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The Plus Side of Hypocrisy

charleslb
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8/30/2011 4:31:48 PM
Posted: 5 years ago
Let me pose what will of course, on ethical first blush, seem to be a blatant and banal no-brainer to any right-minded person of character. Is being a "hypocrite" really such a necessarily, deductively, and rankly negative and contemptible moral plight to find oneself in? Is the heinousness of hypocrisy such that hypocrites merit their own circle in Dante's hell? Is there nothing, nothing at all conceivably redeeming about being a hypocrite?

Certainly most people don't seem to conceive that there could perhaps be something of a plus side to hypocrisy. That is, most of us righteously revel in rebuking our neighbor for his hypocritical shortcomings. The quality of mercy, slack-cutting, and extending a little sympathetic understanding to a fellow imperfect human being is immediately strained the moment someone is exposed as any kind of a hypocrite. But is such a knee-jerkily holier-than-thou response to hypocrisy really always just and proper?

Well, not to play semantics, but the answer would depend on your definition of "hypocrisy". Webster's defines "hypocrisy" as "a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not". Now of course to "feign", to consciously misrepresent oneself to be something lofty or respectable that one isn't is most certainly morally contemptible and deserving of reproach. According to this strict dictionary definition the pro side of the hypocrite's moral balance sheet is quite bleakly blank.

But people in their use of the language, and in their moralizing, aren't strict constructionists of the dictionary. On the contrary, we tend to verbally express ourselves in a very loose fashion, not least of all when it comes to moral matters. We laxly take the colloquial meaning of our judgy words for granted. Before we condemn someone for being a thief or counterfeiter we don't bother to look up these terms. In the case of morally evaluating the sin of being a "hypocrite", however, we really ought to.

That's because "hypocrisy", in our ordinary usage of the term, isn't entirely the open and shut moral crime that Webster's defines it to be. Nope, "hypocrisy" is one of those words that has taken on a bit more freight than what we find in its entry in the dictionary, and if we consulted our dictionaries more scrupulously we'd soon realize that.

It's "hypocrisy" in its broader man-on-the-street sense that I'm defending then. What people commonly mean by the words "hypocrisy" and "hypocrite", as opposed to technical definitions, should, arguably, leave a good bit of room for sympathetic understanding and forgiveness. Because in common and casual parlance "hypocrisy" merely means failing to practice what one preaches or professes.

Certainly to fail to practice the principles you propound, to fail at hitting the high moral mark that you set for yourself and your fellow man/woman is nothing to be proud or complacent about. But neither is "hypocrisy" in this colloquialized connotation to be morally equated with the dastardly sin of "feigning" to be something one isn't in order to willfully defraud one's neighbor for personal gain. That is, the word "hypocrisy" doesn't always denote a conniving phony. We ought not to lump people who merely fall short from actualizing their values with a pastor, for example, who projects an image of moral purity to fleece his flock, and who on the side visits prostitutes. Or a politician who cynically cultivates an electable public image that he makes no real effort to live up to.

The former and the latter sort of hypocrite are two very different moral animals with the same scarlet H burnt into their foreheads. This isn't at all fair. An individual who makes a good faith but inept effort to walk the principled walk that he talks; or for that matter, even an individual who fails to muster up enough effort but who has sincerity in his heart, is at worst merely guilty of being morally manqué, i.e. undisciplined and somewhat undeveloped in one's character – but not an abject fake, which, again, is what folks usually mean when they denounce someone as a "hypocrite".

Someone who is a "hypocrite" in the informal sense, then, is merely a failure, not a fraud; a person whose thoughts are more enlightened than his conduct; an aspirer to noble ideals who inadequately embodies them.

Here's where we arrive at the up side of being a "hypocrite". The hypocrite at least is not a charlatan; or an Elliotian "hollow man" who has an empty cavity where his character should be, the hypocrite is just a moral failure, an unfulfilled wannabe in the moral nobility department. But at least what he/she wants to be is something noble.

The hypocrite's conduct may not be sufficiently sublime to match his enlightened views, but at least he has enlightened views. Isn't this better than being wholly ignorant and oblivious of the elevating truths of life? Isn't it symptomatic of a bit of a black & white mentality to want to characterologiclly pigeonhole people as either moral and spiritual heroes who always succeed in operationalizing their beautiful convictions, or as moral and spiritual pretenders perpetrating a deception? Shouldn't there be a gray area in between these two polar extremes, and doesn't the hypocrite rightly fall into such an ethically gray area? (And shouldn't this ethical gray area be a vast one, vast enough to accommodate all of us, since at one time or another we all keep company with our fellow hypocrites there?)

