Monday, March 16, 2009

Vallicella on hypocrisy

Bill Vallicella has some characteristically wise remarks on what hypocrisy is, and what it isn’t. As he notes, a failure to live up to one’s own high moral standards does not necessarily make one a hypocrite; it could be just a matter of ordinary human weakness. (Critics of Bill Bennett’s gambling take note.) To add to what Bill says, we might also note that someone who condemns actions he once practiced himself is not necessarily a hypocrite either; he may simply have changed his mind. (Critics of Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s early love life take note.) Nor is someone whose children have failed to live up to the moral standards he has taught them necessarily a hypocrite either – how does A’s failure to follow B’s advice reflect on B’s character? (Critics of Sarah Palin’s child-rearing, take note.)

Here, as elsewhere, liberals who like to accuse others of simplemindedness often fail to make fairly obvious conceptual distinctions – perhaps out of carelessness born of the heat of political argument. Or perhaps because they are hypocrites themselves.

UPDATE: Bill has now added two further posts on the subject (here and here), addressing some of the points made above and in the comments section below.


  1. I've always been annoyed at the 'hypocrisy' charge's abuse. Especially in Christianity, and particularly as a Catholic where a sacrament of confession rather speaks to the acknowledgment that many/most/all? men will waver in their pursuit of righteous action. As Bill rightly points out, failure doesn't make a person a hypocrite.

  2. I disagree with Vallicella in one respect. Hypocrisy isn't my own actions in relationship to my ideals. I can vacuously spout high standards and ignore them. That makes me a fraud not a hypocrite. Hypocrisy is condemning another person for not living up to my fraudulently espoused ideals. Hypocrisy is casting an eye of judgment on others while avoiding my own shortcomings in regard to the same offense. A fraud ignores the log in his own eye. A hypocrite deflects attention by focusing on the speck in his neighbor's eye.

    Hypocrisy is judging as a fault in someone else what one refuses to judge as a fault in themselves.

    I agree with Vallicella in his defense of striving to live up to high standards. But I think he left out the important ingredient of the "neighbor" who is conscripted to bear our guilt.

  3. Bill Bennett famously condemns an entire alphabet of sins, but claims that he has purposely left out the letter "G" for gambling. That's his hypocrisy.

  4. I think you're missing the point of the criticisms of hypocracy.

    You are 100% correct in saying that a hypocrite is someone who preaches virtue A without practicing (or meaning to practice) it, NOT merely who preaches A without practicing it perfectly -- an impossible demand.

    But how can we tell whether someone really means to practice what they preach in the first place? There is a certain level of failure where one must assume that the peacher isn't merely failing to live up to what he preaches -- but he isn't even trying.

    It's one thing to preach against alcoholism despite getting drunk in last year's Christmas party. It's quite another to preach against it while getting drunk every night.

    Let's take the Republicans condemning Clinton for his fling with Monica Lewinsky. Sure, it's not hypocritical to comdemn infidelity just because you were once unfaithful. But how many of the Republicans were comdemning Clinton while having long-time mistresses on the side they never dreamy of giving up?

  5. Perhaps the usual assumption is that people who fail to live up to their own high ideals shouldn't preach those ideals as though they were living up to them, or as though living up to them were easy. As one who fails to live up to his own ideals, I can say that I try to take a different attitude towards promoting and defending those ideals than I see others taking. Complaints about people like Bill Bennett usually stem from the sense that one gets while listening to him that moral failure is either wilfull stupidity or the perfectly free and unconflicted decision to act wrongly. I don't want to make this a discussion about Bill Bennett in particular, but the type has many tokens.

  6. Anonymous at 10:23,

    I don't know what you are referring to, but gambling is not a sin, certainly not according to the Catholicism Bennett espouses. What is sinful is excessive or foolish gambling, and even in that case it is the excess or folly that is sinful, not the gambling per se. Hence there is no hypocrisy if Bennett left "gambling" off some list of vices.


    It depends on what Republicans you are talking about. If Newt Gingrich had criticized Clinton's affair while carrying on his own -- and I don't know whether he actually did this (he may have kept a discreet silence, but if you know otherwise, let me know) -- then he would certainly have been a hypocrite.

