The Shallowness of Hypocrisy


Hypocrisy is a simple and popular vice. If you endorse a standard by which a certain choice is wrong, and you make that choice, then you are a hypocrite. You’ve done wrong by even your own standards. In particular, this vice seems to serve the role of giving a measure of character that can be applied between people who have different basic values. Superficially it seems like it is a valuable vice to look for among people who disagree. In a pluralistic society, people believe in very different standards of ethics and politics, and most do not consider this undesirable within certain broad bounds. But if people can believe all sorts of different things are right or wrong, then we cannot easily criticize people for failing to live up to any specific standard of ethics without demanding insincerity. The only thing we can say is that, if someone believes they ought to do something, then they are in the wrong for not doing it.

This will be one of my more virtue-ethicsy posts, so it is worth keeping in mind as background context that I am not a virtue ethicist. These thoughts will serve in part as a way for me to think through the implications of virtue and vice moral heuristics, and in part to serve a certain academic interest in what common sense notions of virtue imply.

I believe there are some key problems with hypocrisy as a vice, and in particular as a common language of those who disagree. A first approach would be to look at the claim that “if someone believes they ought to do something, then they are wrong for not doing it”. This is perfectly true, but the most obvious way that it is true is that it means that someone is either wrong in the action they are taking, wrong in the belief they hold, or both. These are not the only considerations here — under many conceptions of morality there is some disvalue in doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. This is an intuitive factor, but I believe in much heated discourse, as well as in case by case intuitions, people often aren’t willing to go this far. That this divide between the hypocrite who is wrong because they do the wrong thing, and the hypocrite who is wrong because they believe the wrong thing, is a powerful force in the evaluation of those we disagree with.

Let’s say that I were to learn that a prominent member of the Westboro Baptist Church was engaged in an affair with someone of their own sex. My intuitive reaction would be that this person is a hypocrite. Likewise, if I found out that a prominent leftist businessperson was trying to break up a union their employees were forming, I would think of them as a hypocrite. But if I dig a little deeper, I do not view these two people the same way. My opinion of the member of the Westboro Baptist Church is not really lower because they are engaged in a same-sex relationship, nor would I want them to stop engaging in one. I would want, indeed not dramatically more or less than before, for them to merely stop being homophobic. The businessperson on the other hand, I would decidedly prefer stop trying to break up the union, and I would have little desire to see them explicitly move to the right instead. My reaction to the two cases is not that I want the person to stop being a hypocrite, but to stop the part of their hypocrisy I disagree with, and to continue the side I am fine with.

A parallel example can be seen in how we evaluate historical figures with different values from us. Many people are willing to forgive well-known homophobes from the past, like Kant or Montesquieu, as being consistent with values of the time they believed in, and yet have no such temptation to despise the hypocrites of the time who believed homosexuality to be a sin, and yet engaged in same-sex relationships. Another example I have seen ethicists use along these lines is of Huckleberry Finn 1, who helped an escaped slave despite believing it was wrong to do so. I don’t feel the slightest sympathy for the view that Huckleberry Finn was wrong to do this, just to the view that I hope he changes his mind about slavery.

I think if you try to control for this a bit there is at least a weak intuition that hypocrisy is wrong in itself, for instance if you run into a hypocrite on a matter you have no opinion on, I think most would prefer that the hypocrite bring their values and actions in line one way or another. Still, even if you value hypocrisy as a vice in a consistent way, I believe there is a more intractable problem with valuing it, which is personally salient and the reason I think about these issues as much as I do. Hypocrisy is not actually a worldview-neutral vice. It penalizes demanding moral theories more than undemanding ones.

This is not just in the sense of penalizing theories which ask you to do more, but also theories that ask you to do more things which you would not otherwise want to do. A form of utilitarianism that asks you to donate 80% of your lifetime earnings to a fund for researching unlikely extinction risks doesn’t stand a chance against a form of virtue ethics that asks you to love your children and not kill or rob people who don’t deserve it (even if it demands that you love your children a whole lot). This is both in the sense that sincere people of each view will have to put in vastly different amounts of moral effort to be viewed as comparably un-hypocritical, and in the sense that, in a world where it is much harder to evaluate someone’s sincerity than their actions, it creates an incentive for people to endorse easy and pleasant moral theories all else equal.

I think this problem with judging sincerity is influential enough that there often isn’t even an attempt to hide this motive. It is accepted as legitimate in the same way that “democracies are only responsible to help their own citizens” is accepted. I have seen reasoning of this sort used even as a formal moral argument along the lines of “why should we follow this theory if even you don’t”.

Being a hypocrite, like many things in moral philosophy, can be appealed to as a bullet to bite, but it is unique among bullets in that one can avoid biting it either by putting in more work, or by changing theories. It is not a bullet to bite because of intuitively repugnant implications, but just because of the character limitations of those who believe a theory. I am a hypocrite. I bite that bullet, because I will not (not cannot) put in the work necessary to become a non-hypocrite, and I sincerely believe there is a very strong case for demanding theories compared to less demanding ones. I would rather throw away the idea of hypocrisy as a vice in itself than throw away a theory I otherwise sincerely believe because of what amounts to personal inadequacy. I feel this doubly when I realize that if I accepted another theory, I would not suddenly have the motivation to put more effort into fulfilling it, I would just be asked to put less in, and so my limitations would not show.

