nothing is mere

Ditch the word “hypocrite”

I try to watch out for inconsistencies in my beliefs (and between my actions and my stated beliefs and goals). Yet I’m not a fan of criticizing people for things like “hypocrisy.”

It’s obviously a personal attack, and personal attacks obviously make people defensive, and defensiveness is obviously boring and terrible. But I have four other concerns with attacking people for their inconsistencies:

1. It’s too meta. Proving that someone said “p” and “not-p” is a great way to conclusively defeat them in a debate. No matter what your audience believes about p, they’ll agree with you about the laws of logic; and by not entering the fray, you get to appear impartial and objective.

But the fray matters — or if it doesn’t matter, why are we talking about p in the first place?

“You said !” is an amazing argument that works no matter what the facts are. For that reason, it’s an amazing argument that tells us nothing about the world, aside from ad-hominem facts about the claimant’s character.

If someone is saying both “p” and “not p,” then at least one of those views is false. If you know which of those views is false, why not just attack the false view? If you don’t know which of those views is false, why not talk that over and try to figure it out? If figuring it out matters less than scoring points against Ms. Placeholder, then it’s possible that neither is worth your time.

2. Charges of hypocrisy discourage updating and nuance. The easiest way to look consistent over time is to assert simple blanket statements and then refuse to change your mind about them. Better yet, say nothing substantive at all.

It’s sometimes important to publicly evaluate others’ character. In a presidential debate, for example, “ad hominem” is not always a fallacy. We’re trying to assess which person is more trustworthy and competent, not just which one is more correct; the personal virtues and vices of the candidates matter.

Yet even in this context, “Senator Placeholder is wrong on taxes” is much more useful than “Senator Placeholder is inconsistent on taxes.” Debate the latter, and the candidates and their audience only learn new things about a particular senator’s record, not about taxes; and Placeholder’s immediate incentive is to obfuscate her views or make them as simple and unchanging as possible, rather than to improve or defend them.

3. In the case of groups, charges of hypocrisy discourage intellectual diversity. This is one of the problems I have with the “motte and bailey” idea: by attacking groups for “strategically equivocating” between a more defensible view (the “motte”) and a less defensible one (the “bailey”), we neglect the more common case where some people honestly have less defensible versions of their friends’ views.

By attacking the hypocrisy rather than attacking the false view, we again focus the debate on people’s faults and vices. In this way, the motte/bailey accusation increases the number of debates that are about how generally “good” or “bad” a group is, to the exclusion of mundane empirical questions.

The motte/bailey charge can be useful when a particular individual explicitly states both the motte and the bailey, though even then it’s a charge best reserved for friends and not enemies. But when two different individuals can be accused of Emergent Hypocrisy merely for associating with each other, it becomes a lot harder to associate with anyone who doesn’t share all your views.

4. Ambitious goal-setting and self-improvement can look like behavioral hypocrisy. Accusing someone of hypocrisy because their deeds don’t live up to the moral principles they endorse encourages people to have low, easily-met standards.

We’re already risk-averse, and the charge of hypocrisy makes risk-taking even riskier, especially for groups. Trying to build a community that exemplifies certain virtues often requires that you talk quite a bit about those virtues. But then you risk looking like you already think you have those virtues.

Even if your community is a standard deviation above most groups in the virtue of Temperance, the mere fact that you’ve endorsed Temperance means that any small misstep by anyone in your group can be used to charge you with hypocrisy or hubris. And hypocrisy and hubris are approximately people’s favorite things to accuse each other of. Easier, then, to steer clear of endorsing good ideas too loudly.


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  1. Hi Rob,
    I especially like your last point, which pinpoints the best thing about hypocrisy. Dan Dennett analogized hypocrisy to the clutch in an automobile. Use too much, and you just spin the engine and go nowhere. Too little, and you lug the engine.

    But in the second point, you hit on the reason we still need to talk about hypocrisy – especially in our “leaders”. Hypocrisy seems to be used in especially generous quantities by those who receive excessive deference. It’s fair and necessary to call it out before the wool gets pulled over too many eyes.

    • I think one of the important reasons political discourse is failing is too much meta — too much time spent speculating about the virtues and beliefs of politicians, and about the virtues and beliefs of the voting public — too little time spent debating the object-level issues, where it’s easier to find solid facts that make a difference for which policies are good (as opposed to which groups or individuals we trust to carry them out).

      I think evaluating how hypocritical politicians are, in particular, makes them more hypocritical, by discouraging substantive policy debate. If being called a hypocrite is the worst thing that can happen to you — worse than being shown to be factually mistaken about any particular issue — then your incentive is to focus on whether you look like a hypocrite, rather than to focus on figuring out the truth. Which makes you more likely to end up with inconsistent beliefs and inconsistent relationships between your beliefs/goals and actions. (Though, perhaps, less likely to look like you’re inconsistent.)

      • Jordan

        “too much meta”

        This. It is remarkable how little substantive discussion there is of specific, concrete policy choices. It would be a step in the right direction to just see people take a specific public policy issue that is relevant to a specific choice that must be made and then brainstorm positives and negatives on a whiteboard (something we did in high school and believed made us really SERIOUS thinkers). That elementary sort of dialectical procedure seems beyond the pale in the current meta obsessed political environment.

  2. In my experience, people are rarely called hypocrites just for having inconsistent views or behaviors. They’re called hypocrites when they try to control others’ behavior but not their own, or when they claim moral superiority based on falsehoods about themselves. In other words, it’s not about logic, it’s about power.

    I think pointing out hypocricy is useful when someone is enforcing a double standard or otherwise harming others. But I also agree with you that it’s sometimes an ad hominem attack that doesn’t align with the point the attacker is trying to make. For example, when Kim Davis refused to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples, many liberals criticized her for not living up to the biblical standards she was trying to force on others, and that bothered me — it implies that if she had been saintly in her personal behavior, then her actions would have been okay.

  3. Psycicle

    “If you aren’t a hypocrite, your standards are too low”

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