inconsistency, an inconsistency which, however, we regard as justifiable, as moral.

It seems that the cause of people fleeing their country, i.e. whether or not it gives the right to claim refugee status under the Hague Convention, is not seen as important by many people, even though it would mean recognition of the overarching Rule of Law, something which underpins democratic government and so is beneficial to us all. But then the man in the street has no very clear conception of the rule of law in its wider sense.

One may also argue that, just as you would more easily offer shelter to a neighbour or a friend than a complete stranger, taking in refugees from a country which has more in common with yours than countries with different customs is a natural stance.

There is a similar difficulty in deciding what action we should take against the aggressor, Russia. Those of us with little dependence on Russian oil or gas can easily call for others with heavy dependence to cut themselves off from those supplies immediately. They should stop propping up the evil empire. We ask for self-sacrifice in the name of morality, in the name of consistency. But this may well be a case where acting consistently is just not an option.

What no government wants is to make its citizens martyrs by condemning them to very significant suffering in the name of ‘doing the right thing’, when they are not themselves under immediate threat of agression. The citizens are likely to think rather differently, if not immediately, then when financial hardship or winter really starts to bite. If looking at our own potential suffering as opposed to that of people in another country, is it really surprising that we favour ourselves?

Evolution rarely produces lasting characteristics which are damaging to us. So then, the fact that we feel uncomfortable when faced with being hypocritical, but have also evolved sophisticated mechanisms to cope with the discomfort caused by that inconsistency, perhaps tells us something.

Other than at the psychopathic extremes, I think that it tells us that inconsistency is what we sometimes need. I would suggest that there is a survival benefit to being able to live with inconsistency. It probably stops society from fracturing when consistency would impose too great a burden on society, whether financially or socially.

So then maybe we should, even in a democracy, reconcile ourselves to being less than paradigms of consistency. Perhaps the messiness of life confirms the need for a certain messiness in our ‘morality’.

Paul Buckingham

15 May 2022

Home      A Point of View     Philosophy     Who am I?      Links     Photos of Annecy