Friday, November 9, 2018

Am I a Hypocrite? A Philosophical Self-Assessment

I was recently called a hypocrite. I was talking to a friend and, as is my wont, I was complaining about another person who failed to respond to an email I had sent them a few days previously. My friend pointed out that I was in no position to make this complaint: I am a notorious non-responder to emails. I frequently procrastinate and dilly-dally in my correspondence with others. I often wait until the last possible minute to reply, or until I have received several follow-ups begging me for a response.

The accusation stung but my friend had a point. My complaint was pretty rich when you consider my own behaviour. But my instant reaction was not to accept what they had said but, rather, to make excuses. I argued that my friend didn’t understand why I was so bad at responding to emails. It wasn’t a moral failing, I told them, it was an illness. I have a chronic fear of making decisions (which is often required in responding to emails). I always worry that I will do or say the wrong thing. So I like to postpone making them for as long as possible. I get trapped in spirals of anxiety that can only be disrupted by last minute panic or repeated entreaties from others. I told them they should pity me, not condemn me.

It all sounds silly now. And although this particular accusation of hypocrisy wasn’t that serious, it did urge me to reflect on others ways in which I may be hypocritical. It’s something I was thinking about anyway, particularly in the aftermath of my sister’s death. As I noted in my previous writings about grief, I felt a lot of guilt after she died. I wasn’t the perfect brother by any stretch of the imagination. I frequently ignored her when she tried to make contact with me. And I didn’t appreciate (or tell her that I appreciated) all the generous things she did for me over the years. Her death eliminated any possibility of righting those past wrongs to her, but I did resolve to try to change my behaviour toward my surviving friends and family. I told myself I would be more appreciative of the time that I have left with them; that I wouldn’t be so quick to ignore them or procrastinate in my responses to them; that I would be less selfish and self-centred.

Several months later and, I regret to say, nothing has changed. I still think I should be more appreciative and communicative, but (deep down) I prefer to do my own thing and to pursue my own goals. Some people might argue that I am just being weak-willed, i.e. that I am failing to live up to my ideals due to short-term temptations or bad habits. But I think it is different. I think I might be deeply hypocritical about my personal values.

All of which has driven me to read the philosophical literature on hypocrisy in order to figure out how serious a moral failing it is, to determine whether I am in fact a hypocrite, and to figure out what I should do about it. I want to share some of my findings over the remainder of this post. I’ll start with the common view of hypocrisy as a moral failing and then work towards a more sympathetic view of hypocrisy as self-deception. I’ll conclude with a discussion of moral integrity. I’ll be peppering all of this with repeated self-assessments. You may find this nauseatingly self-indulgent, but I hope it resonates for some people.

1. The Common View: Hypocrisy is a Moral Failing
The common view among philosophers is that hypocrisy is a moral failing. Indeed, it is often viewed as one of the worst moral failings. Why is this? Christine McKinnon’s article ‘Hypocrisy, with a Note on Integrity’ provides a good, clear defence of this view. The article itself is a classic exercise in analytical philosophical psychology. It tries to clarify the structure of hypocrisy and explain why we should take it so seriously. It does so by arguing that there are certain behaviours, desires and dispositions that are the hallmark of the hypocrite and that these behaviours, desires and dispositions undermine our system of social norms.

McKinnon makes this case by considering some paradigmatic instances of hypocrisy, and identifying the necessary and sufficient conditions that allow us to label these as instances of hypocrisy. My opening example of my email behaviour probably fits this paradigmatic mode — despite my protestations to the contrary. A better example, however, might be religious hypocrisy. There have been many well-documented historical cases of this, but let’s not focus on these. Let’s instead imagine a case that closely parallels these historical examples. Suppose there is a devout fundamentalist Christian preacher. He regularly preaches about the evils of homosexuality and secularism and professes to be heterosexual and devout. He calls upon parents to disown their homosexual children or to subject them to ‘conversion therapy’. Then, one day, this preacher is discovered to himself be a homosexual. Not just that, it turns out he has a long-term male partner that he has kept hidden from the public for over 20 years, and that they were recently married in a non-religious humanist ceremony.

I think most people would call this preacher a hypocrite. But what is it about the preacher’s behaviour that warrants this label? Well, one obvious feature is his deception: he has been living a lie. He has professed and preached one kind of behaviour, but lived and done the opposite. The mismatch between his professions and actions seems to be one of the hallmarks of hypocrisy.

