The Hypocrite in Western Liberal Democratic Culture

Within western liberal democracies, the sin of hypocrisy is viewed as particularly pernicious. This is evidenced by the fact that if someone can be shown to have committed the sin of hypocrisy they are condemned and ignored. For example, I have recently ran into people who consider it to be hypocritical to critique Russia’s policy on gay rights, while remaining silent on the situation of gay rights in Saudi Arabia. Surely, this critic has a point that it is hypocritical to engage in such actions as one is not consistently critiquing all nations who fail to meet their standards for human rights, but the hypocrisy of such agents does not invalidate the point that is being made about Russia’s policies. However, in practise legitimately pointing out hypocrisy has the impact of suggesting that the hypocrite’s point is invalid because of his hypocrisy; if one shows that one’s interlocutor is being hypocritical typically the hypocrites arguments will be ignored. Consequently, the charge of hypocrisy, even if not intended as such, acts as a silencing mechanism that can be used to ignore the arguments that the convicted hypocrite is making.

Given the preceding it seems necessary to better understand why we view hypocrisy as such a pernicious sin, and if on reflection it makes sense to view hypocrisy as any more evil than other vices. For the rest of this entry I will examine these questions.

One reason why hypocrisy is viewed as so pernicious is that while western liberal democracies are secular, they bear the history of hundreds of years of Christianity, and Christianity condemns the hypocrite. The hypocrite is a particularly problematic figure in Christianity, because Christianity suggests that we are all essentially sinful, and plausibly suggests that because we are all sinful we should not pass judgment on others. The hypocrite will often pass judgment on others, and thus under a Christian interpretation the hypocrite seems to represent something opposed to the maxims of Christianity, as the hypocrite is not without sin, and yet he engages in passing judgment on others. Consequently, the Christian heritage of western liberal democratic societies certainly would reinforce hatred for the hypocrite. I am not suggesting that the message of Christianity is reducible to what I have disclosed above, but rather that the hypocrite seems oppositional to particular elements of Christianity.

One other reason why hypocrisy is viewed as particularly pernicious is that the hypocrite often offends the pride of other human beings; however, it should be noted that this factor is not specific to western liberal democracies. Due to the fact that we take pride in our lives, and like to think of ourselves as living decent, good lives, we take particular issue with someone who suggests that we are not leading good lives. In many cases such critics have failed to live up to their own standards for the good, so in order to avoid confronting the question of whether we are leading good lives, we point out that this person is a hypocrite, as this will end the conversation and allow us to preserve the image of ourselves as leading good lives. Therefore, our pride also contributes to the condemnation of the hypocrite.

Clearly, hypocrisy is not a positive quality, but it should be noted that within western liberal democracies it seems that it is viewed as one of the worst vices that a person can have. For example, it seems clear that we view the hypocrite as worse than the coward as we do not see people referring to others as cowards as a way of silencing them, but it does not seem to me to be at all clear that hypocrisy is worse than cowardice. If it is hypocritical to preach something, but fails to meet the standards that one preaches, then hypocrisy is a vice, but it is certainly not the worst quality that one could have. And I would say it is better to fail to meet the standards that one preaches, than to be unable to face one’s fears.

However, at this point it might be noted that hypocrisy is more than failing to meet the standards that one preaches, it is rather being duplicitous and presenting oneself as moral and using that image to serve one’s interests, while failing to live up to that image. This is the image of hypocrisy presented in Moliere’s Tartuffe; Tartuffe plays the role of the imposter, or the hypocrite, but his hypocrisy is not a mere failure to meets its own standards, rather Tartuffe presents himself as pious in order to get what he desires. Tartuffe is unconvinced of the truth of religious piety that he preaches. Furthermore, it seems legitimate to view the vice of people like Tartuffe as a social evil that need rigorous condemnation. So there does seem to be a form of hypocrisy that should be viewed as particularly pernicious. However, the trouble is that in many situations the people who are charged with hypocrisy are simply those who fail to apply standards consistently, or fail to meet the standards that they preach, and these people ought not to be condemned severely or ignored, as their vice represents an attempt to better themselves and humanity, rather than an attempt to use pious language to serve their own interests. The evil of the person who fails to meet the standards they believe in, is very different from the evil of the willful imposter, and because within our language we have a single term to cover these two divergent phenomena that carries with it a great deal of social disapproval, we need to be very careful of the way in which we invoke the language of hypocrisy, as we could be suggesting that someone is a manipulator when he is not, and we also could be silencing him, and failing to respond to the actual argument that he has made. This failure to respond to the actual arguments others make is something we should do our utmost to avoid, for we can only enhance our understanding of what is worthwhile, by engaging with the arguments put forth by others.


