George Iordanou Politics, Philosophy and (not much) Real Life

Is being a hypocrite so bad?


Recently in the UK a conservative peer of the House of Lords was caught by the Sun, using an illegally installed hidden camera, snorting cocaine from the breasts of a sex-worker. Notwithstanding the illegality of using a class A drug, the accusation that was levelled against the married Lord was that of “staggering hypocrisy.” He was, after all, head of the Lords standards watchdog, the body responsible for judging peers who misbehave.

On first instance, the Lord is surely a hypocrite. However, we should not have acquired knowledge of his immoral behaviour. After all, whatever one does in the privacy of their own home is really none of our business. But now we know, and we judge. For better or worse, his indiscretions are now a matter of public record, and the public should not be asked to suspend judgement on the grounds of the public vs. private distinction or because of the way the information was procured.

The question then is not whether we have a right to judge, subject to the immoral and illegal ways by which the information was acquired, but rather whether the fact that someone is a hypocrite should immediately generate a negative judgement on our behalf. Can one be praised for being a hypocrite?

We have two ways of defining hypocrisy, which will largely determine the outcome of our judgement. The first and the most problematic one, is that hypocrisy is saying one thing and doing another. The second, and the easiest to accept, is that hypocrisy is setting a moral standard and failing to reach it.

The second definition assumes a certain level of agency towards reaching the moral ideal. One is trying to reach the moral standard but fails, and in doing so improves oneself, assuming of course that the ideal is desirable. Christians and religious people in general, or ideologues and activists of sorts, all fall within this second strand of hypocrisy. One sets the standard of what makes a good Christian, a good Marxist, or a conscious environmentalist, which his actions inevitably fail to meet — swearing, wearing the occasional fancy suit, or consuming that unethically harvested coffee. This type of hypocrisy looks largely unproblematic to me. In trying to become the perfect Christian, one is leading a life close to the ideal, but consistently fails to reach it. In the end, that person is a better person, albeit a hypocrite.

(Striving but failing to reach the ideal is considered the second-best scenario; an assumption that although applies to the examples of the Christian and the environmentalist, cannot be universally applied. Nonetheless, it is a simplification that illustrates the argument without distorting it, so let us stick with it.)

The first definition of hypocrisy, saying one thing and doing another, is the most troubling. Contrary to the second definition, which maintains that the hypocrisy of setting an ideal and fail to meet it is actually desirable, the first removes the struggle to reach the/a moral standard. You do not become a better person by not reaching the ideal.

Is there a way to judge the hypocrite who says one thing and does another favourably?

Suppose I preach abstinence and then I am caught in sexual adventures with three other people. Obviously hypocritical, and rather uncontroversially open to challenge; not necessarily for the act itself, but rather for saying one thing and doing another, in other words, for being a hypocrite. Should I be judged on my hypocrisy? Is the fact that I am a hypocrite relevant to the evaluation of abstinence or polyamory?

In the case of the polyamorous preacher of abstinence we have two judgements: one on the merits of polyamory and abstinence, and the other on the merits of the individual. The fact that I am a hypocrite is irrelevant to the evaluation of polyamory or abstinence, since an argument for both can have the same force coming from the hypocrite and the non-hypocrite alike.

Hypocrisy, then, is only relevant when evaluating the individual, not their views. But are we to place everyone who says one thing and does another in the same pot? Let us consider a different kind of hypocrite to decide.

Suppose I am a smoker who advocates for the prohibition of smoking in closed public spaces. Neither do I plan to quit smoking nor do I try to do so. Maybe I even smoke the occasional cigarette in such areas. I am therefore someone who says one thing and does another. Am I a hypocrite? Yes according to the first definition. Is such hypocrisy undesirable? Not necessarily. Notwithstanding my own shortcomings, I espouse a policy that will have a beneficial effect on the lives of other people and likely my own. The fact that I am a smoker and that I act contrary to what I preach, is surely hypocritical, but is irrelevant to the end result: if my activism succeeds, the moral objective that I espouse will have the positive outcome that I desire (which, granted, might not be shared by many others).

In the case of the smoker, we can judge him for smoking in closed public spaces. But it does not follow that we should judge him for saying one thing and doing another. It is irrelevant both to our judgement of the person and to the policy that he promotes.

Let us consider the examples of the polyamorist preacher of abstinence and the smoker together, in order to illustrate how the different nature of their hypocrisy condemns the former and absolves the latter. They both say one thing and do another, and both of their actions contradict their preachings; they only differ insofar as the preacher of abstinence makes an explicit connection between his values and actions, whereby being abstinent is the best way to live one’s life. The smoker, on the other hand, clearly distinguishes the two: his actions and the values his promotes are in clear contradiction, with himself siding with the latter.

Thus, the polyamorist preacher of abstinence can be judged for being a hypocrite who says one thing and does another since his actions are part of his argument. The smoker, although a hypocrite, should not be judged for the hypocrisy itself, only for his specific action, namely, occasionally smoking in closed public areas.

Being a hypocrite — to say one thing and do another, or to strive for one ideal and to fail to reach it — should not be condemned a priori.  The values that a hypocrite promotes are not to be discredited solely because their advocate does not live by them. Also, being a hypocrite is morally relevant only  when one explicitly links their actions to their beliefs. In either case, the fact that one is a hypocrite should bear no consequence to our judgement on the values they espouse.

About the author

George Iordanou

I'm mostly interested in politics and philosophy, which makes up for the majority of this blog. As this is an archive of what I have written over the years, it also provides a glimpse into my personal life. I'm currently working in the humanitarian sector. In my past life I was in academia where I completed a Ph.D. in political theory with focus on multicultural citizenship. I'm one of the few people lucky enough to be given the opportunity to actually practice their research interests. Needless to say, whatever I write here is strictly my personal opinion and does not represent anyone else.

You can also find me on twitter @iordanou.

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George Iordanou Politics, Philosophy and (not much) Real Life

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