Hypocrisy?

People tend to think of the person who fails to live up to their own conception of what we are morally required to do as a hypocrite. On this view, if one thinks, and publicly says, that something is morally required but then fails to do that thing, one is a hypocrite. But is such a person necessarily a hypocrite? I am tempted to say no. Suppose this person also thinks, and publicly proclaims, that quite generally people lack good reason to do as morality requires in such situations. Then this person is living as they recommend to others to live. Thus I think they are not a hypocrite. I wonder if others agree? Is hypocrisy a matter of failing to live up to the moral ideals one thinks are required of others or it is a matter of failing to live up to the ideals one thinks others ought to live up to, whether they are moral ideals or not?

25 Replies to “Hypocrisy?

  1. I agree with you David. If one rejects moral rationalism then one can act against what they think they have most moral reason to do without necessarily being a hypocrite. They would only be a hypocrite if they act against what they think they have most reason, all things considered, to do.

    I thought this would be the consensus, but perhaps not. I’m interested to see what others think.

  2. There may be some equivocation going on here. The case says, “conception of what we are *morally required* to do.” This could mean: (A) thinks *morality demands* you do something, or (B) thinks *you are obligated* to do something, and that obligation is of the moral kind.
    To illustrate the distinction: I think one is *Catholic-ally required* to give something up for lent. By this I mean, (A) Catholicism demands this. But I do NOT believe that *you are obligated* to give something up for Lent because I do not believe that the demands of Catholicism are obligatory for you.
    I think the default interpretation of “someone who thinks one is *morally required* to do something” is (B) thinks *you are obligated* to do something, and that obligation is moral. So when reading the case, I first consider B to be the issue at hand. Then I encounter the supposition that the person thinks “people lack good reason to do as morality requires.” This yields an apparent tension. However, if the person is coherent, the supposition entails that the person’s initial statement really meant merely (A) *morality demands* you do something. However, I’m cognitively unlikely to go back and take B off the table. That is, as I read the example, I put B on the table, then I put A on the table, and then I say “Hmm.” What I should have done is upon reading the supposition, take B off the table, and the tension goes away. That is, the person is no more a hypocrite for (1) thinking (A) *morality demands* you do something, and not doing it, than I am for thinking that Catholicism demands you do something and my not doing it.

  3. Great, I agree this can happen. I take you to be distinguishing the claim that 1) I am obligated to X and that is a moral obligation from 2) according to morality I am required to X. 1 implies that the person thinks they all things considered ought whereas 2 perhaps does not. You are saying that my key phrases could be interpreted either way. That may well be so. And so interpreted it would be, even according to me, correct to say that the person is hypocritical for failing to do what they themselves agree they all things considered ought to do. (Some caveats will be need to be made here–some weakness of will seems not hypocritical, for example, but I will press on.) So I am interested in whether, now that you have distinguished the two readings, people think it is clearly not hypocritical if we give understand the target as saying 2 rather than 1.

  4. While I’m aware that it’s a far from niche position, I have always found the kind of outlook you describe to be puzzling.

    You describe a person who thinks that they morally ought to X, but also that they ‘lack good reason’ to do what they morally ought to do. Call this person S.

    My question is this: When S says that she morally ought to X, does she mean that she has good reason to do it, or something else?

    One option (which I take it is not the one you have in mind) is that she merely has good reason to do it. Perhaps X is something that most of us consider supererogatory, such as giving all our money to charity. There seems nothing hypocritical in both saying ‘It would be a good thing if people gave more money to charity’, and not doing so yourself. And that lack of hypocrisy doesn’t require that this individual hold any kind of view about moral reasons.

    On the other hand, maybe ‘morally ought’ implies (as it does to me) that one has an obligation to do X. I assume that this is what you mean when you say that this act is morally required.

    If someone claims that they have a moral obligation to do X, but that they have sufficiently good reasons not to do X, I am not sure how we can say that X is morally required. Of course one might say that one has a ‘prima facie obligation’ to X, but that this is undermined by (say) the person costs of doing so. But then aren’t you saying that you don’t really have an obligation, because you are permissibly excused from doing X by the personal costs/benefits?

