I am of the mind that “hypocrisy” is a charge thrown about far too often. And often disingenuously. To me, hypocrisy has one of two definitions. A narrow one or an expansive one. The expansive one is to say that anybody who denounces something while personally doing it is a hypocrite. The narrow one, which I prefer, is one that denounces something while believing that it is okay for him (or her) to do it. I prefer the latter definition because it is the most morally useful one. The former definition, in my mind, reduces the notion of hypocrisy into morally useless territory.

If we are to say that everybody that denounces something that they do is a hypocrite, then we are all hypocrites. More than that, we should be hypocrites. To be otherwise is either to live a perfect life or to rationalize away everything bad you’ve ever done. If someone is doing something that they recognize to be bad, they should be able to say so. Ideally, they should admit to what they are doing, but for various reasons that is often not a good idea. I am sure that, for instance, the wife and family of an adulterous politician would prefer the dirty laundry not be spread around.

Likewise, President Jed Bartlet concealed his smoking habit from the public because he did not want to lend his habit the veneer of respectability. He did not want, by his own actions, to suggest that smoking was okay.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama is somewhat more forthright about his relationship with “Uncle Phil”, as he’s called in the Truman home:

That Obama has just signed legislation designed to reduce cigarette use, it’s easy to suggest that Obama is worthy of condemnation for the hypocrisy. Obama deflects this in the same way that parents across the country do: For the love of god, do what I say and not what I do. In fact, Obama takes it a step further and uses himself as an example as to why this legislation is so important. Some would call this political posturing, but when I was coming of age the people that warned me the most sternly and effectively against smoking (I didn’t start until I was 22) were smokers themselves. Whatever the level of his sincerity (which we have no way of knowing), he is saying what a lot of sincere people do.

Criticizing Obama on the hypocrisy, though, is the easy way out. I feel the same way about Governor Mark Sanford (R-SC) and the recent revelation of his affair. And Senator John Ensign (R-NV), David Vitter (R-LA) and former Governor Elliot Spitzer (D-NY). They’re mostly cheap shots. They’re useful in the context of weakening a political figure. People who vote for Sanford on the basis of his alleged commitment to family values should probably know that he does not live up to them himself and he should be called into account. He can try to defend his actions or (more likely) admit that they were wrong and then the voters can decide whether they believe him or not (which they will miraculously do or not do along party lines).

But he should be called into account for what he actually did. It should not be used, as it has been, to attack his position on gay marriage. Further, revelations of infidelity should not be important primarily (or solely) if there is a hypocrisy angle. If it’s wrong for Ensign to cheat on his wife, then it’s wrong for a pro-gay marriage politician to cheat on his. The only time there’s really a distinction is if the pro-gay marriage politician is prepared to say that it’s different for him because he doesn’t believe that cheating on his wife is wrong.

A morally useful hypocrisy charge carries an implication that what the hypocrite has been caught doing is not actually that bad. Or at least is not as bad as saying that people should behave differently. Because it is criticizing the hypocrite not for what he did but rather for his condemnation of it. For instance, Ted Haggard was an anti-gay preacher caught in homosexual acts. His critics did not care that he was engaging in homosexual acts. In fact, they support the right to do so as free from consequence as possible. Haggard, despite his oopsies, continued to disagree. Haggard’s continued belief that what he did was wrong undercuts the hypocritical charge. So even when the charge is morally useful by virtue of forcing Haggard to confront the difference between his stated morality and his private actions, it did nothing to really prove that Haggard’s views on homosexuality were actually wrong.

There are some cracks in this, though. Democrats, to great effect, used hypocrisy against the Republicans during Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings. The hypocrisy charge was successful not insomuch as it defended Clinton’s infidelity but rather the right of Clinton not to have attention brought to it. Since most people are skittish about the airing of dirty laundry (though not so skittish as to not pay attention to it), the message resonated and it’s one of the comparatively few cases where I can lend some credence to it. And so criticizing Ensign (who made some harsh statements directed at Clinton) on those grounds possibly have some sort of standing… except that it involves an issue ten years stale. So to suggest that now, ten years after the fact, infidelity is relevant and should be made public is… inconsistent. Perhaps hypocritical. Either a politician has a right to keep his private failings private or he does not. Saying out loud that these failings are failings does not, to me, really enter into the equation. Further, it is completely useless, though, to bring infidelity (or Haggard’s homosexual adventures) up in the context of gay marriage because that is an issue of public, not private, sexuality.

