Sunday, July 26, 2009

policy advocacy in action

In many schools of social work, "policy practice" is taught by way of having students testify before some legislative body or committee or even city council. I have long believed that it is prudent to teach students something about social policy before having them give testimony about it. Look at this clip and tell me I'm wrong.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hypocrisy Pt.5

Strategic Aims, Not Abuses, Are U.S. Focus in Kyrgyzstan
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Despite repressive practices, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was praised by President Obama after reversing a decision to close an American air base.

For the whole story, see

Not an unusual kind of story, but is it hypocrisy? This is the charge often leveled at the U.S.--it preaches democracy but supports repressive dictatorships and monarchies (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc.). In these cases, the government is subordinating one value (promoting democracy) to another, conflicting value (strategic security, or whatever one wishes to call it). It is obviously much easier to condemn such trade-offs as hypocrisy when you are not in power with responsibility for the national interest. But when you are, is it possible to avoid such conflicts between, let's say, moral and strategic concerns? And do trade-offs like this rise to the level of hypocrisy?

Friday, July 17, 2009

a good review of David Bentley Hart

It's at:

Like me (see below), he regards Hart's "Atheist Delusions" as a brilliant book, more accurately described by its subtitle, "The Christian Revolution and Its Enemies." Like me, too, the reviewer, Paul Griffiths, sees a rhetorical contradiction (if that's the word--inconsistency, discrepancy?) between the book's emphasis on how Christian joy replaced pagan gloom and the author's own gloom.

He also brings up a point that I agree with but did not include in my review. Hart stresses the novelty of Christianity, how it changed completely the worldview of pagan Rome and Greece. True, but he makes it look as if Christianity came out of nowhere by downplaying its prehistory in Jewish scripture and religion. The Incarnation was, according to Christian tradition and scripture, prepared over centuries in the history of God's special relationship with the Jewish people, with their long internal and external struggle toward monotheism. The Hebrew Bible is an essential part of the Christian narrative. The novelty in Jewish terms was not the coming of a Messiah--that was expected and there were several contenders--but the entirely unexpected form he took--the God-man as an unassuming member of a family that was not socially or economically distinguished--not to mention the manner of his death and subsequent resurrection.

Still, an extraordinary and brilliant book, very different from the other critiques of Ditchkins (Dawkins+Hitchens), in Eagleton's happy term. If nothing else, people raised with, and unquestioning of the standard Enlightenment narrative (how the darkness and superstition of the Middle Ages were dispelled by secular reason and science) should read the book for a compelling and accurate counter-narrative.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Hypocrisy Pt.4

Just reading a book on economics for social workers. I was inspired to read it by seeing ever more clearly the central importance of trade-offs in social policy analysis--a concept fundamental to economics but alien to social workers, who look for solutions to social problems. (In contrast, as Black economist and social commentator, Thomas Sowell puts it, "There are no solutions, only trade-offs.")

The authors, Lewis & Widerquist (2002, p.9) give three examples of weird behavior and point out that two of them, though pathological, are not irrational in economic terms, because the agents act consistently with some set of preferences. In the third case, where a man never wears a seat belt but supports legislation requiring seat belt use, is behaving irrationally in economic terms because his actions are contradictory. Rationality then is about consistency, matching words to actions, or preferences to behavior.

Of course, we could surmise in this case that the man is quite consistent in that he wants a law to make him do what he knows he ought to do. Compare the example of a man with strong homosexual tendencies who favors draconian laws against homosexuality. He is not necessarily inconsistent, if he supports such laws as deterring him from succumbing to temptation to what he regards (in this example) as sinful behavior.

But he is the sort of man who, if the inconsistency is discovered, is likely to be called a hypocrite. The practice of "outing" such people is part of the armory of some homosexual activists. Is hypocrisy, then, nothing more than inconsistency?

Or does hypocrisy require that you believe, as well as do, the opposite of what you proclaim?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Caritas in Veritate

So the long-awaited third encyclical letter by Pope Benedict XVI is out and available online--at

I guess I would never make much of a journalist or even commentator. I am still working my way through it. "Benedict’s reflection is a lengthy and substantial one—30,468 words: an introduction, six chapters, conclusion, and 159 footnotes," as Blosser says, and I am still trying to absorb the critical first few pages. It is a major document--the first social encyclical of the century and an important statement of the Church's social doctrine by a pope who has seldom if ever been surpassed in learning in that office. It brings the core principles of the Church's social teaching to bear on our present economic, cultural, and political situation.

