Hypocrites believe one thing, but do another. Jefferson opposed slavery, but owned slaves. Jesus professed universal love, but cursed an innocent fig tree.
This week’s episode is about Hypocrisy. There’s certainly a lot of hypocrisy around, especially in politics. But how bad is it? Is it a simply necessary evil for an effective politician? Or is it really one of the worst kinds of vices?
I suppose we ought to start by trying to get clear on what exactly hypocrisy is. The word ‘hypocrisy’ comes from a Greek word meaning “playing a theatrical role”. So, we might start with:
A hypocrite is someone who pretends to be something he's not.
That definition probably fits a lot of cases, but I don’t think it's quite right. Consider a courageous abolitionist before the Civil War who travels into the South, where he pretends to be a good ol' boy in order to get slaves so he can smuggle them up north. He pretends to be something he isn't; but would you call such a hero a hypocrite? It depends on what his motives are, and whether he believes he ought to have the values he just pretends to have. Our courageous abolitionist surely doesn’t never think he ought to adopt the values of the slaveowners, so he’s not a hypocrite. So here’s a second try.
A hypocrite is someone who pretends to be something he's not, and knows he’s not, but thinks he ought to be.
But now imagine another character, a guy who volunteers at a soup kitchen. His motive isn’t feeding the poor; he doesn’t care about the poor. Moreover, he doesn’t even think he ought to care about the poor; he thinks such traits are weak and unworthy. He volunteers in order to meet vulnerable women whom he can take advantage of. Like our courageous abolitionist, he doesn't believe in the values he pretends to have, in this case feeding the poor. If we think this fellow is a hypocrite, we need a new definition. Perhaps we should merely say this fellow is a cad. A cad and a hypocrite both act on bad motives, while pretending to have good motives. But the cad doesn’t even realize that the motives he pretends to have are better than the ones he actually has.
So let’s turn to the question of whether, if hypocrisy is in some situations a bad trait, just how bad is it? In some situations is the hypocritical thing to do the right thing to do? In particular, is this often the case politics?
Consider two politicians who both pretend to worry about the plight of the poor in order to win votes. One of them thinks it would be silly -- immoral even -- to worry about the poor. According to our definition, this politician is a liar and a cad, but he’s not a hypocrite. The other one doesn’t care much about the poor either, but let’s say he thinks he'd be a better person if he did. So he is a hypocrite -- but I'd prefer him to the first because at least there’s some chance that the feelings he pretends to have will eventually take hold.
One might suppose the word ‘hypocrite’ isn’t quite right for the second fellow. It sounds like he just suffers from weakness of will. He thinks he ought to care about the plight of the poor, and he even pays lip service to the cause, but he’s too weak or selfish to actually do anything about it.
But here’s the crucial difference -- his lip service to the cause is precisely what makes him a hypocrite. If it were merely weakness of will, he could admit that he ought to be doing more to help the poor than he actually does. But instead, he pretends to be doing something about it, when really he knows he’s not. So he is a hypocrite, and like most hypocrites, weak-willed.
Is hypocrisy a good thing in a politician? Well, perhaps we ought to agree that being a hypocrite of this sort is better than being a cad and a liar. Faint praise, to be sure. But is there any way to avoid it in the world of politics? Success in politics require getting more votes than one’s opponent. Won’t a hypocrite always have an edge in this endeavor?