Saturday, December 17, 2011

Is consistency a virtue?

Scott Simon just broadcast a fabulous obituary for Christopher Hitchens, focusing on the late author’s willingness to reconsider what he believed. Unlike today’s politicians who refuse to ever admit that they change their minds, Hitchens took great pride in holding differing opinions and different times in his life. As Simon explains “…I wonder if always making consistency into a virtue is wise for anyone. Why strive to enjoy a rich life, filled with the deep, transforming experiences of family, travel, learning, love, daring, triumph and loss if you're determined just to cling to the same ideas that you've always had?” I certainly couldn’t have said it better.

Philosophers admire (Plato’s) Socrates because he refused to accept that he knew anything. Additionally, I have always admired Malcolm X because when he came back from his pilgrimage to Mecca, the first thing he did was hold a press conference to admit that he was wrong about many of the beliefs he previously advocated. It is certainly important to have core beliefs, to have some constancy in one’s convictions and behaviors, but there is a difference between changing one’s attitudes daily or weekly, and admitting that as our knowledge changes, our beliefs and behavior should as well.

Mitt Romney, the perennial Republican second-placer, has been under constant attack for designing and implementing the Massachusetts healthcare plan that serves as a model for Obama’s national overhaul. Romney denies much of his involvement and its influence, but it always strikes me as odd that he distances himself from his past instead of saying something like, “yeah, I signed that health care plan into law. That is what my constituents wanted and I was their representative. But now, with more experience, I realize that the plan is, in principle, wrong, and I will do a better job of defending small government ideals to those people who don’t see their value.” Wouldn’t that make him a stronger candidate? Shouldn’t all of us want a president who can learn.

Consistency is no doubt important. But discovering that we are wrong is not the same as being wishy-washy. What’s the point of an education if it is?

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