Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Noah Millman on Hypocrisy

A few weeks ago we had a discussion here about allegations of hypocrisy and the part they play in American public life. I am still very interested in this question, so I thought I would pass along this very interesting post on the same topic by Noah Millman. Millman is responding to a column by Damon Linker, who wrote:
When we denounce someone for hypocrisy, we judge him harshly, but without having to express a substantive commitment of our own with regard to ends. The hypocrite is judged entirely on his own terms, accused of violating the ideal of human flourishing that he himself professes to uphold, revere, and use as a standard for judging others. The hypocrite is guilty, as we say, of having “double standards” — expecting exacting behavior from others while letting himself off the hook more easily. Simply pointing that out seems to allow us to be judgmental while remaining agnostic about whether we actually affirm any vision of human flourishing ourselves.

But that isn’t quite true. When we call someone a hypocrite, we often do so on the basis of two implicit moral assumptions: first, that a person who expresses a moral standard should be expected to live up to it with complete consistency; and second, that if a person fails to live up to it with complete consistency, the moral standard should be abandoned and replaced with one that can be consistently followed.
Linker goes on to make the same point that I regularly make, that since everyone falls short of his or her ideals at some point, the only way to avoid all hypocrisy is to have no ideals at all. Linker calls this "a license to aim low and succeed."

Millman responds,
I understand his point – and I think that, in general, our culture could benefit from vastly less denunciation, shaming and witch-hunting on the part of would-be puritans of all political stripes. But I think his conclusion is considerably over-broad – and mis-states the rationale behind many denunciations of hypocrisy. . . .

Other times, the charge of hypocrisy is pretty clearly tied to a real disagreement about what the morality of ends should be, as opposed to an objection to ends as such. Let’s say you have a married, male, Christian minister, a firm opponent of gay marriage, who is revealed to be having an affair with another man. Clearly, this fellow is going to be zinged for hypocrisy. But those doing the zinging are not neutral on the matter of “ends” – far from it. It’s likely that, in their view, it is a positive good to be honest, privately and publicly, about one’s sexuality, and that repressing it does actual harm, both to oneself and to others. The minister is denounced not so much for failing to live up to his own morality of ends, but because he is a walking proof-text for an alternative morality of ends.
I think Millman is absolutely right in this; sometimes the accusation of hypocrisy is made to attack the moral system of the alleged hypocrite as false, unnatural, or otherwise too flawed to be worth following.
Now let’s change the example – say that the minister is revealed to be having an affair not with a man, but with a woman. He’ll still be zinged for hypocrisy, but the charge would read somewhat differently – because it is unlikely (though not impossible) that those doing the denouncing believe in an alternative morality of ends in which cheating as such is fine. And yet, the force still comes from a real disagreement within a morality of ends, and not a dispute about the legitimacy of a morality of ends. The force comes from an implicit argument that public profession of Christianity is a lousy means to the end of sexual fidelity – and that attacking gay marriage for being a threat to faithful heterosexual marriages is particularly obnoxious because it burdens an uninvolved minority with the sins of the majority.
Again Millman is right. Christian evangelists often claim that without religious morality, the world is doomed to perdition. So accusations of hypocrisy against straying shepherds can be a way to say, no, there is no such relationship between religious belief and moral behavior. This is why some liberals are always pointing out that divorce is more common in the Bible Belt.
The charge of hypocrisy, in other words, is usually embedded within a larger framework of argument, one which may affirm or reject the specific morality of ends that the accused hypocrite claims to uphold. Rather than deny the legitimacy of the charge of hypocrisy, wouldn’t bringing that context out into the open advance the cause of honest argument more effectively?
I agree. But I still dislike making these arguments in terms of hypocrisy. Gay marriage is not a good thing because some Christian ministers have gay affairs; nor is the existence of perfectly non-hypocritical Catholics any sort of argument against gay rights. I find the accusation of hypocrisy to be an irritating distraction. But I conceded that, as Millman says, there can be a lot of substance behind such accusations.

1 comment:

Shadow said...

I don't know. I'll need to reread this, but upon first look his examples seem contrived and his argument directed at a rather small population of those who protest -- perhaps those with political-social ends. Most people most of the time don't think like this, nor are they that judgmental. They just see someone saying one thing and acting another but leave it alone because everyone does it to some extent. But when done by a person of influence in the very area he is found to be preaching one thing but doing another, they take exception precisely because of the influence the person has. But I must be missing something.