Plato’s Laws and Liberal Neutralism

In Plato’s Laws the character of “the Athenian” notes that laws are much more effective if they have preambles which lay out why following the law is something worth doing, rather than just simply prohibiting some act. These preambles will often involve eloquently explaining why an admirable person would obey such a law, and why it is disgraceful, not simply imprudent, to disobey the law. The Athenian’s reasoning for this argument is that persuasion should be an element of law, and these preambles will persuade people to follow the law cooperatively, and learn from the teachings of the law.

This argument raises an important problem for contemporary liberal political philosophy. A dominant approach within contemporary political philosophy in the academy is liberal neutralism, and according to certain variants of this approach to political thought it would be inappropriate for the state to use such preambles in its laws, as this would violate state neutrality. Such preambles would violate state neutrality, as any preamble which justifies a law by reference to an ideal of character or the inherent worth of a particular set of acts will imply a particular sectarian belief about the good and according to the principle of state neutrality the state must have laws that do not rely on any particular conception of the good. But, if the laws include reference to a particular conception of the good, they quite clearly violate the state neutrality requirement. Consequently, for these particular varieties of liberal neutralism, let’s call these varieties strong neutralism, the Athenian’s approach to the writing of laws is clearly prohibited. So the question becomes how does such a state persuade its subjects? It can of course draw upon reasons that are independent of a particular conception of the good, such as that long term self-interest is best secured by obedience to the laws, but it will not be able to say that citizens should obey the laws because it is an intrinsically valuable part of life to be an obedient citizen. This approach to state neutrality avoids the evil of the state imposing a good on its subjects, but is the cost in terms of its lack of ability to draw upon an image of the good to persuade its citizens a cost that it makes sense to endure? The answer to this question is not completely clear to me, although I certainly prefer the evil of having a state that is unable to draw upon images of goodness to inspire fidelity to law, over the evil of having the state which is in danger of imposing a sectarian conception of the good on its people by persuading them that a particular conception of the good is correct.

There is another approach to liberal neutralism, let’s call it weak neutralism, which would in principle allow for such preambles, but nonetheless even for this approach the Athenian’s preambles would be deeply problematic. For this approach laws need to be justifiable on the basis of reasons that do not rely on a particular conception of the good, but this approach is silent as to how the laws are to be presented to the subjects. For example, with this approach you could have a law against theft that was justified because no matter what a person’s conception of the good is they have an interest in having their property secure from theft. However, the law might be presented in terms of the fact that a good person respects the right of his fellow citizens’ right to property. However, if a state were to take this approach the question arises as to why neutrality is required for the reasons justifying a law, but not required in terms of the presentation of the law to the people? It seems arbitrary to say that neutrality is important in justification of law, but not in terms of the presentation of the law to the people. So, it seems that weak neutralism is faced by the same dilemma as strong neutralism, in that it must choose between maintaining its commitment to neutrality and having the option of drawing on particular images of the good to persuade citizens of the importance of obeying the law.

What this tells us is that liberal neutralism, has a cost in terms of forbidding the state from persuading its citizens by reference to particular images of the good. It may seem obvious that liberal neutralism requires the state to refrain from such techniques of persuasion, but yet within liberal democracies the rhetoric used to justify laws to the public often draws on particular images of the good. And is it quite probable that full commitment to neutrality would require us to be distrustful of such rhetoric, for if we use rhetoric to justify laws that draws on particular image of the good, we are saying that the state should be in line with one particular conception of the good, rather than all of the others that exist, and this seems to violate the principle that the state should be neutral between conceptions of the good. Thus, a commitment to state neutrality would require us to drastically change our mode of every day political operation by marginalizing state rhetoric that relies on particular images of the good, and thus while liberal neutralism seems intuitively plausible, it may have greater costs than it appears to have at first glance.

