Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Once again the exposure of marital infidelities by leading social conservatives--in this case South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and Nevada Senator John Ensign--raises the question of hypocrisy.  Many respond with unconcealed glee as two more such politicians, like a line of influential preachers of family values, are exposed as hypocrites who do not practice what they preach.

But is that hypocrisy?  If so, what is it about such contradictory behavior that constitutes hypocrisy, as opposed simply to failure to live up to one's own moral code?   Is the term used so loosely as to have become meaningless?  For example, the male prostitute who revealed in 2006 that the prominent evangelical pastor Ted Haggard had been paying him for sex, said "My intent was to expose a hypocrite."  Haggard himself seemed to accept the charge in his letter to his congregation.

But Robert T. Miller argued at the time that Haggard was not a hypocrite but someone who was too weak to live up to his own moral code.  He believed what he did was wrong, but did it anyway.  Or as Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good....I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil that I do not want is what I do...."  Succumbing to temptation is not the same as hypocrisy.  It is the common human lot, which there are only two ways to avoid.  One is to be a saint.  The other is to have a conscience so deadened that one adapts one's moral code to justify or rationalize whatever it is one is doing or wants to do.

Similarly one could argue, as Miller does, that President Clinton was not a hypocrite , but weak in both having an affair with Monica Lewinsky and concealing it.  Even less is hypocrisy involved either in Bristol Palin's becoming a single mother, contrary to her own moral code, or in her family's standing by her, or for that matter, in Bristol's publicly warning other teens not to follow her example.  When we teach our children to be nice to each other but at times fall into angry and hurtful exchanges with each other, we show weakness, we show we do not always live up to the standards we hold and teach, but we are not hypocrites.  Otherwise hypocrisy would be a part of all wrongdoing, and not a peculiar or distinct kind of behavior.

What makes the difference?  For Miller it is about dissembling what you think the good is.  Building a reputation for financial probity and giving seminars on business ethics while habitually engaging in fraud and enjoying your ill-gotten gains is an example.  It is, or may be, not a case of falling into a sin you hate and regretting it afterwards (as in the Haggard example) but pretending to hold values that you really do not.

In a recent blog on the Witherspoon site, philosophy professor Christopher Tollefson takes a sterner view.  He agrees that hypocrisy is not just a failure to live up to one's moral code:

A person's failure to live up to his stated moral code need not call either the validity of nor his belief in the code in question.  In fact, given the inevitability of moral failure in our lives, it is similarly inevitable that those with strong moral convictions will sometimes fail to act in the way they publicly identify as morally appropriate.

The hypocrite, he asserts, "deceives others by by creating the appearance of virtue while succumbing to vice." It is about maintaining an illusion while leading a double life, at great cost to yourself morally and psychically as your integrity crumbles, and to your family, your career, and your cause when the inevitable discovery takes place.  Tollefson's argument is a powerful critique of the nature and evils of hypocrisy, ending with an implicit appeal to his governor (Mark Sanford) to resign.

But I am still unclear about the distinction these authors are making.  For Miller, it is between a) doing and concealing what you know to be bad (I do what I do not want, but agree that the law is good) and b) upholding standards and values that I neither follow nor believe in.  For Tollefson, the "concealing" part of Miller's (a) seems to make it already hypocrisy.  It is the living a lie that creates war within ourselves, corrupting our integrity and leading us toward rationalizing, at least to ourselves, behavior we once knew was wrong.  When Tollefson describes this state of internal strife as making us "agents who know what is good but choose what is not..." he seems to be describing not some special state but the ordinary conflict between virtue and vice, knowing what is good but doing the opposite, that St. Paul describes and that we think of simply as succumbing to temptation.  Of course, the more virtuous we become, the less of a struggle we have because we are no longer tempted in the same way.

There is a line, it seems, between the element of concealment that attends all wrongdoing and the living of a lie where we profess values or goods in which we do not ourselves believe.  Even when we immediately regret our deed, feel remorse, and resolve not to do it again, we do not confess it to the world.  Knowing what is good but choosing what is not does not qualify as hypocrisy, pace Tollefson, unless we want to call all wrongdoing hypocrisy that is not committed brazenly in plain sight. 

So what of Haggard?  He preached against homosexual behavior while sometimes engaging in it himself and concealing the fact from his family and congregation.  Yet in Miller's view that was not hypocrisy.  Haggard, like Clinton, fell from time to time into doing what he knew was wrong.  He struggled against temptation and sometimes lost.  What makes Governor Sanford, in Tollefson's view an undoubted hypocrite, different?  Was it the chronic, habitual character of his infidelity?

There are degrees of hypocrisy.  When a man is genuinely concerned about the harm that his behavior may do to his family, his deception is done at least in part for the sake of others.  But, Tollefson argues, "The form of hypocrisy that seems most especially egregious is that in which the "tribute" [that vice plays to virtue, in La Rochefoucauld's famous definition of hypocrisy] is entirely specious. The agent simulates virtue in this case not because of a recognition that the appearance of vice can corrupt or harm others, or because he is still somehow allied with virtue, but because the appearance of virtue brings with it certain rewards." This is the form of hypocrisy to which people in public life are particularly drawn, perhaps the more so as we hold public officials to higher standards in their private lives than is the case in other countries.

But motivations too often conflict within an individual, especially in all but the most egregious hypocrites, and yet hypocrisy must be deliberate and intentional.  

I am not yet willing to say that hypocrisy is no longer an intelligible concept.  But it surely is a term not to be thrown about carelessly.  Perhaps it is more useful in examining one's own conscience than as a term of public accusation.

Miller, R.T. (2006). Haggard and hypocrisy. Retrieved July 1, 2009 from

Tollefson, C. (2009). Hypocrisy and public life. Retrieved June 30, 2009 from

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