    There thus seems (to me at least) to be something incoherent about the idea that I am obligated to X, but also that I may non-hypocritically not do it because of reasons from other ‘spheres’. If you think your non-moral reasons outweigh your moral reasons, then you don’t really think you have a moral obligation.

    I can see that there is another way of thinking about this: that ‘moral reasons’ are in some sense incommensurable with ‘pragmatic reasons’, so that one really can have a moral obligation to do something, but an equally strong yet incommensurable practical reason not to, and thereby be both ‘morally obligated’ but not ‘required’. That way of thinking makes no sense to me. Maybe someone can explain it.

  5. What do you mean by talking about what morality “requires”? On one common way of thinking of what this means, morality “requires” of us whatever must be true of us if we are to avoid moral wrongness — where moral wrongness is what, in the absence of any adequate excuse, makes for blameworthiness.

    In this sense, not every moral reason for action grounds a moral requirement: some moral reasons are outweighed or overridden by countervailing reasons; and other moral reasons — though not outweighed by countervailing reasons — at least fail to outweigh all countervailing reasons (and so, e.g., explain why the act that they count in favour of is supererogatory rather than morally required).

    I think it’s plausibly a conceptual truth that the line between the moral reasons that ground moral requirements and those that do not (e.g. the supererogatory considerations) coincides with the line between the moral reasons that are all-things-considered overriding or conclusive and those that are not. (At all events, if this isn’t where the line falls, I’d like to hear more about how else the distinction is to be drawn.)

    But if this is a conceptual truth, then anyone who believes “that quite generally people lack good reason to do as morality requires in such situations” is presumably believing something incompatible with this conceptual truth. Such a person may not be a hypocrite, but they seem to be conceptually confused and so irrational.

    An amoralist might avoid such conceptual confusion by holding that there are no moral requirements at all, on the grounds that there are no moral reasons for action — or at least no moral reasons that count as overriding or conclusive. But that would be different kind of amoralist from the one that you are considering here.

  6. Damn, I’ve taken so long writing my comment that Mark and David managed to have an exchange pretty much covering it!

  7. Ben,

    Good, I see what you are saying. Perhaps it will be helpful to think of Foot’s example of something that might be required by the lights of etiquette. We might say that etiquette requires it, but that there is no good reason to do it. Etiquette’s point of view, as it were, need not necessarily provide us with reasons to do something. I endorse a theory of practical reasons according to which that can be true of moral requirements as well. This will be rare, I think, but still possible. But we don’t really need it to be possible. We just need it to be possible to sincerely think. Our target agent sincerely thinks that what morality requires need not necessarily give her any reasons whatsoever. Or she might think that what morality requires can be outweighed on the scale of what it makes most sense to do overall. Some, perhaps Ralph who posted just after you, think this incoherent. Call the view that necessarily one has most reason to do whatever morality requires of one “moral rationalism”. A weaker view, call it weak moral rationalism, would say that necessarily whatever morality requires of one is something one has significant reason to do. I myself reject moral rationalism. But again, all I really need here is that one can sincerely think moral rationalism false.

  8. Interesting. At first thought, I’m not convinced that rejecting moral rationalism is sufficient to avoid hypocrisy (so I doubt your ‘Thus’, Dave).

    One can intellectually reject moral rationalism, judge it false, and even assert that view in public and still have dispositions that tell against how fully one has left the relevant part of the morality system behind. For example, one can reject rationalism and assert its falsehood but still have broad dispositions to feel indignation and guilt. It seems to me that one can also sincerely assert the falsehood of rationalism but still be disposed to blame those who fail to act morally (some would question whether you fully believe but that seems like another matter). In any case, the general idea is that we can reject rationalism and still have dispositions that conflict with one’s calm, considered judgments and those dispositions can shape one’s practical agency, silence considerations, lead one to assert things, and so on.