The Place of Progressive Historicism in Modern Consciousness

Progressive historicism is the notion that historical forces have a direction, and this direction is towards the fullest development of humanity. In an academic context, this idea tends to be ridiculed as it is viewed as an archaic, western metanarrative that is not only false, but also pernicious in the way that it has been and is still used to justify colonialism and other evils. However, despite the fact that this idea is not taken particularly seriously among academics, it is still a large part of the popular consciousness of modern post-industrial societies. Furthermore, while progressive historicism provides an intelligible answer to the question of how we have arrived at this point in history, we should be suspicious of progressive historicism, because while there have been significant improvements in well-being throughout the development of human society, these improvements are not necessarily tied to a necessary process, and these improvements have also included historical losses in forms of value. Similarly, we should be suspicious of the progressive historicist narrative as it encourages a form of close-mindedness which discourages people from properly considering what the good is.

The tendency to write off progressive historicism as an antiquated theory is problematic, because even though its premises seem questionable and it has been used as a justification for problematic practises it has become a large part of the consciousness of post-industrial societies. For example, we often refer to people with ideas we disapprove of as backwards or medieval, and refer to those with ideas that we approve and admire as ahead of their time. Furthermore, I have heard seemingly intelligent people write off Plato and Aristotle, among others because the fact that they had lived an earlier era necessarily means that they are stupid and must be wrong about everything. This suggests that the way that individuals think about history fits in with the progressive historicist narrative as people tend to see the past as having been superseded by the present, and see humanity marching towards a bright new future.

The appeal of progressive historicism partially lies in the fact that we know that people in early ages have been subject to mass famine, disease, suffering and oppression, and at the very least, in post-industrial societies, it seems that we have begun to overcome famine and disease, and furthermore traditionally oppressed groups (women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals) have been able to gain legal, and perhaps social equality. In this sense, it seems that there has been progress in terms of justice as more and more people have their dignity respected, and progress in terms of technology as humanity becomes less endangered by the forces of nature and has more control over their destiny.

However, there are a few reasons why we should be suspicious of progressive historicism. Firstly, the idea of a necessary historical process while effective at explaining societal development is not necessary to explain such development. We can recognize that there has been a process of development, but consider it to be something that was contingent, and thus not inevitable, but rather one possibility among many. In this case we might consider history as something that is path dependent in that at one point there were certain events that could have led to a multiplicity of differing trajectories for the development of society, but particular choices that were made caused the current path of historical development to be much more likely. Unless we are already strongly committed to the idea of necessity determining societal change, it seems that the alternative that I have articulated is at least equally plausible to the progressive historicist story.

Secondly, the other issue with the progressive historicist story is that it pays keen attention to the gains that have occurred for humanity, but is troubling silent about the losses that have occurred throughout societal development. The development of society is partially a story of the gradual expansion of the recognition of dignity, but as a result of this development and particular technological changes certain forms of practise that constitute unique forms of value have been lost. For example, even if we are deeply disturbed by the brutality of the warrior way of life and the ethic of honor that goes along with it, we also admire the kind of courage that was necessary to live this life. And while this way of life had to be set aside to make way for egalitarian justice, certain forms of value were lost. Likewise, while finding certain elements of Ancient Athenian democracy particularly troubling (ie slavery), we can also see something deeply valuable in the solidarity that the citizenry of Athens achieved at particular points in its history. But this solidarity was probably made far more likely by the fact that the citizenry had slaves who could provide for their daily needs while they were active within the public sphere. Thus, the ending of slavery while necessary for the expansion of the recognition of all as equal, likely also lead to the loss of forms of value, such as the solidarity that could be achieved among the citizenry of Ancient Athens. Consequently, we should be suspicious of the progressive historicist narrative as it does not seem to tell an accurate story of the development of value throughout society’s history. Clearly, the equal dignity of all is more important than the courage of the warrior or the solidarity of Ancient Athens, but nonetheless these are still losses in value that must be taken account of.

Thirdly, the last reason why we should be suspicious of progressive historicism is the fact that the progressive historicist narrative encourages a kind of close-mindedness that sees the wisdom of the past as having been superseded by the wisdom of the modern era. This close-mindedness closes off people from deeply asking the question of what the good life is, as individuals under the grip of progressive historicism only seriously consider modern alternatives that share their own basic assumptions about what the good is, and do not deeply consider the wisdom of previous ages. If there is an inevitable process that is leading to the fullest development of humanity, then why would we need to learn from the wisdom of the past? Consequently, it seems that the progressive historicist narrative is problematic in its tendency to encourage close-mindedness. As a result while there seems to be a grain of truth within the progressive historicist notion that societal development has involved a long march towards equal respect for the dignity of all, this is only one element of the story of our history, and if we myopically focus on this one element we may fail to properly answer the question of what the good is.