“As witnesses not of our intentions but of our conduct, we can be true or false, and the hypocrite’s crime is that he bears false witness against himself. What makes it so plausible to assume that hypocrisy is the vice of vices is that integrity can indeed exist under the cover of all other vices except this one. 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.” – Hanna Arendt

Reflexive contrarians are the worst: you say yay, they say nay; you go left, they go right; they probably put pineapple on pizza and use a knife and a fork to eat it. The. Worst. Many of them consider themselves independent thinkers, too. But if an opinion is purely based on opposing consensus, then consensus is still the only variable, rendering many contrarians as predictable and uninteresting as the sheeple they love to loathe. Given the overwhelming (and bipartisan) hostility toward hypocrisy, anyone mounting a defense of it could be considered just that, then — a contrarian. Although I’m about to do just that — defend hypocrisy, that is — I assure you I’m not contrarian for its own sake. I’m sincere when I say that hypocrisy is not just an overrated vice, it’s even plausible to assume that it’s the least significant vice of all.

I’m not interested in quibbling about definitions. I’m using the term hypocrisy the way it is generally understood: acting contrary to one’s stated values — that is, failing to practice what one preaches. A hypocrite, then, is a jet-setting environmentalist, a carnivorous animal rights activist, or a promiscuous nun. What about condemning a certain action when it’s performed by a foe, but not when a friend is caught doing the same? Is that hypocrisy? Close enough. Some definitions of hypocrisy include the added criterion of a willingness to deceive, but I think it needn’t be. To be sure, deception is often a by-product of hypocrisy but you need not want to deceive in order to be a hypocrite. Most people will agree that merely engaging in behavior for which you criticize others meets the conditions necessary to be considered an act of hypocrisy. So whilst I’m not defending deliberate deception, I am defending the notion that it’s good to preach what one fails to practice. Some readers may be tempted to accuse me of a bait-and-switch, in that I’m defending a version of hypocrisy many of them don’t take issue with. But most people are put off by this broader conception of hypocrisy too, and to determine the degree of this disgust I conducted rigorous scientific research: a Twitter poll.

This isn’t an invitation to perform a conceptual analysis on the meaning of “good.” The question is much simpler than that: If you think it is good to recycle, what would be better? Two people recycling or one? Let’s up the stakes: If you think it is good to save lives, wouldn’t it be better if two people saved a person each than you saving the life of one? Whatever your conception of goodness, doesn’t it follow that it’d be better if more people adhered to it? Isn’t the answer to the poll so obviously “B”? Apparently not. Many of us are so appalled by hypocrisy that we’re willing to forgo better consequences in order to avoid it. But is hypocrisy really that bad?

Consider the following: A professor who has written books and given lectures on the wrongness of theft is caught stealing. What is the problem here? Hypocrisy? No. The crime committed here is theft, and the perpetrator’s position on the topic of stealing is irrelevant. Would a public endorsement of theft reduce his sentence? Of course not. And neither would a victim of robbery be consoled knowing their robber acted according to his own twisted principles. Invoking hypocrisy to condemn this imagined thief — or any wrongdoer, for that matter — seems entirely unnecessary.

If you think the example of the stealing professor is too contrived, consider how you would feel if you were to discover that the philosopher Peter Singer is a meat-eating Scrooge (he isn’t). Singer, to those who don’t know, has been championing the cause of animal welfare since the 1970s and has also written extensively on our obligation to give to the less fortunate. His work has inspired many to stop eating animals as well as give large amounts of their wealth to effective charities. There is no doubt in my mind that there is less suffering in the world today than there otherwise would be if it hadn’t been for his books and lectures. What impact would such a discovery — that he eats bacon every morning and hasn’t given a single cent to charity — have on society? Many of his admirers would no doubt be deeply disappointed, and whilst his reputation would be diminished, it wouldn’t undo all the good he’d done. Now ask yourself, would it have been better if this fictional Peter Singer hadn’t written his books? That is, would it have been better if he hadn’t advocated for values he himself failed to uphold? Would it have been better if hadn’t been a hypocrite?

peter singer.jpg
Peter Singer

Remember, there are two ways of avoiding hypocrisy:

  1. Practice what you preach.
  2. Don’t preach what you do not practice.

Provided the endorsed values are good, then method #1 is commendable. After all, we want more people to practice values we approve of. But method #2 is terrible! Activism and arguments (read: preaching) can do a lot of good on their own. The phrase “battle of ideas” has become somewhat overused but I think it’s useful here: For good ideas to become the norm we need to speak about them, and the voice of the hypocrite is as useful as any.

This merits a personal anecdote. I quit eating meat roughly two years ago, and much of the credit for that decision belongs to the psychologist Paul Bloom. Firstly, in his book Against Empathy (but already in articles and podcasts before then) he argues convincingly that empathy — and salience generally — is a poor moral guide. Empathy is biased and innumerate, giving certain tragedies an emotional pull that doesn’t reflect the extent of suffering involved or our ability to prevent them. And he was also one of the few people (whose opinion I value) that I noticed who was (slightly) critical of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature thesis — that violence is decreasing — by pointing to the escalation of cruelty inflicted on farm animals. So, Paul Bloom a) brought the extent of animal suffering to my attention, and b) made me realize that I can’t wait for empathy to move me. I had to change my behavior irrespective of the animals’ misery being salient to me. How does this relate to hypocrisy? Well, despite publicly acknowledging the horrors of animal agriculture, plus his public opposition to salience as a moral guide, Bloom isn’t a vegetarian (presumably because he doesn’t empathize with animals). It’s only fair, therefore, to label him a hypocrite. But who does more good? The silent (non-hypocritical) carnivore or the vocal hypocrite? The latter, of course! After all, the hypocrite can persuade others to quit meat, and if you care about positive consequences — which you should — then that’s a good thing. Once you realize that consequences are what matter, it’s also difficult not to be critical of the misguided notion that refraining from proselytizing is somehow virtuous. An occasional meat-eater who has convinced two of his friends to remove chicken and fish from their diets would have done a lot more for the wellbeing of animals than a non-proselytizing vegan.