So, as they say, more to come. Meanwhile there is an impressive array of commentary on the encyclical from intelligent and well informed authors...and some predictably dumb ones from the media. A good round-up after the first day following publication, to be updated often, i assume, is offered by Christopher Blosser at

The most critical response so far has been from conservative Catholic writer George Weigel, who thinks the pope made too many concessions to the liberal crowd over at [the Pontifical Council for] Justice and Peace, leading to incoherence in places that show that body's influence. Weigel was a good friend of Pope John Paul II and his authorized biographer. His critique is at

Weigel is taken to task for his "intemperate attack" by the (also conservative) Daily Telegraph (UK)'s commentator Damian Thompson at

Benedict has been described (both by way of compliment and of criticism) as to the left of any American politician, as well as--in the past and by the ignorant and malicious--as ultra-conservative and even soft on Holocaust-denial. But in general his encyclical has already served as a kind of Rorschach test wherein readers find confirmation for what they already think. One pro-life group has already extracted the best pro-life quotes and abstracted them from their context in the letter. In general, the terms left and right, whether in politics or theology, obscure more than they reveal. Nowhere is this more true than with respect to Catholic social teaching. Sadly, the terms serve above all as a way to avoid taking the trouble to study a major document such as this to see what we may learn from it that we did not already know or think.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Hypocrisy Pt.3

Perhaps the most persuasive candidate for a charge of political hypocrisy is Obama's response to Helen Thomas's famous "interruption" at a recent presidential press conference. The president was saying how affected he was by the video of Iranian Neda Agha-Soltan being shot in the chest and bleeding to death. He referred to international norms of freedom of speech and expression. At that, Thomas started to ask him why he would not allow publication of the photos of the abuse of detainees held by Americans abroad. Obama brushed the point aside as "a different question."

The New York Times's Randy Cohen, who writes "The Ethicist" columns, challenges that position. See

Cohen shows the importance of transparency in and for a democracy and that that cannot mean you only allow publication of uncontroversial material. Beyond that, he says, "There is also the matter of personal integrity. President Obama campaigned as a proponent of openness and accountability. On his first day in office, he issued new ethics directives, pledging to make transparency a hallmark of his administration." Only last April, his justice department said it would comply with a court order to release the photographs...and then revised the policy to refuse publication. Agreeing with Obama's principled pro-transparency position, Cohen deplores his abandonment of it [at the first real test]. He concludes, "But more than this, transparency is an ethical ideal, the political expression of a commitment to honesty. It is disheartening to see it resisted by someone who has spoken so ardently in its defense."

Was Obama acting hypocritically? Well, he affirmed one standard but failed to meet it in his own actions. As we saw below, that in itself is not yet hypocrisy. Does he advance one set of standards while really and in practice accepting another? That would be hypocrisy. But can we really tell the difference? Do we need a pattern of such discrepancies before we can call it hypocrisy?

Hypocrisy Pt. 2

Another kind of hypocrisy talk in politics has to do, not with the private lives of politicians, but with their allegedly inconsistent political positions. The charge is used on all sides. From the left come charges that Israel (and the United States for that matter) is in no position to criticize Palestinian terrorists because it is a practitioner of state terror itself. The United States is hypocritical in denouncing North Korean or Iranian nuclear weapons when it has the world's largest stockpile of them and is the only country actually to have used them, and then to bomb intentionally a civilian population. On the other side of the political spectrum, the media is accused of giving openly gay mayor of Portland, OR a more or less free ride over allegations of improper behavior with a male underage subordinate. See and . In contrast, the argument goes, a heterosexual conservative politician would have been pounced on and mauled gleefully and relentlessly. (Of course, that does not quite work, because Bill Clinton was pounced on and conservatives!)

The obvious response to such charges of hypocritically ignoring the beam in your own eye is to accuse one's accusers of treating morally different cases as if they were "moral equivalents." So, they ask, is it not morally relevant that Israel has a policy and principle against targeting civilians. When these appear to have been violated, there are accusations, inquiries, and prosecutions. In contrast, Hamas and other terrorists deny the distinction between civilian and military targets. They place rocket launchers and arms caches in civilian areas, near hospitals or mosques, precisely because they know the Israelis, unlike themselves, are officially squeamish about attacking such targets. They themselves have launched over 10,000 rockets deliberately (if not very effectively, thank God) against civilian targets in southern Israel. So the cases are different and it is a reflection of your moral bankruptcy if you don't see the difference.

Is North Korean possession of nuclear weapons no different morally from that of the United States? In treating them as morally equivalent you have to ignore a lot of significant differences. The U.S. has possessed the weapons for sixty years whereas North Korea is expanding the nuclear club. It is a notoriously nasty, totalitarian state and a source of instability. It shows no interest in open and honest negotiations and disregards in practice the agreements it signs. (Here someone might point out that the U.S. broke its treaties with American Indians.) By the way, I regard all possession of nuclear weapons by anyone as evil, just because they are built to be weapons of mass destruction aimed at civilian targets.

This sort of approach to politics, going directly from very abstract principles to particular cases, may make one side appear unrealistic and self-righteous while the other appears hypocritical.

In what sense is hypocrisy involved here? Is it about saying one thing and doing another, as in failing to live up to one's own moral standards? But that, I argued in my previous post, is not hypocrisy but the nature of the (fallen) human condition. Hypocrisy has to mean something more serious, like expounding one set of principles while really adhering to a contradictory set. But is that the case in any of these examples and how do we know?

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