But it’s not just that. Deception, as McKinnon points out, might be a necessary condition for hypocrisy, but it’s not sufficient. People lie and dissemble all the time, but we don’t call them hypocrites for doing so. There needs to be something else. That something else is a complex intention or desire to use the deception to gain some moral advantage or reputation within a particular community. Again, look to what the preacher is doing. He isn’t just living a lie. He is actively preaching the contrary in order to attain the respect and status of the community of devout Christians in which he operates. He knows that they see him as an authority figure and will respond positively to his message. He uses this to his advantage. The complex intention consists in both an awareness of the community’s moral standards and how to manipulate them to one’s own advantage.

Putting this all together, McKinnon’s account of hypocrisy appears to be the following:

Hypocrite = A person who is dishonest about his/her true motives/intentions/behaviours in order to be perceived in a more favourable light by their moral community, where:
(a) The person knows that their motives (etc) are being judged;
(b) The person knows that they are manipulating the judgments of their audience.

On this account, it’s easy to see why hypocrisy is taken to be such a serious moral failing. The hypocrite, according to McKinnon, is not simply being inconsistent in their behaviour, they are subverting the system of social morality. Since social morality relies, to a large extent, on the good faith of all participants, hypocrites are a major problem because of their bad faith. They are not committed to genuine moral improvement or conformity. They are free riders on the system of social morality. In this sense, they are very different from the person of integrity (about whom there will be more discussion below). The person of integrity acts in good faith and tries to ensure coherence between their motives and actions. They may get it wrong, but at least they do not subvert the presumption of good faith by their efforts.

McKinnon is at pains to distinguish hypocrisy from other, closely-related phenomena. She says that hypocrisy is distinct from politeness. It may be possible to confuse the two. If you are at a dinner party and the host asks you whether or not you liked the meal, you might say that ‘it was lovely’ even though you thought it tasted like something scraped off the bottom of a well-worn shoe. The difference is that politeness is motivated by respect for the other person. You are trying to protect their feelings, not gain an advantage over them. That said, the distinction can be subtle and sometimes you may wonder whether what seems initially like politeness is, in fact, hypocrisy. You may even wonder this about your own behaviour.

In a similar vein, McKinnon argues that hypocrisy is not the same as self-deception (i.e. some compartmentalisation or sincere belief that one is consistent in one’s motives and behaviours). Indeed, she argues that the true or ‘professional’ hypocrite operates in the complete absence of self-deception: they know what their true motives are at all times. Still, she acknowledges that there might be a tendency for someone who starts out as a pure hypocrite to gradually descend into self-deception, but she thinks it is important to keep hypocrisy and self-deception conceptually distinct. More on this in a moment.

Finally, McKinnon also argues that hypocrisy may, on some occasions, be morally permissible. If the hypocrite is someone who manipulates social perceptions to gain an advantage within a given moral community, the morality of their behaviour must be judged relative to the standards of that community. If the community’s standards are themselves immoral, and if there is great risk to the individual if they don’t manipulate other people’s judgments of them (or if they can do more good by manipulating those judgments), then it is possible that their hypocrisy is permissible. Still, McKinnon is cautious about this assessment, and suggests that such people might be viewed as cowards for their hypocrisy. It would then depend on the particular case whether that cowardliness was morally blameworthy (she gives the example of someone living in Nazi Germany who goes along to get along).

2. The Sympathetic View: Hypocrisy as Self-Deception
McKinnon’s view is attractive and conceptually pure. The problem with it is that it is almost too harsh on the hypocrite. For her, a hypocrite is like a cartoon villain, a uniquely self-centred and manipulative abuser of social norms. We might wonder whether any such villains exist in the real world.

If I were to assess my own behaviour and attitudes using her framework, I would be very reluctant to call myself a hypocrite. I don’t think I am self-consciously and deceptively manipulating other people’s judgments through what I say or do. Maybe there is a little bit of that going on. You could argue that writing a blog post like this (or the series that I wrote shortly after my sister died) is a kind of virtue signalling. You could argue that in writing I am trying to make out that I am a better person than I really am. I’m playing the part of someone who publicly self-flagellates themselves in order to convince you of my moral seriousness when, behind the scenes, I’m pretty self-centred and unrepentant. But it doesn’t feel that way from the inside. It feels like a genuine inner torment — a war between different values — one that I resolve and rationalise in a way that makes me feel comfortable (and involves the least change).