    Henry Hyde, by contrast, was not necessarily being a hypocrite. That he had an affair of his own years before did not entail that he could never speak on the subject again. (If former racists are allowed to condemn racism and former smokers can condemn smoking, why can't former adulterers condemn adultery?)

    In any event, what was primarily at issue in the Clinton case was not whether he committed adultery, but whether he had violated the very sexual harrassment laws that liberals have in other contexts been so eager to pass and enforce. Here as elsewhere, liberals who cry "Hypocrisy!" ought to look in the mirror.

    Anonymous at 2:41,

    When exactly have these "people like Bill Bennett" you refer to ever said that the (conservative) moral ideals in question are easy to live up to? In my experience, the standard complaint that conservatives have is not that people sometimes fail, out of weaknes, to live up to traditional moral standards where sex and the like are concerned, but rather that they reject the standards as even worth trying to live up to. Obviously not everyone agrees with these standards, but it is unfair to accuse conservatives who defend them of hypocisy (as opposed to mere error).

  7. Ed,

    If I have to document cases of conservatives preaching moral virtues in a way that seems to presuppose that practicing them is easy, you have to start documenting cases of everything you attribute to "liberals," which, if you read your own blog you'll see, is quite often.

    It's true that one doesn't often hear people say, "Hey man, virtue is easy. All the vicious are just lazy." But one also doesn't often hear 'liberals' saying the things you attribute to them -- and yet your attributions are often spot on. So I don't think you can seriously insist that I be able to give examples of people explicitly asserting things, unless you intend to hold yourself to the same (unreasonable) standard.

    It seems to me that bombastic preaching that hurls moral blame at people who fail to live up to an ideal is, when it comes from people who themselves fail to live up to that ideal, hypocritical. Whether or not any particular case of preaching has this character may be rather hard to determine, but there's obviously a difference. As a Catholic who grew up around a lot of Protestant fundamentalists, I've sampled a pretty wide variety of styles of moral exhortation, and I think we all know the difference between a homily delivered by a priest who knows that the virtues he preaches are difficult -- and not just because of irrational 'weakness,' but genuinely, cognitively difficult -- and self-righteous exhortation. Anyone who preaches X but fails to practice X consistently will get called a hypocrite by somebody or other, but the self-righteous open themselves up to the charge far more readily than the humble. Sorry if I can't give you a clear set of necessary and sufficient conditions for what makes a given instance of exhortation self-righteous or humble, but you'll forgive me for thinking that you'd be crazy to deny the distinction.

    For the record, I didn't intend to defend the charge that Bill Bennett or anyone else is a hypocrite. I merely meant to offer an explanation for why people feel that way. I think it's actually quite difficult to determine whether a given case of failing to practice what one preaches is hypocritical or not -- certainly we're not in much position to decide that question in the case of people we know only from radio and television appearances.

  8. Though I do admit that one of the reasons I don't listen to Bill Bennett is that he has struck me as self-righteous and having an unrealistic sense of the difficulty of virtue. But I don't really know much about him; thus I said that I didn't want to make it a conversation about Bill Bennett.

  9. Hello Anonymous,

    I'm not asking for specific examples. And I agree that just as there are attitudes and assumptions that plausibly characterize liberals in general, so too are there attitudes and asumptions that plausibly characterize conservatives in general. I just don't think the attitude in question is among them.

    Obviously this depends on what sort of people we take to represent "conservatives in general." I'm taking as my paradigms the sort of people who write for National Review, City Journal, Commentary, American Spectator, and the like, who appear as talking heads on Fox News, who host radio shows, etc. And it does not seem to me that many or even any of these people have expressed the view that living in accordance with traditional moral standards is easy.

    Yes, there are some among them who take a harsher tone than others (Ann Coulter, say, or Michael Savage). But even these people don't say the standards in question are _easy_ to live by, only that they are _good ones_ to live by. They just say it more vehemently. Indeed, I can't think of a single time I've ever heard anyone say the standards in question are easy to live by, so I'm having a hard time seeing what the basis for your complaint is.

    If anything, the trend among contemporary conservatives seems to me to go in the opposite direction, i.e. towards bending over backwards to try to re-assure critics that conservatives are just as touchy-feely, compassionate, and forgiving as liberals. Coulter et al. stand out precisely because they are among the few conservatives to buck this trend.