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What Hypocrisy Tells Us

photograph of the lighted front of the Metropolitan museum of art at night

On September 13th, 2021, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attended the 2021 MET Gala wearing a white ball gown emblazoned with the phrase “Tax the Rich” in bright red lettering. The command on the dress was a reference to Ocasio-Cortez’s fiscal platform policy of increasing the tax burden on the wealthiest 1% of U.S. earners. Wearing (literal) statement pieces to the red-carpet Hollywood events is nothing new; celebrities such as Megan Rapinoe and Cara Delevingne have both attended the MET Gala in pieces protesting various social injustices, and Lady Gaga famously attended the MTV’s VMAs in a dress made of meat to protest the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Predictably, Ocasio-Cortez’s look immediately received a flood of attention, some positive, and some quite negative. The most prominent thread of criticism, however, was not criticism of the political position itself. Rather, critics on both sides of the aisle took issue with Ocasio-Cortez advocating for increasing taxes on the rich while attending a tax-payer subsidized event that costs a minimum of $30,000 per ticket. In other words, people were upset that someone would perform (what they took to be) a criticism of extreme wealth while attending an event that indicated they themselves had access to, and benefited from, extreme wealth. That is to say, people accused Ocasio-Cortez of being a hypocrite.

Accusations of political hypocrisy are a fairly standard complaint to make, not only of politicians and public figures, but sometimes also of a movement as a whole. Consider this critique of anti-abortion politicians by a group called Pro-Choice America. Herein, Pro-Choice America accuses politically conservative people who are against legalized abortion of being hypocrites in virtue of rejecting other policy proposals. The other policy proposals in question include: nationalized healthcare, subsidized higher education, affordable housing, eased immigration restrictions, and so on. Their insinuated argument is something like the following: if you are against abortion because you are “pro-life”, then consistency demands you also favor other political positions that would help people live better lives.

From the other side of the aisle, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, republicans have been accusing democrat politicians of hypocrisy for instances of failing to abide by the masking and social distancing rules they have signed into law. Such failures include instances of gathering indoors without masks, patronizing salons and restaurants, and hosting birthday parties with long guest lists.

But what is the purpose of pointing out apparent ideological hypocrisy of individuals or groups? If Nancy Pelosi acts hypocritically in failing to conform to mask mandates that she endorsed, does this indicate that mask mandates are not a good policy after all? There is no obvious connection between a person’s failure to act consistently in accordance with their beliefs, and the falseness of those beliefs. That is, hypocrisy on the part of advocates is not straightforward evidence against the policies they are advocating for. It may be that the policies themselves are the correct ones to implement — the advocates may be merely weak-willed. Yet, charges of hypocrisy are often brought forth as evidence against the beliefs of the would-be hypocrite. Is pointing out hypocrisy a legitimate way of critiquing someone’s beliefs or policy positions?

A common response to perceived hypocrisy is that, in acting hypocritically, we lose the right to advocate for certain beliefs or policies. For example, a politician who advocates against legal abortion may be accused of lacking the right to an opinion on the matter if it is revealed that he once procured an abortion for a pregnant mistress. Are hypocrites doing something wrong by speaking out of turn? It is hard to see exactly how one may lose a “right” to speak to an issue merely by failing to live up to their own standards. There is no commonly-recognized moral duty to only speak up in favor of behaviors that you yourself follow. Additionally, if consequences are what matter morally, then one ought to advocate for correct policies even if they are so weak-willed that they cannot follow their own prescriptions. Of course, it would be better if one could, as they say, take their own medicine, but it would still maximize the good to encourage other people to act well/implement good policies, regardless of whether they act consistently in their private life. For example, if mask mandates maximized well-being for the country as a whole, then politicians who refused to wear a mask would still (according to utilitarianism) do best to advocate for mask mandates.

On the other hand, a virtue ethicist like Aristotle might say that behaving hypocritically, either by failing to act on your convictions or by advocating for positions you do not truly accept, is a sign of vice — that is, bad character. And having bad character may incline one to believe, or advocate for, bad positions and policies. At least, we are probably more confident in the judgments of people with good character than the judgments of people with bad character. And so, if hypocrisy is a sign of bad character, this could provide some indirect evidence against the views or policies in question.

