You're allowed to be inconsistent

I often see friends run into a failure mode I call "false consistency," especially in the Effective Altruism and Rationality circles, where consistency is an important virtue.

The False Consistency error is committed when someone has conflicting desires, thoughts, or beliefs, and bludgeons all but one of them into silence, in the name of "consistency." This has the effect of robbing that person of the ability to use inarticulable intuition and gut-level analysis, and I suspect that it leads to the accumulation of resentment and frustration.

For example, imagine that Alice is pressuring Bob to help her with her homework. Bob doesn't want to, but can't quite articulate why not. Bob reflects, and decides that he doesn't endorse this difficult-to-articulate feeling, and he doesn't feel he has the social affordance to say "no" if he can't provide clear reasoning as to why. He agrees to help Alice with her homework. That difficult-to-articulate feeling remains, festering and causing Bob frustration.

As another example, imagine that Carol is asked "What should the punishment be if a homeless person steals $10,000 from a middle-class family?" and answers "5 years." Immediately thereafter, she's asked "What should the punishment be for an upper-class banker stealing $10,000,000?" Her initial impulse is to say something in the range of "10 years," but, remembering her answer to the previous question, she feels a strong pressure to be consistent, and so answers "he should get a life sentence." If she did this in the name of consistency alone, without probing the conflicting parts, she might be a victim of false consistency.

Now, I'm all for internal consistency. Consistency is a virtue. When you identify an inconsistency in yourself — a case where you would have answered the question differently if you had been asked in a different context, or a case where one part of you thinks one thing and another part thinks another, or a case where you believe two facts that appear contradictory — then I encourage you to treat it as a red flag, and investigate, and eventually update yourself.

It's fine to be uncomfortable in the face of inconsistency. The trouble occurs when you respond to that discomfort with internal violence, by bludgeoning part of yourself into submission.

Contrast the scenario where Bob can't put words to his objection and so squelches it, with the world where Bob says "Hmm, one part of me wants to help you with your homework; another part doesn't. Let me dialog with myself a bit, and see if I can figure out what the latter part is worried about."

In fact, in situations like this, I recommend literally acting as a facilitator in a dialog between your opposing viewpoints. Imagine yourself at a negotiating table, with one part who wants to help Alice with her homework and another that feels inarticulable unease. Assume that both are there for good reasons, with positive intent, even if the strategies they would reflexively recommend are not great. Facilitate a negotiation between the two of them. What would the uneasy part like to say? With what coin would it bargain? What would seem a satisfactory outcome?

If encountering a certain decision raises half a dozen different thoughts and emotions in you, then having all of those parts of you feel comfortable with the decision is what "resolving an inconsistency" feels like; steamrolling over half your concerns in the name of being able to defend your action (even if only to yourself) is not.

Let's say you realize that you're currently facing a decision that leaves you very vulnerable to scope insensitivity. I claim that there's a big difference between bludgeoning the part of yourself that doesn't understand big numbers into submission and shutting up and multiplying; versus training your gut to understand that "big" means "big" well enough that you reflexively pass decision control over to cold math whenever scope insensitivity looms. The first is False Consistency, the latter is a laudable goal.

If you haven't stared at large numbers long enough to be able to shut up and multiply reflexively (with no part of you screaming out that it's cold and inhumane), then by all means, shut up and multiply anyway. Doing the Right Thing is priority number one. But then afterwards, go dialog with that part of yourself and get it on board with the general project of Doing the Right Thing. Sometimes you have to resort to internal violence in the moment, but I recommend always treating those instances as red flags.

The more you practice negotiating and dialoging between internal conflicts, the less you'll need to resort to squelching little voices of doubt. With practice, it's also possible to become better at articulating the inarticulable concerns.

In the interim, you're allowed to be inconsistent. You don't need to ignore concerns that you have just because you can't articulate them. If your actions today are inconsistent with your actions yesterday, and you know how to dialog between the conflicting parts of yourself but you haven't had the time to do that yet, then you don't need to be consistent at the moment.

We're not yet gods, remember? We're still monkeys. If you force yourself to be consistent all the time, it's pretty likely that you're steamrolling important objections, and ignoring important whispers of confusion.

I encourage everybody to treat inconsistencies as bugs, but shoving the bugs under the carpet or pretending really hard that they don't exist is another bug. We're messy creatures, and inconsistencies often require quite a bit of work to resolve. In the interim, you're allowed to be inconsistent.