Don't Believe in Cthulhu
The Golden Rule


Kandinsky_sketch_2 What motivates us to accuse people of hypocrisy? How terrible is this accusation? Should we be attempting to avoid being seen as a hypocrite, or is the fear of hypocrisy a barrier to ethical dialogue?

The notion of hypocrisy is that of espousing one set of ethical beliefs, and then acting in a manner contrary to those beliefs. The more vehemently the individual espouses their ethics, the more forceful the accusation of hypocrisy is likely to be. It is readily apparent, then, that hypocrisy is by nature an accusation that can be levelled against someone, and not some testable proposition. (We shall not be designing a ‘hypocritometer’ any time soon).

Several questions present themselves. Is there necessarily something wrong with hypocrisy? When is it acceptable behaviour to accuse someone of hypocrisy? What benefits, if any, result from our decision to pay attention to hypocrisy?

It may seem strange to suggest that there need not be anything necessarily wrong with hypocrisy. But consider, for instance, the heroin addict warning other people against the danger of heroin addiction. Is it really fair to indict such a person of hypocrisy? Their warning is justified, it is simply that they have been unable to act upon this caution themselves. This can be seen as a case of technical hypocrisy.

This leads us to consider when it is acceptable to accuse someone of hypocrisy, which begs the question: what is the purpose of raising an accusation of hypocrisy? We wish to impugn the character of someone whose behaviour has been inconsistent. But we humans are often inconsistent, and not all inconsistency turns the mind towards the idea of hypocrisy. So what is it that drives such accusations?

I suggest that when people launch verbal attacks against someone on the grounds that they are a hypocrite, the motivation behind this is anger (although we can of course dispassionately make an assertion of hypocrisy, if we wish). Why should this situation provoke anger? This is not an easy question to answer, and emotions do not necessarily lend themselves to this kind of analysis. There may also be issues of contempt involved. Whatever one believes about the relationship between these emotions and this behaviour, it seems apparent that most accusations of hypocrisy are emotionally motivated.

Accusations of hypocrisy therefore seem to be verbal attacks against an individual who has angered us by their inconsistency. This anger seems to be the root of the issue (as technical hypocrisy does not tend to be much of a problem). It may even be that the accusation of hypocrisy is the voicing of our anger, and the hypocritical behaviour is merely the excuse that justifies our outpouring of ire.

In order for a charge of hypocrisy to be raised, there is a necessary prior condition: we must know the ethical position of the individual being thus accused. Usually, our anger is raised because the person in question has been extremely vocal about their ethical system (perhaps even accusing other people of immorality in respect of it), and therefore when we observe them violating what they vociferously claimed as important to them, our esteem for such a person falls. In many cases, the person about whom an accusation of hypocrisy will be raised is already disliked by the accuser – in effect, the situation which demonstrates the inconsistency of the individual is little more than an excuse to voice that dislike.

Consequently, there are only two kinds of people we can accuse of hypocrisy. On the one hand are those people that we know personally, and therefore have daily contact with their behaviour and (perhaps only by implication) their ethics. On the other hand are those people whom we learn about via the media – leaders and celebrities, along with those who achieve fame in the media via their infamy. In these latter cases, it is usually what has been previously said in the media which forms the basis for the accusation of hypocrisy.

Either way, we must have prior knowledge of the person’s ethics to level a charge of hypocrisy. More than this, we must believe that a person’s ethics should not change – otherwise the accusation of hypocrisy is nothing more than the complaint that individual ethical perspectives can shift. (Surely we are allowed to change our minds?)

Seen this way, it seems suspiciously as if accusations of hypocrisy are simply means of expressing our anger towards people who annoy us in certain ways. They may have angered us originally with their ethical claims (perhaps by criticising other people for some perceived moral infraction), or we may simply dislike their behaviour or demeanour. When we perceive a clear inconsistency between their words and actions, we feel justified in levelling the accusation of hypocrisy – but perhaps this is simply a situation in which we feel it is permissible to voice our anger at a person.

Does this mean we should not accuse people of hypocrisy? Not at all. But it should give us some scepticism as to the value of such accusations.

If hypocrisy were some offence we should endeavour to avoid (which was an implication posed by Are You Ethical? as an open issue to explore), the easiest way to avoid it would be not to voice any opinions about ethical matters at all. With our ethics hidden away, charges of hypocrisy become impossible. But surely we want people to discuss their ethics, at least with a view towards exploring the way our societies are organised, and how we wish them to be organised. In this light, the risk of being accused of hypocrisy might discourage people from having an ethical opinion - a situation which is perhaps more deleterious than the hypocrisy itself. 