From a psychological perspective, we may infer from an act of hypocrisy that the person in question is being dishonest about what they say they believe. For example, we may suspect that someone’s true reasons for opposing legal abortion is misogynistic in nature rather than related to the inherent value of life if they advocate for other policies that fail to adequately value life. But even if someone is lying or being misleading about their true beliefs, this should not upset any additional evidence we have in favor of those beliefs or policies. Someone who thinks abortion is wrong on the basis of arguments would not be dissuaded merely because some politician lied about his desire to protect all life. Someone who believes, for social and economic reasons, that the tax burden on the top 1% of U.S. earners should be increased, would not be dissuaded from this belief even if Ocasio-Cortez acted hypocritically in attending the MET Gala.

In conclusion, charges of hypocrisy hit hard, but it is not clear exactly whether, or how, the charges constitute a criticism of the positions of the supposed hypocrite. Regardless, we would likely do better to focus more on the beliefs and policies themselves than on the fallible humans endorsing them.

Treating Principles as Mere Means

photograph of US Capitol Building with mirror image reflected in lake

With the Republican about-face concerning Supreme Court Senate votes, hypocrisy is once again back in the headlines. Many accusations of hypocrisy have been directed at Senator Lindsey Graham, whose support for a Senate vote for President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee so clearly clashes with earlier statements — he said in 2018 that “if an opening comes in the last year of President Trump’s term and the primary process has started, we’ll wait till the next election” — that his behavior seems like the Platonic form of a certain kind of hypocrisy. Graham has responded with a hypocrisy accusation of his own, writing to Democrats on the judiciary panel that “if the shoe were on the other foot, you would do the same.” Amidst this controversy, it’s worth taking a step back to ask what force the accusation of hypocrisy is supposed to have.

In earlier columns, I have explored some suggestions for why hypocrisy is morally objectionable and rejected them. In this column I want to consider a theory first articulated by the philosopher Eva Feder Kittay. This account says that hypocrisy is morally objectionable because it involves treating important religious, political, or moral principles as mere means.

Immanuel Kant famously intoned against treating persons as mere means, or using them as mere instruments for the satisfaction of our own desires. What’s wrong with this is that it involves a kind of category error — it treats persons, beings with the capacity to rationally order their lives, as if they were things.

Clearly, however, this can’t be exactly what Kittay means when she talks about hypocrites treating principles as mere means: principles are not persons. Yet there is a link here. The kinds of principles Kittay is concerned with — moral and religious principles — are supposed to be adhered to because they are right, and not because they are useful to the adherent. Kant expressed this point with his distinction between categorical and hypothetical imperatives. A categorical imperative is one that is binding on you regardless of what you happen to desire. You can’t claim that some moral principle — “don’t kill innocents,” say — is not binding on you because you happen to want to kill innocents. That principle provides a reason for you not to kill innocents regardless of what you happen to want. By contrast, a hypothetical imperative — for example, “go to the store” — is only binding if you have some desire that will be promoted by acting according to the imperative. If there were nothing you wanted that you could get by going to store, that imperative would not be binding on you.

So, when Kittay says that hypocrites treat principles as mere means, she means that they treat categorical imperatives as if they were merely hypothetical. The hypocrite will adopt and discard moral principles as it suits them. Sometimes that adoption will be merely rhetorical — some hypocrites are entirely conscious that their pretense of principle is a charade. But other hypocrites will sincerely adopt moral principles, only to discard them whenever holding to them becomes inexpedient. In the case of Senate Republicans, their hypocrisy lies in their adoption of the principle of not confirming Supreme Court justices during an election year when it was convenient for them to do so, followed by their abandonment of this principle when it was convenient to do that. In doing this, they treated what seemed to be a categorical imperative — one that was binding on them even if they didn’t want to adhere to it — as if it were hypothetical.

What’s wrong with treating principles as mere means? For Kittay, the problem has to do with trust. According to her, we trust that when people claim to hold to certain categorical principles, they hold to them as categorical. We rely on this belief in our dealings with them, assuming, for example, that they will hold to those principles even if it is inconvenient for them to do so. Moreover, their assurances of commitment are all we have to go on; we can’t look into their souls to see what their true attitude toward their principles is. Hypocrisy reveals that there can be a deep divide between what people say they are committed to and what they are actually committed to. Thus, hypocrisy shows us that the part of our lives structured by principles is actually quite fragile, depending as it does on our trust in what people say. We therefore have strong incentives to expose and condemn hypocrisy. As Graham’s Democratic challenger for his Senate seat recently tweeted, “Senator Graham, you have proven that your word is worthless.”