    Imagine that you suffer from the relevant personality “disorder”. Fuming with indignation in the middle of an argument with your spouse you assert “You wronged me when you cheated on me”. Later on, you calm down and admit to a friend that you think your spouse had sufficient reason to cheat; in fact, you think the same is true of you and you tell your friend that you are off to meet a lover you have had for years! If your partner finds out you cheated all this time she might well think that you are a hypocrite for accosting her while you were feeling indignant. My sense is that this charge hits the mark.

    If so, we don’t avoid hypocrisy just by accepting and asserting moral anti-rationalism. Perhaps we must internalize that rejection more robustly to get off the hook?

    And perhaps hypocrisy is a matter of failing to live up to the ideals to which one holds others (rather than failing to live up to the ideals one thinks others ought to instantiate)?

  9. Ralph,

    Good, I agree that blame complicates things here. I would put the complication slightly differently from you. Let me know if I have nonetheless captured your point. Broadly, Darwall and Portmore think that blaming someone makes no sense when I think the agent had most reason to do what she did. That is plausible, I allow. But if that is so, and I agree that a person lacks sufficient reason to do what morality requires of them, then I cannot (coherently) blame them. But, you add, blame is conceptually connected to acting wrongly without excuse. If so, then we can only get the features so far on the table if we add that one necessarily has most reason to not act wrongly. I do not yet have an argument against that thought—I tried to come up with one and failed. I did manage to show to my own satisfaction that Bernard Williams’s proleptic mechanism is a quite poor response to that puzzle. All I can say at this point is that while the above connections that generate the puzzle seem to me tempting, they do not seem so powerful that they should override otherwise quite tempting pictures of what grounds reasons.

  10. Brad,

    Good, I don’t think I am invested in resisting anything you said. But as I read what you said, there is room for agents that lack the kind of “Crime and Punishment” psychology you outline. That is, there can be, I do not hear you as denying, more unified agents who deny moral rationalism and who walk that walk too. Those agents, I hear you allowing, would not be hypocrites to fail to do what they think morality requires of them. But I agree the more conflicted agents are more complicated, and likely more psychologically plausible, and it is less clear what to say about them.

  11. [reposted from FB] Hi David, I don’t think hypocrisy requires failing to live up to one’s own publicly stated standards. I might live up to my own standards, but still be a hypocrite. Suppose what I do is avoid putting myself in a position where I know I’ll will not live up to my own standard. Suppose I state publicly that no one should take longer than 2 weeks to referee a paper. Now suppose I never accept invitations to referee because I know that I won’t finish in two weeks. Ok, I live up to my standard, but I’m still a hypocrite. On the other hand, I don’t think failing to live up to your own standards (in ordinary everyday circumstances—e.g. I’m not unable to live up to them for medical reasons, etc.) entails that I am a hypocrite. Lots of Christians know that they won’t live up to their calling. They aim to do so, but it is really hard to do. They also publicly claim that their standards apply to all. But when they fail to live up to them, I don’t think that’s a case of being hypocritical.

  12. Dave,

    Right. I am granting that and just pushing for a more relational and emotional account of hypocrisy (or at least for a bunch of cases that fit that bill). But I agree about the wholehearted anti-rationalist.

    I suppose that asserting “You wronged me” implies that you deserve blame, so if one asserts that and is an anti-rationalist, the assertion might provide good grounds for thinking one is a hypocrite (if one has done likewise). But that doesn’t make you one! This also suggests that anti-rationalists who go around making moral claims in cases like the one you mention are failing to respect conversational norms or something like that.

  13. Mike,

    One thing your comment brings out that I quite agree with is that the easy way to avoid hypocrisy is to have low standards for what people ought to do. People with high standards will have a harder time living up to those standards, but that is not a good reason to lower one’s standards.

    I am not yet sure I agree with you about the refereeing case. One might add to your presentation of the case that the agent thinks one also has a duty to sometimes referee. Then the hypocrisy is more directly visible. If instead the person thinks that one has no duty to referee, but if one does take on the task, then one must do it within two weeks, then I myself do not feel any temptation to call the person a hypocrite for failing to referee.

  14. Brad,

    Right, saying “you wronged me” might bring with it a cancelable suggestion that I blame you or that I think you acted as you did not have most reason to act.