One objection is that people actually aren’t that dishonest most of the time about their most basic values, and would roughly follow their values regardless of incentives like accusations of hypocrisy. I think the problem with this is that, when it comes to something like demandingness, theories can differ in very fine-grained ways. Michael Schur and Alex O’Connor have both gone on record stating that they find Peter Singer’s conclusions about charity too demanding, but still find his reasoning compelling enough to want to do something in the direction he advocates. To give some non-trivial amount to good causes.

Essentially, they believe in logic very similar to Singer’s, but with the modification that they endorse a much less demanding standard. It seems to me that this is functionally identical to fully endorsing Singer’s logic on this matter, as I do, and then being a moderate hypocrite in fulfilling it. I am not saying that either Schur or O’Connor are insincere in this, but the vice of “hypocrisy” still ensures that they will always get more credit for the same actions as me, while responding to very similar values. Maybe this is not the end of the world, I could just switch to their values and get free moral extra credit, but it seems to also imply that they can always get the same credit for doing even less. Hypocrisy gives out free points for beliefs it doesn’t give persuasive reasons in favor of, but it also always expects less of people who can be moved to slightly alter their moral values based on comfort.

Throwing out the idea of hypocrisy as a way to judge character would not be easy, and perhaps it would not even be desirable, but if it is so flawed, it seems worthwhile to think through possible alternatives that could be worth leaning on a little more when we might otherwise lean on hypocrisy. What I have found however is that, as with free speech, most of these alternatives are not fantastic, although I’m not sure I would go as far as to say that they are as bad as hypocrisy or that we shouldn’t lean on them at all.

Believing “The Right Thing”

This pretty handily solves these problems. It for instance dispenses with our inconsistent intuitions towards hypocrites we agree with versus disagree with, in the bluntest way possible. It also gets rid of the incentive to adopt less demanding ethical systems by directly incentivizing a certain “right” ethical system. From here one could directly judge the actions of people relative to this “right” standard, on the assumption that doing the wrong thing is a character flaw either because it is inconsistent with the right view, or because it is consistent but with a view that someone is a bad person for endorsing. The problem with this system is quite straight-forward: people disagree 2.

This is evidence that fundamental values may be a difficult question. A version of this that works would require some theory of which types of mistakes are “understandable” versus only possible as the result of extreme ignorance or malice, and the degrees of this. At extremes judging someone’s character directly from their beliefs can be done, but I would expect that a reasonable version of this lens will be so narrow that it will still be an unsatisfying standard to judge character based on. Even if this were not true and character could be judged quite effectively based on peoples' beliefs, the fact that so many people disagree so much ensures the result would be most people judging most other people as bad. Insofar as part of the purpose of the vice of “hypocrisy” is to give a way of judging character that works across beliefs in a pluralistic society, this is a very poor replacement for it, because it is so toxic to a pluralistic society.

A more fundamental problem may be this: if you think a belief is the best one to hold, then it is the one you do hold. This means a standard for judging virtue in a society with a wide range of virtues which attaches this virtue to beliefs will inherently put the judge at the top of the world. With classic virtues like courage or compassion, most people can think of very many people they think are more virtuous than them (in theory if not practice). You cannot believe that other people hold more virtuous beliefs than you do unless you believe that a belief’s virtue does not correspond to its truth (or you deceive yourself about your own beliefs).

If you really believe, in a society full of people who disagree with you, that disagreement with you tracks very closely with vice, then you isolate yourself as the one good person in the world. If you on the other hand believe that most people are about as virtuous as you based on their beliefs, for instance you agree that differences in belief provide evidence that the truth is difficult to find, or if nearly everyone agrees with you, then this standard of judgment simply isn’t very useful.

Moral Effort

This possibility most directly addresses the concern that “hypocrisy” incentivizes people to adopt less demanding moral theories. Like hypocrisy, we could use this to measure how well someone is doing by their own theory. The difference is a judgment of moral effort would judge people only by how much effort they put into ethics, with no reference to how much effort their theory asks them to put in. I like this alteration much more than the previous one, and think it should definitely be taken into account, but it has some problems as well.

The obvious one is the reverse of the problem with hypocrisy. A sincere utilitarian will put in much more effort than a sincere virtue ethicist who thinks they should just love their family and not do anything too horrible. Even if you count supererogatory actions into moral effort (your average moral theory that has a “realm of the permissible” will also have some extra credit actions that you are a better person for doing, but not a bad person for failing to do), you face a couple of remaining problems.

One is that someone who thinks they are not fulfilling their full moral duties by failing to do something will be motivated to do more of it than someone who merely thinks doing more is extra credit. Perhaps a perfect person with each moral view will max out their moral duties (at which point a problem comes from the different heights each theory draws for this maximum, unless each theory has an unbounded good that can be fulfilled only by maxing out effort), but you can’t judge how imperfect a moral agent someone is purely by referring to the effort they put in with no reference to how important they consider this effort.