There is, I think, another point to be made about how hypocrisy undermines categorical principles. What hypocrisy reveals is that for at least certain people, categorical principles are a mere mask for the unvarnished pursuit of power, wealth, and self-aggrandizement. The trouble is that compared to such people, those who voluntarily restrain themselves in accordance with categorical principles are at a distinct disadvantage. This puts pressure on everyone to abandon their principles. Thus, hypocrisy tends to erode everyone’s commitment to categorical principles as such. And if we think that categorical principles are good on the whole — that they help solve certain coordination problems, for example — then this is a bad thing for everyone.

So, what Senate Republicans have revealed with their latest hypocrisy is that for them, politics is a game of power untempered by principles. But when Republicans throw their principles overboard when it is convenient for them to do so, this increases the incentives for everyone else to do the same. And that, I will wager, is worse for everyone in the long run.

Hypocrisy and the Fall of Falwell

close-up photograph of Jerry Falwell Jr. at speaking engagement

It has not been a good week for Jerry Falwell Jr. It began when the prominent evangelical posted a bizarre photograph on Instagram of himself with his pants unzipped and his arm around a bare-midriffed woman who is not his wife. Falwell tried to do damage control with a radio spot that, owing to his possibly substance-induced incoherence, dug him deeper into the hole. Days later, the board of trustees of Liberty University, an evangelical college in Lynchburg, Virginia, announced that Falwell will be taking an indefinite leave of absence from his role as president and chancellor. While Falwell has been accused of arguably much more serious misconduct, the final straw appears to have been this display of flagrant hypocrisy; Liberty Law School’s honor code includes prohibitions on “display of objects or pictures” that are “sexual in nature,” “sexually oriented joking,” “the encouragement or advocacy of any form of sexual behavior” that would undermine the University’s “Christian identity,” and the possession of alcohol (in the picture, Falwell holds a glass of what he calls “black water”).

Falwell’s is not the first case of hypocrisy by a high-profile religious leader. Yet the ethical argument against hypocrisy is far from clear. What is it about hypocrisy that makes it morally objectionable?

In order to answer this question, we must first say what hypocrisy is. Ask most people, and they will tell you that hypocrisy is not practicing what you preach. But consider this: in the process of becoming mature adults, we often do things that we later condemn, or condemn things we later do. On some occasions, this can amount to hypocrisy — particularly if we try to hide the fact that we previously engaged in the behavior of which we currently disapprove. Yet it does not have to be hypocritical to acknowledge that we have undergone moral improvement, and as a consequence currently disapprove of what we did in the past. So, not practicing what you preach is not enough to make someone a hypocrite. I believe that what’s required, beyond the inconsistency between our words and deeds, is that this inconsistency involves representing oneself as better than one is by the lights of some community’s moral standards.

That hypocrisy is not mere inconsistency in itself suggests that the ethical complaint against hypocrisy cannot simply be that it involves inconsistency. After all, there is an inconsistency over time between the actions and words of a reformed racist, but such inconsistency is to be welcomed.

One suggestion is that hypocrisy is a form of dishonesty. Hypocrites pretend to be better than they are, thus deceiving others about their moral commitments and concerns. Upon reflection, however, this can only be a small part of the story. There is a certain type of hypocrite — we might call her a cynical hypocrite — who consciously pretends to be morally better than she is in order to obtain some extrinsic benefits, such as social status. This kind of hypocrisy does involve dishonesty. Yet many hypocrites — indeed, those who on some views most clearly deserve the label — are perfectly sincere in their belief in their own goodness, as well as in their condemnation of others for norm violations. It might be suggested that the problem with these hypocrites is that they are self-deceived, but even if this is true, self-deception does not usually invite the sort of moral opprobrium to which hypocrites are regularly subjected.