Paul Bloom

Animal welfare is a topic that I happen to care (and write) about, but the principle that I’m advocating for can be applied to other causes too: For any good values to spread, they need to be in the public consciousness, and that requires their repeated endorsement independent of how committed one is to them in practice. Many hypocrites, then, could be viewed as allies and even converts-in-waiting. Of course this doesn’t apply to all or even most hypocrites, but insofar any of them fail to uphold certain values, why does it matter if they actually held them? If two people are caught committing a crime, should we be harsher on the person who said that crime is wrong? No. All we’d do is discourage the professing of certain values.

This isn’t to say that hypocrisy is ideal or that we shouldn’t point out inconsistencies. None of us enjoys acting contrary to our stated values, so being made aware when we do can motivate us into action. But next time you see a charge of hypocrisy hurled at someone or, indeed, you hurl one yourself, pay close attention to what the message behind that charge is: “Do better!” or “Shut up!” Think of the meat-eater who scolds the vegan for wearing a leather watch strap or the CEO of a coal mining company who criticizes Al Gore’s electricity bill; the purpose there isn’t to pressure someone to do better, the aim is to shame them into silence.

Unfortunately, using charges of hypocrisy as a tool to silence people actually works. Think of values in your own life that you keep to yourself because you don’t always apply them. Maybe you’re reluctant to speak up about animal cruelty because you eat meat, or you’re too embarrassed to join an environmental protest because you like travelling (by plane) to faraway lands. What’s worse, some of us might even pretend to believe that there is nothing wrong with killing animals for food, or downplay the danger of climate change just to not be seen as hypocrites. This is madness! We’ve demonized hypocrisy to such an extent that some would rather lie about their values than admit they’re falling short of them. Don’t be one of those people. Speak up against the things you perceive as wrong, regardless of your own behavior. If your message is persuasive then there is still a lot of good you can do, even if it makes you a hypocrite.

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5 comments

  1. The author states, …”I conducted a rigorous scientific research: a Twitter poll” …and posts screen shot. Twitter results showed a scant 164 votes (hardly rigorous or extensive) with percentages 49% to 51% which the intellectual author failed to interpret correctly.

    Sometimes facetiousness doesn’t convey well on written reports but I’m hoping the author was kidding and not using the p-value Twitter poll results as the foundation for his stance on “hypocrisy.”

    Hypocrisy is a transient, fixable character flaw we all may harbor which is part of our fallibility. I choose “A” on the author’s Twitter poll on the basis of “To Thine Ownself Be True” even if it means I can’t influence anyone else by example.

    It is of interest and concern intellectuals often utilize statistics in which differences of significance aren’t significant differences within their otherwise persuasive viewpoints on various subjects.

    P-values, Bayes factor, null hypothesis, reduction ad absurdum are some stat topics to quickly Wiki and check out if percentages sufficiently back up an article’s dissertation argument. Unfortunately, this one didn’t…but still wonder if what was read is humor within the seriousness.

    1. I was being facetious wrt to the poll’s “scientific rigour.” But I didn’t need a majority vote in *that* poll to conclude that most people are put off by the conception of hypocrisy that I presented. 49% are so put off that they’d forgo *better consequences* to avoid it. That doesn’t mean that the other 51% weren’t put off. The latter just recognized that 2>1 and voted B reluctantly.

  2. I think. It is wrong to justify hypocrisy, hypocrisy is bad. Hypocrisy in the name of good? I do not know. If you do good in the name of something or someone it is mercantilism. The example of theft, too, does not raise the question of hypocrisy. A person can talk a lot about the malignancy of theft and suffer from kleptomania disorder, he understands everything but can not help himself.
    What is dangerous hypocrisy? (especially in history)
    Hypocrites lead to the power of scoundrels, for scoundrels hypocrites createe a сult of personality and tyranny of scoundrels, if not to condemn hypocrisy this leads to huge sacrifices.
    Hypocrisy has no excuse, even in small things. Any tyranny in history and the world is created by hypocrites! For me it’s a fact.

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  3. Of course “hypocrisy” often just means “not fully living up to our ideals”, as pointed out by Neal Stephenson in “The Diamond Age”.

    And which of us really do live up fully to all of our ideals? Approximately none of us would be my guess.

  4. This article mentions the shame of being called out for hypocrisy, but ignores the shame that comes from the preaching itself. When people preach, they are rarely offering a benign perspective others are free to ignore. Instead they are usually arguing for some moral imperative: something you must or must not do. This often comes laced with shame against certain people based on their behavior or identity.

    I haven’t read Peter Singer’s work on animal rights, but after reading The Life You Can Save I see him as an exception. He tends to make arguments that are positive and not shame-oriented. He tries to find modest positions instead of demanding drastic action. For this reason I think people are less likely to care to call him out for hypocrisy. I think the bitterest accusations of hypocrisy are aimed at the people who invoke the greatest amount of shame against others. In this way, calling out hypocrisy acts as a check on a person’s power to shame others for breaking rules they invented.

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