The Truth about Hypocrisy

Charges of hypocrisy can be surprisingly irrelevant and often distract us from more important concerns.

Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse in Scientific American:

ScreenHunter_02 Dec. 10 08.25 Former U.S. vice president Al Gore urges us all to reduce our carbon footprint, yet he regularly flies in a private jet. Former drug czar William Bennett extols the importance of temperance but is reported to be a habitual gambler. Pastor Ted Haggard preached the virtues of “the clean life” until allegations of methamphetamine use and a taste for male prostitutes arose. Eliot Spitzer prosecuted prostitution rings as attorney general in New York State, but he was later found to be a regular client of one such ring.

These notorious accusations against public figures all involve hypocrisy, in which an individual fails to live according to the precepts he or she seeks to impose on others. Charges of hypocrisy are common in debates because they are highly effective: we feel compelled to ­reject the views of hypocrites. But although we see hypocrisy as a vice and a symptom of incompetence or insincerity, we should be exceedingly careful about letting our emotions color our judgments of substantive issues.

Allegations of hypocrisy are treacherous because they can function as argumentative diversions, drawing our attention away from the task of assessing the strength of a position and toward the character of the position’s advocate. Such accusations trigger emotional reflexes that dominate more rational thought patterns. And it is precisely in the difficult and important cases such as climate change that our reflexes are most often inadequate.

More here. [Photo shows Spitzer.]