Yes, the hypocrite may not maintain permanent residence on the plane of noble ideals that he/she aspires to, but should he/she dispense with aspiring, dispense with noble ideals and settle for living at a less rarefied level of moral mediocrity? Is it preferable to take the morally defeatist attitude that we're all foibles-ridden creatures, that we'll never attain the peak of characterological goodness, and that therefore we should just openly embrace materialism and selfishness and bigotry and whatnot? Is it better to abandon oneself to being a consistent "sinner", which is easy enough to do, than to be an inconsistent aspiring "saint"?

Hardly! Better to be a "hypocrite" than a self-satisfied sinner, although that word, again, is quite a misnomer. (To quote Samuel Johnson in this regard: "Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory …".)

To simplistically sum up, the hypocrite is at least trying. He/she doesn't always get an A for effort, sometimes and in some areas he/she earns a big ole failing grade and an F for making a feeble effort, which after all is why he/she is a hypocrite. And, what's more, the hypocrite has enough sense of shame about his/her failures to keep them on the down-low, hence his/her appearance of dishonesty. It's not at all the case that the hypocrite is a phony, he/she just doesn't wish to face his/her own characterological deficits, let alone admit them to others who might derive too much satisfaction.

The hypocrite is just what all people of values and conscience and faith are, he/she is someone imperfectly striving to realize his/her potential for moral and spiritual beauty whose characterological blemishes and warts sometimes detract from the work of art in progress that is a human life. Ethically-minded people who judge hypocrites too harshly of course ironically fail to realize that they too frequently fall into the same rather spacious category, and that precisely in their judgmental attitude toward hypocrites they're inadvertently committing the very same error that they somewhat superiorly look down upon.
Yo, all of my subliterate conservative criticasters who find perusing and processing the sesquipedalian verbiage of my posts to be such a bothersome brain-taxing chore, I have a new nickname for you. Henceforth you shall be known as Pooh Bears. No, not for the obvious apt reasons, i.e., not because you're full of pooh, and not because of your ursine irritability. Rather, you put me in mind of an A.A. Milne quote, "I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words bother me". Love ya, Pooh Bears.
GeoLaureate8
Posts: 12,252
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8/30/2011 4:55:36 PM
Posted: 5 years ago
Good post. Quite interesting.
"We must raise the standard of the Old, free, decentralized, and strictly limited Republic."
-- Murray Rothbard

"The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended."
-- Frederic Bastiat
GeoLaureate8
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8/30/2011 5:00:26 PM
Posted: 5 years ago
I content though that there is another kind of hypocrite, one thag deserves scorn. The one who preaches a set of values that are contradictory, but only preaches and practices the ones he likes yet acts as if the whole package is good.
"We must raise the standard of the Old, free, decentralized, and strictly limited Republic."
-- Murray Rothbard

"The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended."
-- Frederic Bastiat
charleslb
Posts: 4,740
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8/30/2011 5:35:10 PM
Posted: 5 years ago
At 8/30/2011 5:00:26 PM, GeoLaureate8 wrote:
I contend though that there is another kind of hypocrite, one thag deserves scorn. The one who preaches a set of values that are contradictory, but only preaches and practices the ones he likes yet acts as if the whole package is good.

Thank you for this critically well thought out nuance to my post's thesis.
Yo, all of my subliterate conservative criticasters who find perusing and processing the sesquipedalian verbiage of my posts to be such a bothersome brain-taxing chore, I have a new nickname for you. Henceforth you shall be known as Pooh Bears. No, not for the obvious apt reasons, i.e., not because you're full of pooh, and not because of your ursine irritability. Rather, you put me in mind of an A.A. Milne quote, "I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words bother me". Love ya, Pooh Bears.
mongeese
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8/30/2011 5:45:59 PM
Posted: 5 years ago
Your post would be more convincing if I had ever heard "hypocrite" used to describe someone who merely fails to follow the ethics that they know is right. I'll use a quote from Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard on the TV show NCIS: "The ethical man knows he shouldn't cheat on his wife, whereas the moral man actually wouldn't." If the ethical man is claiming that he is being moral, but isn't being moral, then he is a hypocrite, and deserves to be shamed. If he claims that he would like to be moral and tries to be moral (although this wouldn't really fit the cheating scenario) but often fails, then I can't really name anyone who would classify him as a hypocrite.
charleslb
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8/31/2011 2:04:19 AM
Posted: 5 years ago
At 8/30/2011 5:45:59 PM, mongeese wrote:
Your post would be more convincing if I had ever heard "hypocrite" used to describe someone who merely fails to follow the ethics that they know is right. I'll use a quote from Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard on the TV show NCIS: "The ethical man knows he shouldn't cheat on his wife, whereas the moral man actually wouldn't." If the ethical man is claiming that he is being moral, but isn't being moral, then he is a hypocrite, and deserves to be shamed. If he claims that he would like to be moral and tries to be moral (although this wouldn't really fit the cheating scenario) but often fails, then I can't really name anyone who would classify him as a hypocrite.

