I have started attending some of the talks organised by The Forum for European Philosophy, and last Tuesday attended a panel on “Hypocrisy”.  If I’m honest, hypocrisy isn’t a topic I had given too much thought to, but it does seem to be a criticism that is increasingly made of those in leadership, so it is worth thinking about.

Talking to a handful of my friends shows that very few people have a working definition of hypocrisy, which in itself is interesting.  Dictionaries tend to define it along the lines of: “The practice of claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case”, but it is worth noting that in practice people tend to use it more broadly – for example not needing the individual to actually claim or even promote the higher standards.  

Based of the dictionary definitions, hypocrisy has two components:

  • the claim to have higher moral standards, or at least the promotion of particular standards
  • and the act which betrays those standards.  

Some people, tend to focus on the two separate components: criticising the moral arrogance, and the bad actions.  If I’m honest, this is my natural inclination – and the charge of hypocrisy itself is downplayed.  In particular, if someone claimed a standard that I didn’t agree with, and then didn’t follow it, I wouldn’t want them to change their behaviour to be in line with their ‘bad’ standard.

But enough others emphasise the combination that makes up hypocrisy, that it is important to try and understand this.  

I can think of a number of fundamental reasons to dislike hypocrisy (beyond our dislike of the separate components):

  • When practiced by leaders, hypocrisy often indicates the individual can’t be trusted and is undeserving of their position.
  • More generally, hypocrisy is a form of deception and cheating.  These undermine a functioning moral order.  By tolerating it, we ourselves weaken that system (and conversely, by condemning, it we are promoting that system).

I suspect that these reasons to condemn hypocrisy are deeply ingrained, and have arisen through evolution, along with our aversion to cheating (see for example Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind).  [One of my favourite experiments shows that in games, people will not only incur a cost to punish cheaters, but they will incur a cost to punish those that don’t themselves punish cheaters!]

I suspect there are some more pragmatic reasons that people care about hypocrisy (some a result of people’s innate aversion to it):

  • We may not like someone’s actions, but may feel unable to insist on them acting by our standards.  It does feel fairer to criticise them if they themselves have argued against for these standards.
  • Similarly, if someone is arguing for standards that we consider inappropriate, we can undermine them by highlighting that they don’t follow them.
  • Given the impossibility of anyone being entirely consistent, and the public’s deeply ingrained dislike of hypocrisy, it makes an easy accusation for leaders we dislike

While I do value a generally functioning moral system that allows us to cooperate within our society, and feel it is appropriate to condemn forms of cheating (including hypocrisy), this can be taken too far, particularly in today’s divisive political climate.  When criticising a leader we already dislike for some inconsistency, I do feel we would be wise to consider whether we’d feel so critical if a leader we liked acted similarly (or indeed do we share similar faults).  

And where possible, I believe we would be better to focus our attention on the inappropriate standard or the action.  And if neither of these are that bad, there is probably a better place to direct our anger.

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