Another suggestion is that, because hypocrites are primarily concerned with representing themselves as morally better than they are, their words are unlikely to represent (a) their actual values or (b) the “correct” assessment of the moral facts. Insincere hypocrites are motivated to hide their true commitments behind the appearance of goodness, while sincere hypocrites are likely to make whatever moral judgments will represent themselves in the best light. In either case, their testimony about (a) and (b) is suspect. The suggestion, then, is that hypocrisy is a kind of untrustworthiness. While I think this diagnosis gets at something important about hypocrites, it does not explain our moral objection to them. After all, there are plenty of people whose testimony we cannot trust, but whom we do not loathe. Think, for example, of an extremely naïve person whose moral judgments are clouded by a misplaced faith in human goodness. Such a person is not trustworthy, in the sense that it would be foolish for us to rely on their testimony when deciding the morally right course of action. We might even criticize such a person for being naïve. But we would not have the strong negative response to this person that we regularly do to hypocrites.

The last and, I think, best suggestion is that hypocrites are free riders, enjoying the advantages of undeserved moral approval while secretly collecting the dividends of vice. On this view, what makes hypocrisy objectionable is that it tends to cause hypocrites to appear better than they really are, whether they are sincere or insincere. So long as their hypocrisy remains unmasked, others will reward this apparent goodness even as the hypocrite continues to reap the benefits of acting contrary to moral standards. This account seems able to explain why we hate hypocrites so much: generally, we tend to hate people who obtain advantages they don’t deserve, as well as those who fail to make their contribution to goods we all enjoy — in this case, morality itself. It offends our deeply ingrained, and possibly innate, sense of fairness.

To return to Falwell and others like him, we can now see one important reason why even other evangelicals might have a strong negative response to his behavior. Leaders of all kinds, but particularly leaders of religious communities, often owe their status in part to a belief that they exemplify certain moral virtues. When such leaders are unmasked as hypocrites, this reveals that their leadership role, with all the perks that come with it, is undeserved. And this strikes us as deeply unfair; after all, there are plenty of other people who are earnestly striving to live according to often strict standards, yet who receive less praise and other benefits for doing so.

Thomas Hobbes called hypocrisy a “double iniquity,” suggesting that it was actually worse than outright villainy. On the fairness account, this makes sense: the hypocrite not only violates moral norms, but commits the further wrong of free riding on others’ compliance with moral norms in order to reap the undeserved benefits of appearing good and doing evil. In short, there are grounds for thinking that being a hypocrite with respect to some standard is worse than simply flouting the standard. This still doesn’t mean that hypocrites are always worse than simple wrong-doers — not all standards are equally important — but it does mean that hypocrites with respect to some rule, like Falwell, are liable to more loathing than someone who simply breaks that rule, like Falstaff.

What’s Wrong with Hypocrisy?

Black and white photograph of the inside of a cathedral

Much has been written about the recent grand jury report revealing both an epidemic of extreme sexual abuse among Roman Catholic parishes in Pennsylvania and a conspiracy by church leaders to quietly cover up the crimes. The numbers are shocking: over 300 priests across 54 counties abused more than 1000 victims over the course of at least 80 years. Of course, sexual assault of any stripe is abhorrent, yet the moral hypocrisy evident in this case makes this story particularly cruel. Not only have the “predatory priests” damaged a thousand immediate victims, but the ripple effects of their decisions to twist their respected social positions into such corrupted outlets for their own selfish evils will inevitably taint the faith of a generation of Roman Catholics or more.

Indeed, it is bad enough to be a victim of injustice, but when the crime is performed by one who claims a position of moral authority, the injustice is multiplied. One can do wrong without being hypocritical, but one cannot be a hypocrite without doing wrong; in fact, hypocrisy typically compounds the painful consequences of evil.

In chapter two of her 1963 book On Revolution, German philosopher Hannah Arendt dubs hypocrisy “the vice of vices” on the grounds that it is inescapably indefensible. Any other vice, she argues, could feasibly be justified from the right perspective, but hypocrisy alone is bereft of any possible integrity: “Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core.”

On one level, being a good person – and being known for being a good person – affords an individual certain social benefits. Moral hypocrisy amounts to a person attempting to get those benefits without actually being the moral person they appear to be. In many cases, moral integrity requires some level of self-sacrifice; if a person can receive acclaim for being self-sacrificial without actually sacrificing anything, then that person selfishly comes out ahead. However, to do so means not only committing to being a moral hypocrite, but also to committing additional immoral acts such as lying or threatening those who know the truth to hide your secret. Once revealed, the moral hypocrite’s victims are not limited only to those affected by their explicit crimes: the dissonance suffered by those whom the hypocrite played for fools must also be considered.

