Does Changing Your Mind Imply that In the Past You Were Unethical?

by Don Boudreaux on September 4, 2016

in Truth-seeking & ideology

I just received an e-mail from someone (whose name I will not reveal) who accuses me of opposing minimum-wage legislation because I am, in this correspondent’s opinion, “indecent,” “unfeeling,” and “unethical.”  This person insists that my “real reason” for often saying, in discussions of the minimum wage and of trade, that I care for the well-being of low-skilled workers is to give myself “cover” to hide my indifference to workers’ fates and my exclusive concern for “keeping corporate profits high as possible.”

Sigh.

Such accusations – which are surprisingly common – reflect an intellectual failing.  This person apparently cannot grasp that well-meaning people can share the same values yet arrive at very different policy conclusions because these people do not share the same assessments of the likely outcomes of different policies.  In short, this person does not understand that a disagreement over means does not imply a disagreement over ends.  Put differently, this person assumes that anyone who does not agree with his predictions of the consequences of various policies is someone who necessarily disagrees with this person’s value judgments.

Because this person’s e-mail to me is so nasty, impolite, and ridiculous, I’ll not give him the satisfaction of writing to him personally.  But he (I gather) reads Cafe Hayek, so I’ll ask him a question here: Have you ever in your life changed your mind about any policy?  If truly not – that is, if today you have exactly the same policy positions on all issues as you had when you were 14 years old, or even when you were 24 years old, then you’re not worth any more of my time or more of your computer’s pixels.  Your mind is unreasonably – indeed, inhumanly – closed.  But if you have ever changed your mind about at least some policy positions, then I have a second question for you: Were you, before you changed your mind, an indecent, unfeeling, and unethical reprobate?

I suspect that the answer to this last question is “no.”  You almost certainly do not look back on the ‘you’ who once assessed the likely consequences of a policy differently than you now assess those consequences and conclude that the only possible explanation for your previous policy position is that you were then indecent, unfeeling, and unethical.  Instead, you understand now that you learn things as you get older, more experienced, and better read – and that this learning helps you to improve your ability to assess the likely consequences of government policies.  You understand that your assessment of the means can change without causing any change in your assessment of the ends.

Of course, it’s possible that every change of mind you’ve experienced is due to changes in your values and not to changes in your assessment of the different means of best furthering your values.  Likewise, it’s possible that your and my disagreement over some randomly chosen policy reflects, not a difference in our assessments of how the policy works and what are its likely consequences, but, rather, our disagreement on some fundamental values.

But I’ll wager that at least some of your changes of mind over your lifetime reflect not a change in your values but, instead, a change in your assessment of the various means – of the different likely consequences of the various means – of furthering those values.  If my wager is well placed, then you must come to understand that (1) some other person (such as me) can disagree with you over means and not values, and, therefore, (2) such a disagreement over means rather than values no more implies that the person with whom you disagree is indecent, unfeeling, and unethical than does your disagreement today with your past self imply that your past self was indent, unfeeling, and unethical.

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