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Why is Hypocrisy Wrong? September 4, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Ethics.

The recent revelation that Larry Craig (R, Idaho) had been arrested and had confessed to soliciting gay sex in a public restroom is another in a seemingly endless parade of conservative politicians and community leaders who bloviate about upholding so-called moral standards by day while deviating from those moral standards by night.

Bill Bennett’s gambling, Reverend Haggard’s gay affairs, Senator David Vitter’s appearance on a call girl’s list of customers, along with Craig’s dailliance with an undercover cop suggest that “do as I say, not as I do” is the categorical imperative of conservative virtuecrats.

People who are convicted in the public eye of hypocrisy are often forced to resign their positions, and the ensuing public debate suggests that the hypocrite has lost the moral authority to advocate for the principles he/she has allegedly violated. But why is hypocrisy wrong and why does the hypocrite lose moral authority?

Suppose we define moral authority as “having adequate justification for a moral claim”; and lets assume that the public figures mentioned above, contrary to fact, have adequate justification for the ideals for which they advocate. Why does the fact that they violate their ideals diminish their moral authority to advocate for them? If they had adequate justification for their ideals, that justification remains despite their inability to live up to them. Their advocacy may lack sincerity but so what if their justifications are good?

One might argue that hypocrisy reveals a character flaw–the hypocrite lacks the strength of will to live up to her ideals. But all of us are like that to some degree. None of us live up to our ideals all the time. It doesn’t follow that we cannot give convincing justifications of our moral ideals. Moreover, it seems like the hypocrite is being blamed for more than just weakness of the will, a common human failing.

So what is wrong with hypocrisy and why does it seem to diminish one’s moral authority?



1. Thea - September 4, 2007

Let us not forget George W. Bush’s alleged gay affairs or relationship with hard drugs during college, either!

But, back to the subject, I personally think that hypocrisy isn’t that much of a moral crime because people who are good sometimes fail. That’s part of human nature. Moral authority becomes diminished, however, when the motivation that the person has in promoting a particular belief comes into question. Take Senator Craig. The man is clearly gay. Now, why would Craig himself, as a gay man, fight so vehemently against gay rights the way that he historically has done when he hasn’t given up the gay lifestyle? It appears that he has some unresolved personal issues and those personal issues are his motivation in being an anti-gay rights crusader. Therefore, he is not a public servant or a moral authority.

2. Huan - September 5, 2007

I also agree that hypocrisy is not something that should discredit the reason that someone presents. Since reason is something that we can appeal to even if the person who presents them have issues with living up to his own reasoning.
However i don’t think reason is what most people truly appeal to in these cases. It appears that people are taking morals out of their reasonable backdrop so to speak, morals are viewed independently from the humanistic reasons that created them in the first place. And since reason is not what people directly appeal to in a lot of these cases, (especially gay rights) the moral authority upheld by the hypocrites become diminished.

3. Nina Rosenstand - September 5, 2007

A fascinating situation–including our reaction to it: When we witness the public failings of someone who earnestly has tried to live up to a high ideal, we’re likely to sympathize, we forgive them if they show contrition, and we welcome them to our club of other fallible human beings. But when someone like Senator Craig stumbles, we “laugh behind our hand,” (a Dutch expression, I think), we feel Schadenfreude (a good old German expression), precisely because of the hypocrisy. And why is that? I think it is not only the disconnect between their words and their actions; it is, in a nutshell, because of the judgmental attitude of the person in question, his or her hubris, the holier-than-thou approach. It isn’t so much that they fail their own ideals, because, as Dwight says, we all do. It is their established record of condemnation of other people’s lifestyles that is so deliciously ironic. Former mayor Jim West of Spokane, WA comes to mind; an anti-gay legislator in Olympia for years, he was revealed to be trolling for 18-year old boys on the Internet, on his office computer. He wanted to make sure what he did was legal—it never occurred to him that (1) voters don’t appreciate their leaders having double standards, and (2) voters generally don’t appreciate having their 17-year old kids being considered soon-to-be legitimate targets for the erotic interests of middle-aged politicians (in other words, “legal” isn’t the same as “ethical”).
We may sympathize enormously with public figures who feel they have to lead double lives because of a perceived or real prejudice, but if these public figures have gone on record making life more difficult for the group they secretly visit, our sympathy begins to fade, doesn’t it?

4. Dwight Furrow - September 10, 2007

I think Nina is right that it is not so much the disconnect between words and deeds that get our attention with these acts of hypocrisy. It is “the judgmental attitude of the person in question, his or her hubris, the holier-than-thou approach.”

But I think such hypocrisy is not only ironic and delicious–the actions are morally wrong.

We are able to be social beings because we grant each other the authority to make reciprocal moral claims. I acknowledge that others can hold me to account and others grant me the authority to hold them to account. Judgmental hypocrites do not hold up their side of the bargain. They are moral free riders intentionally seeking to pawn the burdens of morality off on others while refusing to bear those burdens themselves.

I think this shows something interesting about moral authority. Moral authority is not a matter of having a rational justification for one’s actions. It is a matter of being granted by others the right to make moral claims. [See Stephen Darwall’s recent book, The Second Person Standpoint, for this understanding of moral authority.] We withdraw the right of judgmental hypocrites to make moral claims on us vis a vis the norms they are violating–thus they lose moral authority to advocate their position.

5. Melinda Campbell - September 14, 2007

Quo Vadis, Tu Quoque?
To ask what is wrong with hypocrist is a good question, and, like many other interesting philosophical questions, at first glance the answer either seems obvious or there seems to be no question even at issue, but upon further analysis, there is much to be uncovered. I always run into this issue in my logic class when discussing the fallacy of ad hominem inconsistency, or tu quoque. Students immediately misunderstand this as being the charge of hypocrisy, rather than just its opposite: One can be guilty of violating one’s own good advice or avowed moral principle and still be able to give a good argument in its favor. We are much more willing to convict the hypocrite of wrongdoing than to blame ourselves for judging the person and what he does rather than actually listening to what he says.

Nina and Dwight have put their respective fingers on the crux of the matter: The hypocrite loses credibility and respect because in his not holding up “his part of the bargain,” this anti-Kantian abomination makes a special case for himself while counting on others to maintain the moral and social order. Speaking of Kant, I think another part of our ire against the hypocrite comes from the offense to reason caused by his behavior. If his argument seems to be a good one, and he nevertheless rejects it, we are left with two likely courses of thought. We charge him with irrationality for failure to accept the conclusion of a sound argument, or we come to doubt the soundness of the argument in the first place. What seemed like good reasons were in fact a false front; now we see him as more of a liar than a hypocrite.

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