And perhaps the most rotten hypocrites of all are those who pretend to be moral while hiding their sins and set out to publicly condemn others.

In his 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo introduced the world to the villainous Claude Frollo, the respected archdeacon of the famous French cathedral whose obsession with pious chastity gives way to an uncontrollable lust for the beautiful Esmeralda. By the end of the novel, Frollo’s bitterness has led him to betray his surrogate son, stab Esmeralda’s lover, and even turn Esmeralda herself over to be executed for a crime that Frollo committed simply because she continues to reject his advances. When Frollo himself is pushed over the edge of Notre Dame’s roof, the average reader feels little remorse for the death of the spiteful hypocrite.

In the case of most moral hypocrites, the problem is twofold: firstly, the hypocrite has committed an immoral act; secondly, he has simultaneously lied about and/or hidden that act, while also unjustly receiving moral praise from his peers. In Frollo’s case, the problem is threefold: he has committed a crime, he has hidden it, and he continues to publically crusade against others who are guilty of the same crimes.

Consider the perspective of one of Frollo’s fictional parishioners: they may agree with Frollo’s condemnation of sexual licentiousness, even once they discover that Frollo himself is guilty of that very act. On one hand, Frollo’s public words are correct; on the other, Frollo’s private actions are not – to try and make sense of such a disjunction can be remarkably unsettling. How can one easily reconcile the familiar picture of a respectable leader with the new knowledge that the person was dishonestly putting on a show for the public? Such lies cast a pall over Frollo’s entire public persona, calling into question even those things that most people would otherwise take for granted. This means that Frollo’s crimes are not limited only to his violent assaults on Esmeralda or Phoebus; the angst that his moral hypocrisy would force upon innocent observers is an additional wrong that complicates a situation already dripping with moral hazards.

On some level, studies suggest that most people are guilty of hypocrisy on some level. One experiment performed at the University of Kansas in the late 90s asked individuals to privately choose between doing two tasks: both tasks were left vague, but one was described as boring with no reward while the other would offer the person a chance to win a prize in a raffle. The subject was told that she could select which task she would be assigned and which task would go to her unseen counterpart; in 70-80% of cases, the individuals assigned themselves the raffle-eligible task and gave the boring one to the stranger.

Then, in a second round, the researchers explained the same parameters, but suggested that the subject flip a coin to randomly (and, therefore fairly) assign the raffle task and the boring task. The results here were surprising: the subjects who chose not to flip the coin saw the same rate of task assignments as in round one (roughly 80-90% of people chose the raffle-eligible task for themselves), but the subjects who did flip the coin also saw the same rate of task assignments as in round one (85-90%)! One would think that the subjects who used the coin would have task assignment rates closer to 50% unless there was some element of cheating going on behind the scenes.

However, many moral hypocrites willfully admit their limitations (in the Kansas study, for instance, cheating subjects routinely ranked themselves as having done something immoral at the end of the experiment). Perhaps this suggests that the ambiguity in many moral cases allows for some degree of natural forgiveness to be reasonably extended to fallible agents; to claim a form of moral infallibility, as Frollo does when speaking of morality from the position of a teaching authority, inversely changes an observer’s willingness to forgive a hypocrite.

The fallout from the Pennsylvania Sex Abuse Scandal has already led to responses from Catholics around the country as they have renamed schools, implemented new policies, and gathered to commiserate with loved ones after learning that beloved religious leaders were hiding horrible secrets. As if the monumental pain of sexual abuse alone was not horrible enough to force upon a community, the hypocrisy of these priests has sown seeds of mistrust, doubt, and fear to corners far beyond the Pittsburgh parish. Now, reports have begun to leak out that the Vatican and even Pope Francis himself may be implicated in the cover-up; facts that, if true, will only increase the waves of pain sent around the globe because of this horrendous scandal.

Although Frollo was trying to describe himself, his words in his final scene with Esmeralda ironically fit the victims of moral hypocrisy – both his and others’ – far better: “I bear the dungeon within me; within me there is winter, ice, despair; I have night in my soul” (Book VIII, chapter four).