Two Cheers for Hypocrisy

We all know that hypocrisy is bad. When we proclaim a standard, we ought to live by that standard. Since our actions speak louder than our words, we need to bring our actions into line with the high moral standards we espouse, lest people turn from the positions we advocate. Hypocrisy is surely bad enough that it doesn’t deserve three cheers. I’ll give it two, however.

First, let’s take it apart. For hypocrisy to exist, two things are required: Standards and actions that relate to those standards. In the first place the hypocrite takes a normative stand toward something. In the second place, the hypocrite’s behavior deviates in some way from that normative stand.

Having recognized hypocrisy as such a horrible evil, our age as an easy out: we lapse into relativism. If we reject the notion of standards or normative behavior, hypocrisy becomes impossible. Yes, I realize this assumes that our practice can measure up to this standard, something, ironically, we sometimes find difficult.

But what if having normative standards is a good thing? What if having a conception of the good or the right is actually helpful and healthy, even if we don’t always live up to it? At the very least we have something to which we can aspire. So here’s my first cheer for hypocrisy. Inasmuch as I live in a society that celebrates normative ethical relativism, I think standards are good thing. I’ll cheer the hypocrite for at least having some.

My second cheer comes from the other side. From what I’ve seen around the world and throughout history, some normative positions are bad, wrong or even downright evil. Imagine, for a moment, a Nazi named Bob. For Bob, the turpitude of Jews is assumed. He holds the extermination of Jews to be normative behavior. But what if Bob never acts on this belief? What if, believing and proclaiming that Jews ought to be killed, he never actually does anything about it? Maybe, in fact, his actions take exactly the opposite tack. By definition, Bob is a hypocrite. I’m happy Bob is a hypocrite – his normative stand in this matter is evil! I cheer, therefore, for people with evil, bad or wrong standards who though they proclaim such standards fail to live by them. I cheer them in their hypocrisy and hope their actions will eventually overcome and reform their defective standards.

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1 Response to Two Cheers for Hypocrisy

  1. Mark Byron says:

    I’m reminded of the old saying “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.” Where hypocrisy exist, there are still standards that are applied, albeit not perfectly.

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