Well, you may never have heard the word "hypocrite" used in the sense in which I defend my fellow hypocrites, but apparently Dr. Johnson has, I refer you to the snippet of a quote provided in the OP in which my man Sam critically critiques it much as I have (for your convenience I'll paste the whole quote below). So, it would seem that the misconception that individuals who fail to actualize their principles are hypocrites is one that has been going around for quite some time now, that you haven't yet encountered this erroneous but common definition of the word I can't account for. Perhaps you run in better educated circles of people who only emply the word in its proper dictionary usage? BTW, I once had a pet mallard duck who loved spaghetti , delightful creatures but I wouldn't take his quacking over the words of ole Boswell's biographical subject pasted below.

Samuel Johnson, Rambler #14: "Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself."
Yo, all of my subliterate conservative criticasters who find perusing and processing the sesquipedalian verbiage of my posts to be such a bothersome brain-taxing chore, I have a new nickname for you. Henceforth you shall be known as Pooh Bears. No, not for the obvious apt reasons, i.e., not because you're full of pooh, and not because of your ursine irritability. Rather, you put me in mind of an A.A. Milne quote, "I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words bother me". Love ya, Pooh Bears.
charleslb
Posts: 4,740
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8/31/2011 2:05:42 AM
Posted: 5 years ago
One additional point in favor and defense of "hypocrisy". "Hypocrisy" can also be viewed as human nature's reasonable cry for moderation and poignant outcry against extremism, perfectionism, and totalism. It can be a to-be-heeded warning sign that our good intentions and ideologies are making excessively demanding promises that our feet-of-clay human nature simply can't keep. And it can work to healthily dampen and diffuse such an unhealthy zeal for perfection – which at the end of the day's struggle for moral excellence can help keep us humbly human, i.e. prevent us from becoming inhuman prigs. Which I suppose is to say that hypocrisy can actually be something of an unsung virtue. How do you like that?!
Yo, all of my subliterate conservative criticasters who find perusing and processing the sesquipedalian verbiage of my posts to be such a bothersome brain-taxing chore, I have a new nickname for you. Henceforth you shall be known as Pooh Bears. No, not for the obvious apt reasons, i.e., not because you're full of pooh, and not because of your ursine irritability. Rather, you put me in mind of an A.A. Milne quote, "I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words bother me". Love ya, Pooh Bears.
Ragnar_Rahl
Posts: 19,297
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8/31/2011 2:44:12 AM
Posted: 5 years ago
At 8/31/2011 2:05:42 AM, charleslb wrote:
One additional point in favor and defense of "hypocrisy". "Hypocrisy" can also be viewed as human nature's reasonable cry for moderation and poignant outcry against extremism, perfectionism, and totalism. It can be a to-be-heeded warning sign that our good intentions and ideologies are making excessively demanding promises that our feet-of-clay human nature simply can't keep.
That's not a defense of it but a point against. Rephrased: hypocrisy is a warning to "Run from this man, his ideology is stupid and impossible. "

It is not a warning about "Our" intentions and ideologies, only the hypocrite's.
It came to be at its height. It was commanded to command. It was a capital before its first stone was laid. It was a monument to the spirit of man.
charleslb
Posts: 4,740
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8/31/2011 4:08:15 PM
Posted: 5 years ago
At 8/31/2011 2:44:12 AM, Ragnar_Rahl wrote:
At 8/31/2011 2:05:42 AM, charleslb wrote:
One additional point in favor and defense of "hypocrisy". "Hypocrisy" can also be viewed as human nature's reasonable cry for moderation and poignant outcry against extremism, perfectionism, and totalism. It can be a to-be-heeded warning sign that our good intentions and ideologies are making excessively demanding promises that our feet-of-clay human nature simply can't keep.
That's not a defense of it but a point against. Rephrased: hypocrisy is a warning to "Run from this man, his ideology is stupid and impossible. "

Well, isn't providing such a warning against the dangerously impossible perfectionism of the proverbial "other guy's" ideology one of the positive aspects and functions, as it were, of hypocrisy that might be cited in its "affirmative defense"?

