Two Cheers For Hypocrisy
May 17, 2009 4 Comments
A very common and appealing way of arguing against someone nowadays, it seems, is to show they’re a hypocrite. If someone makes a claim about some principle, and you can show that (in some other respect in their life) they violate that principle, then they’re a hypocrite, and…your work is done. Pat yourself on the back for another argument won.
Let’s try that out. Say I’m a thief. I steal cars for a living. But I tell my 14-year-old son: “It’s not right to steal cars.” Well, but look what I do? I steal cars! Therefore I’m a hypocrite. So I must have been wrong in what I said: it must be okay to steal cars….
Er…wait. That didn’t quite work.
Let’s try another one. Our current President, President Obama, has acknowledged snorting cocaine. Our prior President, President Bush, also almost surely snorted cocaine at some point. So let’s examine the question: is it a good idea to snort cocaine? “I’m a naive young person just starting out in life. I need direction. I’m not sure which way to go. Mr. President: should I snort cocaine? Is that a good way to go? Is that a path to success, Mr. President?” How should the President answer me? Should he say “Yes, because I did, and look where it got me”? That seems like the wrong answer, if only statistically. But what if he says “No, snorting cocaine’s generally not a good idea, please don’t”. Then he’s a hypocrite (because he did it). And (therefore?) he’s wrong. But then he can’t say yes and he can’t say no. There’s no right way for him to answer.
Hmm. Something interesting has happened. By equating “hypocrite” to “wrong”, we find that there’s no right answer to a question of principle or behavior. Could this be the appeal of this method of arguing? Because it makes it impossible to give concrete moral advice?
The key here is that “hypocrite” is not the same thing as “wrong”. More to the point: showing someone’s a hypocrite is not sufficient to show that they’re wrong.
A lot of people nowadays seem to think that it is. It’s an almost universally-beloved method of arguing against someone. Heck, I catch myself doing it sometimes. And there are a zillion and one hacky ‘political’ Hollywood movies or TV-drama plotlines whose entire melodramatic conflict revolves around the Mean Moralist Conservative politician secretly having a mistress or drug habit or other vice, the exposing of which (through some adventure and derring-do from the heroes) somehow magically wins the argument, automatically dethrones the Hypocrite, and makes everything ok. Because Hypocrisy is the absolute worst thing there is. Hypocrisy (or at least, having that hypocrisy exposed) is the only surefire way to be literally excommunicated from civil society.
It’s almost as if people have forgotten how to conduct real arguments: lots of argument approaches are ruled out upfront due to PC, relativism, or similar reasons, so that the only arrow left in anyone’s quiver is ‘well at least we could try to find some hypocrisy somewhere’. The problem is that arrow doesn’t actually cut the way folks think it does. Or at least it shouldn’t. But somehow actually it often does: arguments work only and precisely when they convince, after all, and the ‘hypocrisy’ method seems to convince many nowadays, for whatever reason (mental laziness?). At the same time, the arrow is unreliable. Some charges of ‘hypocrisy’ stick and some don’t. Conservatives for example keep trying to stick, say, Al Gore with the ‘hypocrite’ label because he uses so much energy himself – and they just get swatted away. This is because ‘hypocrite’ is often a squishy, fuzzy enough charge that the listener can pretty much decide for himself whether to pay attention to it.
Except of course in clear-cut moral issues: if a public figure makes speeches decrying adultery, but has an affair, there’s no fuzziness and no avoiding the ‘hypocrite’ label. So this is an unreliable, illogical arrow that doesn’t really cut, but when it works it’s likely to work more often against a moral conservative.
Yes: now we start to understand the appeal of the approach, I think.
Please, if you ever catch me basing an entire argument on someone’s “hypocrisy”, call me on it. In fact let me just come out and say: I’m in favor of hypocrisy, when it’s appropriate. All things equal it’s of course better to change one’s bad behavior, but as (apparently) La Rochefoucauld said:
Hypocrisie est un hommage que la vice rend à la vertu
Or, as I’ve always heard it (not from La Rochefoucauld but from, I think it must have been, George Will), “hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue”.