This is a basic principle for anyone who seeks to live a rational and self-disciplined life.
I have written that reason dictates we should take people at their word. However, in that blog post, I also provided a condition to this rule. When a persons actions contradict their words, it may be cause to disregard what they say in favor of what they do. However, as with most things, there are conditions to this rule, as well.We should not take any one example of a person who says they believe one thing and then does another as sufficient reason to discount what they say they believe. No one lives up to their own ideals of right and wrong. We are all human and it is an inherent part of being human that we break rules — even our own (this is actually a strong argument against the possibility of man-man morality). But acting contrary to what a person says they believe is not evidence enough to decide they do not really believe the things they claim to believe. It simply means they are human.
Before we go on, please allow me to expand on this point a little more. Suppose I say I do not believe in corporal punishment, but then my child does something so wrong that I spank them. Does this mean I no longer believe in corporal punishment? Possibly. But it could also mean I allowed my emotions to over-rule my reason. Or suppose I am a strict ‘law-and-order’ person, and I say there is never any reason to break the law. Then my wife has an accident and I end up speeding to get her to the hospital. Does this mean I no longer believe there is never a reason to break the law? Not necessarily. It could be that I just allowed emotion to over-rule my reason. In addition to this, it is also possible that — in either or both cases — I was wrong in my belief. It could be that being against corporal punishment is the wrong position. It could also be that arguing their is never a just cause to break a law is the wrong position. In which case, in the above examples, when confronted with the realities of this world, I abandoned my wrong beliefs and reverted to Natural Law (which Paul tells us is written in the heart of every human being).
So, with all these possibilities, how are we to know when to place our emphasis on what a person does rather than what they say? Well, there are several possible answers to this question.
First, if a person says one thing but does another, and it becomes apparent that what they said was meant as an intentional deception, that is sufficient cause to discard their stated beliefs or intentions. For example: if a person tells you they do not believe in taking advantage of people, but they act in a way that takes advantage of others, then we have a reason to question whether or not they actually believe what they say. It is also important to keep in mind that it is possible for a person to fool themselves. Either way, deception is an indication of insincerity.
In addition to this, we should consider whether or not a person accepts correction. If a person says they do not take advantage of others, then they do something that takes advantage of another and they are told what they are doing is contrary to what they say they believe, how do they react? If they acknowledge and accept the correction, then they may have made a mistake in judgment. Or they may not have even realized what they were doing. As humans, we have an infinite ability to justify our wants, even over our stated values. However, if this person is told they are taking advantage of someone and they deny it, or justify their action, then we have a justified reason to suspect that person does not really believe it is wrong to take advantage of others.
Finally, we need to determine whether or not a person has a pattern of repeating the same actions. If our example person is told they are taking advantage of someone and they apologize and correct their action, but a few days later, we catch them trying to take advantage of another person once again, then we have very good reason to disregard what that person says they believe. When a person who says they do not believe in taking advantage of others habitually takes advantage of others, we should disregard what they say and accept what they do. Furthermore, once we have decided that such a person’s actions indicate their true beliefs over their words, we should hold to that conclusion until they show a consistent and prolonged change in that behavior. This is because deception is part of this equation. Once we see that a person’s actions do not match their words, we must consider that anything they do after they know we have figured this out could be an intentional deception. We should consider this possibility because we have already determined that deception is part of this person’s character, and it would be irrational to take a deceiver at their word.
So, when looking at what a person does and comparing their actions to what they say they believe, we should consider the following:
Have they shown any indication of intentional deception?
Will they acknowledge and accept correction and then act accordingly?
And do they return to that behavior at a later time; is that behavior a habit or part of a pattern?
These are the things we should consider in determining whether we should accept a person at their word or believe what they do instead. And, once we determine that we should believe what they do instead of what they say, we should hold to and act according to that determination until after that person has given good cause to believe they have changed. To do anything less is to act irrationally, and acting irrationally is not part of a rationally-directed life.