What disturbs me about this is that the charge is levied most frequently not to discourage immoral behavior but rather to discourage the condemnation of it, which in turn is to defend it. Otherwise, the hypocrisy is somewhat beside the point. The issue is that Haggard engaged in homosexual acts, that Sanford cheated, that Al Gore uses too much fossil fuel, and that Obama smokes cigarettes. If one considers these things bad then the hypocrisy angle is tangential at top and at bottom is appreciated because better they at least advocate doing the right thing rather than defend doing the wrong thing.

All of this brings me back to Obama and cigarettes. To suggest that hypocrisy is the issue, it implicitly assumes that what Obama is doing actually isn’t bad. For hypocrisy to be more important than smoking, then it’s his public face that’s wrong. And it’s difficult to say “they’re both bad” because either smoking is bad (and thus Obama’s public face is right) or it is not (and thus his private face is doing nothing wrong).

The stronger argument is that he shouldn’t smoke because it sets a really bad example. This is, of course, true. Of course, it wouldn’t be such an issue if the press didn’t keep asking the question. But then if they did that, I wouldn’t have had anything to post about…

-{Note, this post is not meant to be a platform for grievances against Obama, Sanford, Republicans, Democrats, liberals, or conseratives generally. Condemn or forgive the hypocrisy or the specific underlying behavior as you see appropriate, but let’s avoid comments like “I don’t care about x, I really hate him/them because y” and so on. I know these requests must seem tedious, but there are so many other places to discuss actual politics and politicians and some of the issues I like to talk about can easily get sidetracked into formulaic condemnations of people whose philosophies differ from our own}-

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6 Responses to Virtue’s Tribute To Vice

  1. PeterW says:

    If you’ve read The Diamond Age by Neil Stephenson, you’ll remember his soliloquy on hypocrisy and moral relativism:

    You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of a climate, you are not allowed to criticise others-after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism? … Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others’ shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour-you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.

    More: http://steveedney.wordpress.com/2006/11/08/hypocrisy-relativism-and-the-diamond-age/

  2. kevin says:

    I always get a kick out of non-religious people accusing those who go to church of being hypocrites. It reminds me of a pastor in my church growing up. He’d be spreading the Gospel and inviting sinners to church and would invariably be hit with, “Well, there just so many hypocrites there.” His response was, “That’s okay, one more won’t hurt.”

  3. Kirk says:

    There’s a political cartoon where Obama says:

    “And with this legislation, I will prevent young people from enjoying cool, rich, delicious tobacco flavor.”

  4. web says:

    The less obvious the hypocrisy is, the less it annoys me.

    The mass media annoys me in particular, however, because their hypocrisy is pretty much the same at all times. Get a democrat up for something like an affair, and the stories are all trying to protect him – he has a troubled life, hen-pecking wife not interested in resolution, homosexual tendencies (which they consider a good thing), etc.

    On the other hand, put a republican in the same situation, and – well, it wasn’t even 4 hours after the announcement that they were salivating and pushing the “when is he doing to resign” line on Sanford, now was it?

    Now, if someone is a lifelong smoker, wants to quit, has trouble quitting, and tells kids “I have a real problem quitting. That’s why you shouldn’t start in the first place, because when you try to stop, it won’t let you“, that’s powerful and non-hypocritical. “I love to do this but you shouldn’t” is hypocritical: “learn from my mistakes so you don’t make the same ones” isn’t.

  5. trumwill says:

    Thanks a lot for the link, Peter. I think that it’s mostly right. I think that it’s particularly true as far as the media is concerned. Their desire to be “objective” means that they can’t do anything like suggest that marital infidelity is something that people ought to be concerned about… but hypocrisy gives them an angle.

    Kevin, for some people the definition of hypocrite really seems to be “Someone who disapproves of stuff that I don’t.”

  6. trumwill says:


    Sanford is a special case and I think the response would be similar if it were a Democrat. This all came to light when Sanford ditched his job to leave the country to talk to his mistress. He simply cannot credibly claim that his personal life won’t affect his job performance. It already has.

    Another case is Eliot Spitzer, who was pushed to resignation because of the legal factors. He was the director of the state law enforcement and a fragrant law-breaker himself. That’s why he had to resign but David Vitter (a Republican senator with no law enforcement duties) did not.

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