  15. Whatever happened to good old weakness of will? [See, for example, Tobias Hoffmann (ed.), Weakness of Will from Plato to the Present.] In any case, I think hypocrisy involves a *pretence*, not a *failure* as such. In fact, I believe the Greek origin of the word is ‘pretend’ or ‘to play a part’. The OED defines it as “The assuming of a false appearance of virtue or goodness, with dissimulation of real character or inclinations, esp. in respect of religious life or beliefs; hence in general sense, dissimulation, pretence, sham” That I don’t live up to what I sincerely claim to be the best thing to do all things considered or as of overriding moral importance [something R. M. Hare denied was conceptually possible!] doesn’t necessarily make me a hypocrite, but often just *weak*. I’m a hypocrite, however, whenever I pretend to live up to some moral demand but do not or when I denounce people who do x when I knowingly and willing do x myself [E.g., “Trump is vicious for taking advantage of tax loopholes” — when I do so myself]. I’m sure there are other kinds of cases. Just as there are religious hypocrites, there are moral hypocrites.

  16. David,

    Yes, you have nicely articulated one way of capturing my point. I.e. the following conceptual connections all seem plausible to me:

    1. Violating moral requirements –> acting (or thinking) morally wrongly
    2. Acting (thinking) morally wrongly –> being blameworthy (absent an excuse)
    3. Being blameworthy (absent an excuse) –> having most reason to act otherwise

    These three connections entail:

    4. Violating moral requirements –> having most reason to act otherwise

    I also tried to support these three connections (1)-(3), in the following way. First, I pointed out that there are some moral considerations — e.g. supererogatory considerations — that we are not morally required to comply with. So, we need some account of the difference between moral requirements and these non-requiring moral considerations. But I suggested that the most plausible account of this difference will be one that validates (1)-(3).

    My best guess is that you’d be tempted to reject or restrict connection (3). Am I right about that?

  17. Hans,

    I certainly want to make room for weakness of will. And for it not being hypocrisy. So that will be another way one can fail to live up to one’s views about what others ought to do without being a hypocrite. Presumably one might even scold others for failing to X yet out of weakness of will fail to X still without being a hypocrite. I myself do not feel the temptation to say that just because one is being deceptive, say using the Ring of Gyges to hide one’s immoral behavior, that makes one a hypocrite. As Jonathan Ichikawa wrote on my facebook post, paradigmatic hypocrisy involves a relationship between how one criticizes others and how one behaves oneself. The person who hides their immorality but does not criticize others does not feel to me to be a paradigmatic hypocrite.

  18. Ralph,

    I assume that in your 3. “Being blameworthy (absent an excuse) –> having most reason to act otherwise,” blameworthy is understood in a specifically moral way. If so, then to get to where I want to be I will certainly have to resist that claim. The other two claims seem like they are within the moral domain, rather than moving from the moral to a claim about reasons, and so I don’t see any need to resist them. So I guess you are right that I would try to make resisting 3 more plausible somehow. I don’t mean to say that I currently have an argument that does so, however.

  19. A common case of hypocrisy is as Jonathan Ichikawa says: how one criticizes others and how one behaves oneself. But I myself think that the paradigmatic case is a certain kind of presentation of oneself to the world. In particular, knowingly and intentionally *pretending* to other that I hold certain views on important matters when in fact I knowingly, intentionally, and *willingly* deny them in thought and action. So I don’t think it needs to involve criticism of others (though it often does).

    There is an arresting example in the Old Testament that relates to hypocrisy, but isn’t …. quite!

    King David has committed adultery and stolen a poor man’s wife. Nathan tells David a story about a rich man with many sheep who mercilessly took the only pet lamb of a poor man and slaughtered it for his dinner guests. When David’s anger flared at the rich man in the story, Nathan sprung the trap by pointing his finger in David’s face and saying boldly, “You are the man!” If *after* recognizing the accusation as just David were to continue to *think* his stealing a poor man’s wife was morally OK, would he then be a hypocrite? I’m inclined to think not, provided he doesn’t pretend to the world that he isn’t violating a deep moral norm. Of course, his ‘double think’ would be worthy of blame: he should be clever enough to figure out that the charge is just!