An additional problem is that there are some moral views (and aside from formal moral views, common moral intuitions) that someone putting in too much moral effort is living a somehow bad, inhuman sort of life, as I have previously mentioned in reference to the demandingness objection to utilitarianism. When it comes to casual moral agents, this isn’t a problem, but when judging people with the potential to get unusually high moral effort marks, it becomes extremely noticeable. To draw on a previously used example from the aforementioned demandingness objection post, is the character Doug from “The Good Place” an exceptionally good person, or something pitiable and uncanny? There at least seems to be some intuition in favor of the later.

This suggests that there are levels of high moral character entirely unavailable to certain theories. Either we view the best subscribers to less demanding theories as inherently deficient, or we max out our judgment of moral effort at the lowest expectations of any theory. This latter possibility seems inappropriate as well, and would lead to a very similar problem to hypocrisy (incentivizing the endorsement of especially lenient theories of good). I’m not sure whether there’s some ideal, happy medium. I’m not a virtue ethicist, and my answer will always be that it is whatever standard of “good person” incentivizes the best outcomes. At least this version seems to contain fewer incentives for moral deceit. Until the point where less demanding theories say that you are doing wrong by putting in more moral effort, you gain nothing by switching theories under this scheme (and someone willing to put in the moral effort to reach this level is more likely to be sincere than devious).

Regardless, even this small move from hypocrisy to moral effort has the additional problem that “effort” is much harder to judge than just actions versus endorsed beliefs. This is true both practically and philosophically, for instance how much should we try to adjust for involuntary dispositions? Should laziness be counted as such a disposition? How many such dispositions can we control for before we have controlled for a whole person? We have to draw lines somewhere in practice to create any incentives, but in other areas we try to take a closer look at effort, like political fights over criminal and economic justice, different conceptions of how to fairly judge effort have already shown themselves to be contentious and challenging. 3

Sincerity

Trying to determine exactly what hypocrisy is a proxy for as far as character judgments go is not as straightforward as it at first appears. It seems to me that a version of this that is sensitive to significant ideological differences could not just say that someone is engaging in a vice by having beliefs that do not line up with their actions. One more plausible and tempting version is along the lines of: we want people to sincerely believe the beliefs they endorse. We also want people to be willing to put a good deal of their available willpower towards this belief. We also want the amount they actually put aside for this moral view to be based on the demands of the theory itself.

I am not convinced that even this is ideologically neutral enough given how broadly people are willing to apply “hypocrisy” across different theories. As I have mentioned, there are theories of virtue by which someone goes beyond being a good person once they are willing to apply too much of their moral will to a theory. If a person could act consistently with a very very demanding theory, some less demanding theories would judge this as a vice of its own.

This is maybe a special case of the problem I mentioned in the beginning, that as a matter of fact we do not simply want people to follow their views consistently if they have bad views. Huckleberry Finn is virtuous not despite being unable to follow his moral conscience, but because of the direction that he fails to follow it in. The fact that his disposition is too good to be consistent with terrible ideas. From this I conclude that the most robust aspect of hypocrisy that remains, as a cross-value character judgment, is sincerity.

We actually have pretty inconsistent intuitions about how we want values to relate to actions, but we have the belief that someone who is truly sincere in their beliefs must have some tendency to follow these beliefs. This is something we respect even in ideological enemies. Sometimes we find the following of these values regrettable, but it is understandable.

Judging sincerity, it seems to me, will always be better than judging hypocrisy. The trouble is it is far far harder. You don’t even need to know someone personally to see an inconsistency between their beliefs and their actions, but even if you know someone personally, it might take a long time to get a good impression of their sincerity. Even if you believe you have a good idea, people who are good at, and not horribly distressed by, putting on an act, can keep large parts of their personalities hidden from those close to them for long periods. Trust is genuinely hard, and insofar as it is necessary for relationships, requires a certain amount of risk. People are sometimes utterly betrayed by those close to them, it sucks. Furthermore, the relationships necessary to build this type of trust can only be entered with a limited number of people. Also, people rarely surround themselves with friends they strongly disagree with, so it is even harder as a way to build standards of judgment across ideological difference.

Judging sincerity is more true to what actually matters in these discussions than judging hypocrisy, but it is not a replacement. When it comes to public figures for instance, most people will rely on looking for easy and visible things like hypocrisy, and this may be for the best where it can’t be easily replaced by something else. That said, it is worth keeping in mind not to hold hypocrisy up on a pedestal as a genuinely valid argument/judgment in itself, especially when it is possible to get a more nuanced understanding of the specific situation.


  1. I have not read the book, but this agrees with the plot summaries I’ve read as well. ↩︎

  2. I have discussed other problems with tying virtue to belief in an earlier post. ↩︎

  3. Ed. Note: This also applies to mental and personality disorders, and whether to criminally punish people whose actions were at least partially involuntary. ↩︎



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