In other words, what I refer to as my own hypocrisy seems to involve a good deal of self-deception and self-manipulation, not (just) the manipulation of others. That’s why I was relieved to read Michael Statman’s article on ‘Hypocrisy and Self-Deception’. Statman wants to get away from the idea of the hypocrite as moral cartoon character. Real people are way more interesting than that. As he sees it, the morally vicious form of hypocrisy that is the focus of McKinnon’s ire tends to overlap with and blur into self-deception much more frequently than she allows. The two things are not strongly dichotomous. Indeed, people can slide back and forth between them with relative ease: the self-deceived can slide into hypocrisy and the hypocrite can slide into self-deception.

Although I am attracted to this view, Statman points out that it is a tough sell. On face value, hypocrisy and self-deception look to be very different. Consider some of the obvious differences: hypocrisy involves deception of others, whereas self-deception involves deception of the self; hypocrisy requires an audience and social context, whereas self-deception can happen in private; hypocrisy is voluntary whereas self deception is involuntary; and so on. The image below outlines further discrepancies between the two phenomena. When you consider them all, you’d be hard pressed to say that hypocrisy and self-deception are similar. They seem more like direct contradictions (or complements) to one another.

But if you scratch beneath the surface, you get a different impression. Self-deception is more like hypocrisy than we initially think. For starters, self-deception is partly voluntary, or at least sustained by voluntary acts. To be self-deceived over the long term requires the avoidance or suppression of evidence that contradicts the narrative you tell yourself. In my case, I like to think that I am a generous person, who respects and values my family and friends, but to sustain that self image I have to overlook my tendency to ignore phone calls and emails from those people, and to spend most of my time by myself doing what I most prefer. Furthermore, self-deception is also partly social. Other people support you in your self-interpretation or give you a free pass on the behaviour that contradicts that interpretation. I know this happens to me all the time: people forgive me for my self-centred conduct and tell me that I’m more generous than I know myself to be. All this makes the slide from self-deception to outright hypocrisy much easier than it seems.

Similarly, hypocrisy is much more like self-deception than we initially think. It’s very hard to consistently maintain the pretence demanded by outright hypocrisy. It’s much easier if we believe our own lies. If I want others to think of me as a generous, family-focused guy, and I want the reputation that entails, it’s much easier if I genuinely believe that to be true. It reduces the cognitive dissonance and enables better self-regulation. We can compartmentalise and sincerely believe the signals we send to others. Statman cites some empirical evidence for this, describing several psychological experiments which support the notion that liars tend to believe their own lies (and do better as a result).

You might accept all this and still insist that hypocrisy and self-deception are conceptually distinct. In other words, you might accept that self-deception can morph into hypocrisy and vice versa, but they are still very different things and it is important to maintain the conceptual barrier. Against this, Statman argues that maintaining the barrier wouldn’t be true to real life or to how we deploy the concept of hypocrisy in everyday speech.

As you might imagine, I am quite sympathetic to Statman’s account, partly because it allows me to interpret my own behaviour in a more sympathetic light. Maybe I am not the villain that others make me out to be? Maybe I am a victim of my own self-deception? Maybe I live most of my life in a delusory state, deceiving myself and others, but then occasionally chance upon windows of awareness where I realise what I am doing. My conversation with my friend about the emails, or my self-reflection about whether I have reformed my character after my sister’s death being two obvious examples of this. I guess the question then becomes: what do I do with those moments of self-awareness?

3. The Resolution: Pursuing Integrity
Up to this point, I have been trying to diagnose and classify my personal failings. Am I a hypocrite or self-deceived? Am I a villain or victim? The upshot of the preceding analysis is that I could be a bit of both. In a sense though, it doesn’t matter. At root, the problem is the same: there is an inconsistency in both my behaviour and my values (professed or otherwise), and this inconsistency is more than a simple case of being weak-willed. The challenge is to resolve this inconsistency.

How might this be done? The ideal of integrity points the way. I briefly alluded to this earlier on when discussing McKinnon’s view. I noted that she sees integrity as the direct opposite of hypocrisy. The person of integrity does not live the double life of the hypocrite. They try to achieve balance and harmony across all domains of their lives. And while it may not be possible for us to achieve perfect integrity, it is at least an ideal toward which we should aspire.

That is certainly what Alfred Archer argues in his article ‘Integrity and the Value of an Integrated Self’. The article serves a dual function. The first is to explain the practical nature of integrity; the second is to make the case for integrity as an ideal. The analysis is rich and rewarding. If you have the time, I recommend reading it. I’ll just summarise the gist of it for now.

