The Virtues of “Flip-Flopping”

A major charge raised against presidential candidate Mitt Romney (I suppose that it is raised against others too) is that, over the past several years, he has had a tendency to change his position on several important issues. I haven’t heard much analysis as to why this is a bad thing to do, but the little analysis I have heard leads me to think that his opponents believe that (1) Romney is always speaking to what his audience wants to hear, which often results in him making a claim at one time that is inconsistent with a claim he’s made at another time, and (2) there is something wrong with changing one’s mind with respect to important issues. (1), if it is true, seems like a serious charge; (2), however, seems like an untenable general claim that I suspect many people believe unjustifiably. My purpose here is not to charge Romney with (1), but to articulate why I think (2) is untenable.

Since at least the time of the writing of Plato’s Meno, many philosophers have attempted to answer the question, “What does it mean to know P?” (where is some proposition). True to form, philosopher’s have not come to a consensus about what knowledge is, but it is often agreed that in order for something to be considered knowledge, it must (at least) be (a) true (b) justified, and (c) believed. So, I can’t havefalse knowledge, I can’t claim to know something that I have no justification for, and I can’t know something that I don’t actually believe. 

In my mind, there is a wonderful yet frustrating relationship that exists between truth and justification; for the vast majority of claims, we don’t seem to have independent access to their truth-value–we cannot intuit their truth. Moreover, if there is a God, he does not visit us to tell us which claims are true and which are not. Thus, it seems that our only way of assessing the truth or falsity of a claim is to carefully inspect the reasons–the justifications–that one might have for believing it; our only way to truth is through justification. Well supported-claims are much more likely to be true than poorly supported claims.

But the problem is that what constitutes a good justification can change. Advancements in knowledge (scientific or otherwise) can change the strength of a justification. For example, 15th century explorers were justified in their belief that the world is flat since their sense experience told them so, but upon further advancements in knowledge, their sense experience could no longer be trusted as justification for this claim. So, what is at one time a good justification, can, over time, become a bad justification.

If what I have said about justification is correct, then, in many cases, it seems to me to be a virtue to change one’s mind. Suppose that we believe P. If new knowledge strengthens a justification for not-P and weakens our justification for P, then, if we want to believe what is most likely true, we ought to change our belief in P.Changing our minds with respect to important issues–“flip-flopping”–could be a sign of an intellectually virtuous individual. Rather than being sensationalists–which is most often the case–perhaps opponents of “flip-floppers” should critically assess the reasons why one has changed their position. If those reasons suggest sophistry–e.g., appealing to an audience–then fallacious reasoning rather than “flip-flopping” is to blame; if, on the other hand, one genuinely changes one’s position based on advancements in knowledge, then one deserves praise. Intellectual evolution is not a condemnable attribute, but dogmatism is.


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Filed under Epistemology, Politics

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