While the Republican politicians in my adopted state of Florida profess to love freedom, they also have been busy passing laws to restrict freedom. To illustrate, Governor DeSantis has opposed mask mandates and vaccine passports on the professed grounds of fighting “medical authoritarianism.” However, the Governor and the Republican dominated state legislature have banned ‘critical race theory’ from public schools and have mandated a survey of the political beliefs of faculty and students. On the face of it, there seems to be an inconsistency here: the freedom loving Republicans appear to be waging war on academic freedom and freedom of expression. I could spend hours presenting examples of the apparent inconsistencies between Republican value claims and their actions, but my focus here is on the notion of value vagueness.
In my ethics class, I teach a section on moral methods—these are argument templates for ethical reasoning. One method, which is useful beyond ethics, is Logical Consistency. This method is based on a basic concept in logic, that of logical consistency. Two claims are consistent with each other when both can be true at the same time. For example, the claim “restricting freedom is sometimes acceptable” is consistent with the claim “restricting freedom is sometimes unacceptable.” This is because both claims could be true. Two claims are inconsistent when both cannot be true at the same time (but both could be false). For example, the claim “people should be free from government control” would seem to be inconsistent with the claim “the government should ban the teaching of critical race theory.” This is because while these claims cannot both be true at the same time, they could both be false.
Because of the nature of inconsistent claims, if someone makes inconsistent claims, then at least one of their claims must be false. The fact that two (or more) claims are inconsistent does not show which of them is false. The inconsistency just shows that they all cannot be true at the same time. Sorting out the true from the false is another matter; but you can know that a set of claims contains inconsistent claims without knowing which ones are false. Since logically inconsistent claims cannot be true at the same time, it is irrational to accept such claims when their inconsistency is known. There is a way to respond, rationally, to a seemingly reasonable charge of inconsistency.
In some cases, it is possible to respond to the charge of inconsistency by dissolving the inconsistency. This can be done by showing that the inconsistency is merely apparent. This is achieved by arguing that the claims are consistent despite appearing to be inconsistent.
In the case of value claims, such as claims about political or moral matters, an inconsistency can seem to occur because of how the person making the charge defines a term or phrase. Their definition can be different from that used by the person making the claim. In some cases, this difference can be the result of bad faith, but people can disagree about definitions in good faith. The concept of freedom is an excellent example of this: people have rather different definitions of this concept, and the definition is relevant to sorting out a charge of inconsistency.
Those who read my work know that I often accuse Republicans of being inconsistent in such matters as freedom. But they could be defended by showing that under their conception of freedom, they are being consistent. For example, the same Republicans who rage against “cancel culture” and lost their minds over Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head are the same people passing laws banning the teaching of (what they think is) critical race theory. They are also the people who lose their minds when some athlete protests police violence during the national anthem. On the face of it, they seem to engage in inconsistent claims: people should be free to express their views, but people should be forbidden from teaching critical race theory and condemned for protesting police violence during the national anthem. But there is an easy way to respond to this charge in a sensible manner.
The concept of freedom is vague and saying one supports freedom is to make a vague claim. Outside of a philosophical analysis of “freedom” this is a normal and sensible thing to do: if you spent the time precisely defining your concept of freedom during a speech or conversation, your audience would fall asleep if they could not escape. When a person is pressed on their view, then that is the time to be more precise about their concept. For example, I also say that I am for freedom of expression. But if I were asked if I thought that Ted Cruz should be free to shout rape threats at Mike Pence, I would say that he should not do that. If someone attacked me for this seeming inconsistency, I would contend that my account of freedom of expression does not make freedom absolute—there are limits. I would, as always, use the stock argument about the role of harm in limiting freedoms and point out Hobbes’ realization that a right to everything amounts to a right to nothing. Republicans can do the same sort of thing and argue that while people should be free to go mask less and unvaccinated during a raging pandemic, they should not be free to discuss critical race theory in class or protest police violence during the national anthem. They would, however, need to show how these are consistent under their theory of freedom. On the face of it, this would seem challenging. Take, for example, the usual use of the principle of harm: while this allows me to be against Cruz making rape threats against Mike Pence, it would not seem to warrant the freedom to go mask less within a pandemic. Yet it would seem to allow people to teach critical race theory and protest. So, they would need some other means of justifying the different applications. A plausible approach is to use the principle of relevant difference.
If there are relevant differences between the cases, then this warrants a difference in application of the concept of freedom. Common differences include who is taking the action, that nature of the action, and the consequences of the action. In my Cruz example, above, I can appeal to a relevant difference in terms of the harmful consequences of allowing people to make such threats. Republicans could contend that who is acting is relevant; when Republicans are accused of being racist and sexist, they could be limiting freedom to white men. They could also focus on the action: kneeling in protest is clearly different from going without a mask during a pandemic—the difference could be that one energizes their base and the other enrages their base. The challenge is showing how this is a relevant difference that warrants the difference in freedom.
It is also worth noting that while value concepts are vague (until clarified), this vagueness can be exploited for rhetorical purposes. The general strategy is to use a value term (or phrase) vaguely to make the target audience feel positively (or negatively). Since audience members will generally use their own definition for the concept, this can be very effective: the audience member will often assume that they both have the same view of the concept.
Value concepts that are seen as positive can be very effective in this role. “Freedom” is very popular in the United States, so politicians talk endlessly about it. It is a vague concept, so it can be applied broadly and inconsistently. So, for example, Republicans in Florida talk about fighting mask mandates because they love freedom. They also pass laws restricting freedoms, counting on the fact that “freedom” is vague. The defense against being swayed by this rhetoric is to determine what the concept really seems to mean (if anything) to the person using it. In the case of Republicans in Florida, their conception of freedom has some very strict limitations. But, of course, this need not be a problem for them: as long as their base has a similar conception, they can seem to be speaking virtuously about freedom while acting against many freedoms.