Archer’s explication of integrity contrasts the ‘Integrated Self’ with the ‘Fragmented Self’. The integrated self has coherence and wholeness to its ‘projects, ambitions, values, emotions and desires’. It does not experience a conflict between self-interest and moral value. Furthermore, the integrated self’s personal ambitions are either aligned with, or not in tension with, one another. This doesn’t mean that the integrated self is narrow-minded and only interested in one thing, but it does mean that there is harmony among its different pursuits. This is to be contrasted with the experiences of the fragmented self, who pursues incompatible projects, engages in compartmentalisation between different domains of life, and succumbs to hypocrisy and self-deception. To live as a fragmented self is to live life on the edge of emotional breakdown.

Archer illustrates this distinction with two literary examples, both of whom are fictional doctors. The first is John Sassall, a country doctor in John Berger’s novel A Fortunate Man. Sassall is an integrated self. He ‘cures others to cure himself’. His professional life is in harmony with his private values. But this wasn’t always true. He once experienced tensions in his life due to overwork and ambition. He wanted to live a life of service but thought that this meant making the biggest difference to his patients. In believing this he prevented himself from truly serving his community, being dismissive of cases that weren’t serious enough to warrant his attention. He realised that he needed to reinterpret the ideal of service to bring it into line with what was both possible and necessary for him at his station in life.

The second example is Tertius Lydgate from George Eliot’s great novel Middlemarch. Lydgate is a fragmented self. He has multiple conflicting ideals and dispositions. He wants to serve his community and to make important medical breakthroughs, but he is also something of a snob who needs to ingratiate himself with the influential and wealthy members of his community. This combination proves to be a recipe for disaster. He allows his need for wealthy benefactors to fund his scientific projects to cloud his medical judgment. This duplicitousness takes its toll. He has the outward trappings of success, but, as Eliot herself puts it, ‘always regarded himself as a failure’.

From these examples, we can get a pretty good handle on Archer’s account of integrity. But what about the value of integrity? Why is it important to aspire toward an integrated self? Archer’s argument is a modest one. There is no guarantee of value. He admits that it is possible to be an integrated moral monster, i.e. to have immoral ambitions, desires and projects that are perfectly coherent and balanced. He just thinks this is unlikely in practice (and indeed points to empirical research suggesting that moral exemplars are more likely to be well-integrated). The reason for this is the tension between self-interest and moral value. This is one of the main causes of individual moral failure. We all want to ‘succeed’, to get ahead in life, to acquire a reputation and social status; we also all have moral values, many of which tend to put a premium on kindness and generosity to others, selflessness and service to one’s community. If we pick the wrong ambitions, or the wrong values, there’s a danger of fragmentation. We get pulled in different directions, occasionally heeding the siren song of self-interest, and occasionally yielding to the nagging voice of conscience.

This certainly rings true for me. I think my problem — my feeling of inner hypocrisy — stems from a conflict between my ambitions and my values. I have chosen the life of an academic. That life rewards certain kinds of behaviours: publishing peer-reviewed papers, teaching classes, winning research grants, and gaining the respect of one’s peers. These are the status markers and indicators of success. I’m drawn to them because they let me know whether or not I’m winning the game I’ve chosen to play. I’m also drawn to them because I find some of them to be quite enjoyable (particularly writing and research). But I feel guilty about this because I think they contradict or undermine many of my moral values. I have said this before, in other ways, but I don’t think the work I do is of great social value. I’m not sure the world needs another paper about the ethics of AI, or, even if it did, that the paper I write will be a major contribution to knowledge or policy. I’m just one replaceable voice in the wilderness. I also have considerable doubts about the value of teaching and its practical impact. It might make some difference to some students but I suspect this is the exception rather than the rule. As a result, I feel that the pursuit of professional ambition draws me away from what things that really matters.

I don’t doubt that these feelings are common, and I’m sure other people experience greater tension between success at work and moral value. Nevertheless, I think this tension is clearly at the root of my psychological malaise in the aftermath of my sister’s death. Her death crystallised, in a particularly extreme and painful way, the tension I had long suspected was there. Until that moment, I could ignore it and deceive myself into thinking that I was living a coherent and integrated life, that my personal ambitions were consistent with my moral aspirations. After that moment, the deception was not sustainable. The wool was lifted from my eyes; the emperor of my ego was revealed to be a naked fraud. I realised (and wrote about) it at the time, and that is why it is so frustrating to think that nothing has changed since then. I have just lapsed back into the same old patterns once more.

I’ll need to resolve this tension lest I end up like Tertius Lydgate. But this will be difficult to do. I have three main options. Either (a) I allow my current professional ambitions to take priority and use them to reform/reinterpret my moral values; (b) I allow my values to take priority and use them to reform/reinterpret my professional ambitions; or (c) I reform/reinterpret both. The first is the path of least resistance; the second would require a significant overhaul of my current priorities and habits; and the third is just difficult for me to assess at this juncture because its consequences are so unclear.