It is not a warning about "Our" intentions and ideologies, only the hypocrite's.
Perhaps then your life's guiding intentions & ideology set the bar a tad too low. I would suggest that any social and ethical philosophy that one can't now and then venially commit the offense of hypocrisy against is too lax in its standards. You'll note that I've advocated moderation above but that nowhere have I equated moderation with and endorsed laxness. There's a significant difference between moderation and laxness, after all, one that your boastful setting yourself apart from the ideology of hypocrites fails to recognize. If your personal morality/ideology is simply immune to the sin of hypocrisy, then, alas, its laxness, not moderation, that you unwittingly pride yourself on.
Yo, all of my subliterate conservative criticasters who find perusing and processing the sesquipedalian verbiage of my posts to be such a bothersome brain-taxing chore, I have a new nickname for you. Henceforth you shall be known as Pooh Bears. No, not for the obvious apt reasons, i.e., not because you're full of pooh, and not because of your ursine irritability. Rather, you put me in mind of an A.A. Milne quote, "I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words bother me". Love ya, Pooh Bears.
charleslb
Posts: 4,740
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8/31/2011 4:12:27 PM
Posted: 5 years ago
At 8/31/2011 2:05:42 AM, charleslb wrote:
One additional point in favor and defense of "hypocrisy". "Hypocrisy" can also be viewed as human nature's reasonable cry for moderation and poignant outcry against extremism, perfectionism, and totalism. It can be a to-be-heeded warning sign that our good intentions and ideologies are making excessively demanding promises that our feet-of-clay human nature simply can't keep. And it can work to healthily dampen and diffuse such an unhealthy zeal for perfection – which at the end of the day's struggle for moral excellence can help keep us humbly human, i.e. prevent us from becoming inhuman prigs. Which I suppose is to say that hypocrisy can actually be something of an unsung virtue. How do you like that?!

Sloppy typo correction, "diffuse" should of course be "defuse".
Yo, all of my subliterate conservative criticasters who find perusing and processing the sesquipedalian verbiage of my posts to be such a bothersome brain-taxing chore, I have a new nickname for you. Henceforth you shall be known as Pooh Bears. No, not for the obvious apt reasons, i.e., not because you're full of pooh, and not because of your ursine irritability. Rather, you put me in mind of an A.A. Milne quote, "I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words bother me". Love ya, Pooh Bears.
Ragnar_Rahl
Posts: 19,297
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9/1/2011 5:52:49 PM
Posted: 5 years ago
At 8/31/2011 4:08:15 PM, charleslb wrote:
At 8/31/2011 2:44:12 AM, Ragnar_Rahl wrote:
At 8/31/2011 2:05:42 AM, charleslb wrote:
One additional point in favor and defense of "hypocrisy". "Hypocrisy" can also be viewed as human nature's reasonable cry for moderation and poignant outcry against extremism, perfectionism, and totalism. It can be a to-be-heeded warning sign that our good intentions and ideologies are making excessively demanding promises that our feet-of-clay human nature simply can't keep.
That's not a defense of it but a point against. Rephrased: hypocrisy is a warning to "Run from this man, his ideology is stupid and impossible. "

Well, isn't providing such a warning against the dangerously impossible perfectionism of the proverbial "other guy's" ideology one of the positive aspects and functions, as it were, of hypocrisy that might be cited in its "affirmative defense"?
It doesn't do the man practising it any good.



It is not a warning about "Our" intentions and ideologies, only the hypocrite's.
Perhaps then your life's guiding intentions & ideology set the bar a tad too low. I would suggest that any social and ethical philosophy that one can't now and then venially commit the offense of hypocrisy against is too lax in its standards.
Equating possibility not to with impossibility to is fallacious.

You'll note that I've advocated moderation above but that nowhere have I equated moderation with and endorsed laxness. There's a significant difference between moderation and laxness, after all, one that your boastful setting yourself apart from the ideology of hypocrites fails to recognize.
That's not a description of a difference.
It came to be at its height. It was commanded to command. It was a capital before its first stone was laid. It was a monument to the spirit of man.