  20. Here’s my favourite case which I believe is originally from Marcia Baron (and it doesn’t require giving up the thought that moral requirements are reason-providing):

    Ann’s child has a life-threatening illness. The child can be saved with an operation but at the hospital there is a queue of children in a similar condition. The queue is operated on first come first served bases when other things are equal and it is so long that Ann’s child is likely not to be able to have the operation in time. Ann, however, works at the hospital and so she has an opportunity of putting their child’s folder at the front of the operation queue without anyone noticing.

    In this case, the following seem to be the case (at least for me):

    1. Ann is morally required not to put her child in the front of the queue and it would be wrong for her to do so. This is at least in part because she could not justify doing so to the other parents on grounds they could be expected to accept. Ann would also be blameworthy for doing so – it would be appropriate for the other parents to blame her (so, Ralph’s entailments 1 and 2 seem ok here).

    2. Ann has most reason to put her child in front of the queue and this is what she ought to do all things considered (so, Ralph’s entailment 3 seems false to me in this case and at the very least this does not seem like a question of conceptual confusion).

    3. Part of Ann’s role at the hospital is to explain to other parents why the hospital operates on the first come first served bases when other things are equal. I think she can genuinely believe that this principle is morally the most appropriate – it is the fairest and perhaps also maximises Qalys. Yet, it does not seem to me appropriate to call her a hypocrite if she moves her child in the front of the queue.

  21. Hans,

    I guess we disagree about whether that is a paradigmatic case of hypocrisy. With awful stuff I think we tend to throw negative assessments at it with less discrimination.

  22. Jussi,

    Nice example. I imagine Ralph would say this is a case where one has an excuse for one’s immoral behavior. I think cases like this put real pressure on the strong sort of moral rationalism that claims that if morality requires it, one necessarily has most reason to do it. Elsewhere I have resisted the demandingness objection as a complaint against a moral theory but suggested it might live on as a complaint that even the true moral theory requires more than we have reason to give. This strikes me as a case like that.

  23. 1. I don’t think Jussi’s (or Marcia Baron’s) case is one in which Ann has an excuse for her behavior (though there’s clearly an explanation; all excuses are explanations but not vice versa). If she does have a legitimate excuse then being the object of blame is inappropriate. But Ann is (I think) clearly an appropriate object of blame by other parents (and third parties). It would be odd to think that other parents could justifiably be told, “Now I know you’re angry, but she was saving her child, so you can see that’s what she had most reason to do, so you’re anger/blame is inappropriate.” It would also be odd for Ann to think they are unjustifiably blaming her. Rather, if she is otherwise moral, she might justifiably acknowledge her moral wrongdoing and step down from her post as a result (and perhaps attempt various forms of helping other parents in light of the position she put them in). [Another example I had in mind: Gaugin’s wife would be justified in blaming him for abandoning the family even if, we may suppose, he had most reason to create masterpieces (which, let’s say, required abandoning his family)].

    2. I’m not sure it’s relevant to your central concern, David, but I don’t think morality is relevant to hypocrisy as such. Hypocrisy is, in part, a disconnect between telling others that anyone in condition C should x and then not x-ing. But C and x-ing need not be a moral situation/act, and one can be incorrect that people ought to x. A person who says, “Everyone should participate in the egg toss” and then works behind the scenes to get himself off the list of people who are going to play is being hypocritical. And a person who says, “Everyone should own a slave,” and then works behind the scenes to get himself kicked out of the auction, is also being a hypocrite. (We might not blame him for his hypocrisy, though, since we think (correctly!) that he is on balance doing the morally right thing, though we may blame him for his declaration.) At any rate, since hypocrisy seems to be a relational property between one’s acts and one’s declarations/standards, it’s a property of the structure of what one has said/done; the content is irrelevant.

    [I realize this might not be relevant to your central concern since your opening post said that if someone fails to live up to her own conception of what morality requires then she is a hypocrite, but it didn’t say iff. But the question you posed at the end of that opening post made it sound like you were asking about the nature of hypocrisy, so maybe this is relevant…]

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