I think I am going to have to end this self-assessment here. If you have made it this far, I commend you. I have certainly benefitted from writing all this. I’ve learned something about the concepts of hypocrisy, self-deception and integrity, and I’ve used this to bring clarity and insight to my own life. The writing has been cathartic and therapeutic, even if it is only just a beginning. I hope you have got something out of it too.


  1. John — First of all, I'm sorry for your loss. Losing someone close to you must be difficult. I find your pieces on death, grief and the passing of your sister deeply moving and a source of reflection for my own relationships with loved ones. Thank you for writing them. Regarding hypocrisy, I'm wondering if deception is truly a necessary condition. Would a failure to practice what one preaches not be enough to count as hypocrisy? I've made a habit of defending some instances of hypocrisy over the last year but must admit your essay gave me pause. I just think that hypocrisy has been demonized to such an extent that some people would rather pretend not to hold certain values than admit they're falling short of them. For example, some of us might pretend to believe that there is nothing wrong with killing animals for food because we want to eat meat without looking like hypocrites. To maintain integrity, then, some people will rather lie about their values than change their behaviour. While being an 'integrated moral monster' may be difficult in practice, it's possible to be an 'integrated upholder of the status-quo'in practice. I wrote about this earlier this year, maybe you'll find it interesting

    1. I had a long response to this typed out but, for some reason, it got lost when I submitted it. Suffice to say, I would hope the message of this post is not that I think hypocrisy is a serious vice. So, in that sense, I think I agree with you that hypocrisy is overrated as a moral failing: it's something we all experience from time to time and is a natural consequence of our complex psychology/motivations. I also think there could be consequential benefits to some forms of hypocrisy. That said, I do think that if you constantly fail to live up to your own standards you do risk some kind of psychological/personal breakdown. Your capacity for self-deception can only help you to avoid this for so long. That, at any rate, is my experience.

  2. Thanks for this, John. I for one applaud you for this remarkably honest reflection, and it got me thinking too about my own commitments, decisions, and habits. But I won't go into that.

    One possibility that you didn't discuss here is that someone may be in a deep conflict with themselves. Perhaps the preacher genuinely believes that homosexuality is wrong or sinful or whatever and he believes that precisely because he himself experiences it in his own person. Does that make him any less of a hypocrite? I don't know.

    A very interesting case of hypocrisy is also Trump as well as his administration and his Republican enablers. The manipulation aspect is certainly very strong here, and perhaps there is also some self-deception. What is different is that moral superiority is only occasionally and not consistently assumed, and that when it is, it is so clearly just a sham that the shamelessness of it all beggars belief. Is Trump a hypocrite?

    1. Thanks Michael. I haven't thought much about the Trump case. If you follow McKinnon's account it would seem that hypocrisy requires a degree of cognitive sophistication and cleverness in concealing one's true intentions. It's not clear that Trump satisfies either of those conditions. As you point out, to the extent that there are lies they are so transparent and obvious that it's hard to imagine anyone is fooled. And, to a large extent, with Trump, what you see is what you get. Indeed, I think the error lies more in thinking that there is some deeper Machiavellian intellect underlying his behaviour.

      That said, I think there are people who support Trump -- evangelical Christians spring to mind - who could obviously be accused of hypocrisy (but maybe they are just being consequentialists about it all).

  3. Daniel Dennett suggests that there is a golden mean for hypocrisy, using the analogy of a clutch in a manual transmission. Too much and you spin the engine of moral talk while getting nowhere. Too little and you lug the engine, making it hard to accelerate.

    This is completely orthogonal to the manipulation vs self deception issue, as far as I can see, but still relevant.

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  5. Hi John, I just found your blog post. I'm sorry for your loss. I also pursue a career in academia and oftentimes I feel like a hypocrite. There are certain goals as researcher but my work may be pointless and useless. I just lie to myself about this research, particularly the benefit.of it. I almost want to give up, I felt utterly hopeless and selfish. But this writing kinda help me to gain some perspective about hypocrisy and moral dilemma. Of course I can't be perfect all the time but I think there should be a balance between ambition and moral obligation to others. In research, between personal interest and impact to others. Thanks a lot for writing this! 🤘🤘🤘

  6. As a recovering drug addict I was called a hypocrite by someone in my NA group.If drug addiction is a disease and a drug addict relapses is that person a hypocrite or just not practicing the recovery process
    Or is it the disease that resurfaces just like cancer can and the person cannot help that fact.