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.

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