Furthermore, some accusations of hypocrisy proceed from logical grounds which will not necessarily hold in the belief system of the accused. Consider when someone accuses a vegetarian of hypocrisy because they wear leather shoes. But why should the decision to avoid eating meat necessarily be related to the use of animal by-products? The individual may not eat meat because of a religious conviction which has no stand on by-products of animal slaughter. Or, as I do, the individual may take the stance that they do not want to be the cause of the death of an animal, but given that this happens anyway, we should at least use all the parts of the animal thus killed, out of respect for the animal (a view held by many hunting tribes). Not all charges of hypocrisy are as well grounded as we like to believe.

The real power of the accusation of hypocrisy is political. Even if calling someone a hypocrite merely voices our anger, in political terms negative emotions such as anger are extremely costly. If your actions cause people to react angrily, you lose your support, and support is everything in the political arena, as the (democratic) politician’s goal is to maintain their power and status through the support of the people. It is perhaps solely the politician (and by extension the celebrity – the modern analogue to aristocracy) who must fear charges of hypocrisy. 

It’s important to give voice to anger as otherwise we dwell upon it, allowing it to poison us inside, and people should feel free to express their anger through accusations of hypocrisy. But we should not be afraid of such accusations, and they do not necessarily hold much importance. The ethical views we hold and the actions we take are related, but imperfectly – we are, after all, only human. We are free to change our minds, and our ethics, and we are free to state a certain view while acting in an apparently contradictory fashion; the cost of doing so may simply be the willingness to listen to criticism when we do.

The opening image is Kandinsky's Sketch 2 for "Composition VII".


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I wrote about hypocrisy a few months back here.


I think I have two points, firstly, hypocrisy is a necessary tool. As you know, my thinking often tends to boil down to my pile of children. It seems to me that every parent I have had any experience with is hypocritical. In teaching children ethics, it is often necessary to keep things basic without concern for the later complexities of adult life. In doing so, the rules that provide children with the necessary boundaries are rarely those practiced by their parents. Is this hypocrisy? I suggest that children need basic rules that they can explore and expand on their own or within the religious and cultural backdrops in which they find themselves as they mature.

Secondly, I would like to think that I am hypocritical. I don’t know enough to know whether I am right about anything. It would seem unwise of me to allow my ethical perspective to remain more concrete than my philosophical and/or religious beliefs. As you say, I think hypocrisy is just a part of the game. The problem is that some systems of ethics have hypocrisy built into them (thou shalt not be hypocritical? ) , which surely is inevitably going to lead to hypocrisy.

Going now.

Yehuda: an interesting position on the issue! You appear to be pushing the notion of technical hypocrisy further than I did, and concluding that we should separate ideals from individuals (which I find laudable). Trouble with this is, as humans, we just tend to get focussed on the people more often as not. :)

Rob: you have more experience than me with children, and I imagine that my high-minded ideals are not suitable for advising parents! ;) Your position here also supports Yehuda - that it is okay to espouse an ethical ideal and not uphold it personally. I broadly agree, but I placed less emphasis on this issue in this particular piece.

I'm not certain that some system of ethics have hypocrisy built into them, though - I'd like a firmer example so I can chew on this idea...

Best wishes!

I think part of the problem with hypocrisy is that people sometimes persecute others on the basis of their beliefs, causing actual harm (albeit to varying degrees). When it transpires that the accuser is no different from the accused, it causes indignation.

Paddy: I think you're absolutely right. This issue of persecution is something we're going to have to take a closer look at, I think. Thanks for the comment!

Hypocrisy covers a range of meanings, and the use of the accusation of Hypocrisy is often also hypocritical.

I think when people are honestly offended by hypocrisy (and not when they make the accusation as a political tool), they mean this specific case:

- When a person claims a certain viewpoint AS A SMOKESCREEN or self-promotion, and then deliberately acts contrary to that viewpoint. (or at least acts in a way that ignores that viewpoint.)

So the "honest" version of the accusation of hypocrisy is less about the actions failing to meet the stated standards, and more about using image or statement dishonestly.

Thats the impression I get when I try to sift through the many different things lumped under the word "hypocrisy".

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