Evaluating Beliefs: The standard of coherence

So how do we go about evaluating various myths or ethical positions? How do we discern among the various belief systems in the world which ones are preferable and which ones have serious flaws? Is it no more than personal opinion and which one or ones that you like? If that’s the case, then we might as well go back to ethical relativism.  We would be left with a position of not being able to say any action was right or wrong. But ethics is not like choosing a flavor of ice cream. It’s not just a matter of personal preference. There are logical standards that we can utilize to help us in our quest.[i]


The first test that we must apply to a myth or ethical position is the question of coherence. This is going to be extremely important as we move forward examining political positions on issues. Coherence is the question of whether or not the various aspects of one’s beliefs fit together as a whole. Does what one believes about a supreme being make sense with what one believes about purpose and meaning in life? Does what one believes about human nature make sense with what one believes about an afterlife? And as one’s ethics is part of one’s myth and is based on that myth, is one’s position on abortion or euthanasia coherent with one’s beliefs about human nature for example.

The standard of coherence does not mean that we have all the answers. After all, we are dealing with beliefs. However, it does mean that the things we do believe have to somehow fit together logically. You cannot believe two logically contradictory ideas. If there is no god of any kind, and people are just chance products of evolution, then it is not coherent to assert that there is some form of afterlife. The only possible coherent position on the question of what happens when you die is to admit that people, like trees, are just fertilizer waiting to happen.

Similarly, if we are just fertilizer waiting to happen, then why do we eat animal meat and vegetables, but not humans? Now it may be that we don’t prefer it because of taste or toughness, but is there an ethical reason? Is there a difference in value between humans and other animals, or between all sentient beings and plants? If one is going to be coherent in their reasoning, then they have to provide the belief that is going to undergird their ethical position. Preference and taste will suffice for choosing ice cream flavors, but it is not sufficient for ethical arguments.

One of the things I will attempt to do in discussing particular ethical issues is to connect the dots between various beliefs and ethical positions. Sometimes this will be done by examining the logical implications of certain beliefs, and other times it will be accomplished by exploring what premises must necessarily be asserted in order to provide the foundation for a proposed ethical position. One of the things we will discover is that people often assert ethical positions that they believe are correct, but then attempt to distance themselves from the requisite beliefs that are the necessary foundations for their position. Whether it’s because they don’t want to be labeled in a certain way, or it’s because they don’t like some of the other logical implications of those beliefs, or they just haven’t thought through their position, I don’t know. However, what I do know is that such a stance is not rationally defensible. It is incoherent.

[i] Note that here we are not going to fall prey to the enlightenment trap of making reason the ultimate arbiter of truth. However, we are going to use reason in its proper role as a tool to help discern truth and falsehood.

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