Two Models of Hypocrisy

20 November 2017

What’s goes on in the mind of a hypocrite?

Tim Murphy, recently resigned from PA District 18, got elected to Congress in 2003—to a great extent by claiming to be pro-life. Yet it emerged last month that he encouraged his mistress to have an abortion during a pregnancy scare. She texted him on October 3: “And you have zero issue posting your pro-life stance all over the place when you had no issue asking me to abort our unborn child just last week when we thought that was one of the options.”

Scott DesJarlais is another “pro-life” Congressman. Yet he supported his ex-wife’s two abortions and, when he was a doctor, pressed a patient he slept with to have an abortion (during an unfounded scare).  His hypocrisy emerged in 2012.

Given what they say, these men seem committed to thinking that they encouraged their marital and extra-marital partners to commit murder. But it also seems unlikely that they actually think of themselves in such terms. So what’s going on in the minds of such hypocrites?

We won’t ever know for sure in these particular cases, but I think it’s worth distinguishing two strikingly different possibilities concerning the psychology that might underlie hypocritical behavior. I’ll continue with the Murphy / DesJarlais examples, but I also think the models are much more general.

Model 1: The Craven Liar. On this model, when the hypocrite says things like “Abortion is murder” or “I believe each embryo is a full human life,” he is not expressing what he (or she, in other cases) actually thinks. Rather, he’s lying about what he thinks for political gain. His genuine thoughts don’t match his utterances at all. Rather, his knowledge about other people’s beliefs guides his deception of them.

On the Craven Liar model, there’s no puzzle about why a “pro-life” advocate like Murphy or DesJarlais would encourage a partner to have an abortion, since this kind of hypocrite doesn’t think the embryo is a person in any sense anyway. Both his pro-life talk and his encouraging of abortion are calculated exploitation. For the Craven Liar, there’s only a problem if someone else notices.  

Murphy and DesJarlais may just be Craven Liar hypocrites. But before we draw that conclusion, however, let’s consider the other model.

Model 2: Credence as Make-Believe. I recently saw a play called The Christians, a play that, among other things, conveys the theatrical nature of much preaching. A preacher is, in part, adopting a persona, performing a role, with the congregation as audience (which also plays a role). There’s no doubt that in playing the roles they play, many actual preachers are overcome with sincere emotion. But much of the time, they are not so much saying what they straightforwardly think as they are expressing religious credences, which are imaginative states that constitute a major part of one’s identity. After the play, I heard an actor who happened to be in the audience say that it made him realize the theatrical nature of preaching in general. “I never realized it,” he said, “but they’re doing the same thing we do.” That is: acting.

On the Credence as Make-Believe model, men like Murphy and DesJarlais would have the religious credence that embryos are full-fledged humans, and they may express this credence with great absorption, especially in the presence of those inclined to do the same.

But their verbal utterances to the effect that abortion is murder are imaginative utterances in a game of make-believe that they don’t consciously realize is make-believe. This lack of realization differentiates them from the Craven Liars. They don’t know they’re playing make-believe, because what they pretend is part of how they internally define themselves. The mechanisms of make-believe operate in absence of conscious awareness, guiding their sanctimonious behavior in drone-like ways until their hypocrisy causes them to fall in a ditch (think of Sartre’s waiter, if you know that passage).

Pro-life credences, like other imaginative states, are toggled on by particular social settings: they guide behavior in identity performance situations—but not so much otherwise (and not when a mistress has a pregnancy scare). Just as an actor’s imaginings come online when he or she walks on stage, the hypocritical “pro-life” politician’s credences come on line when he steps behind the political podium. Pro-life political credences are a special case of the general phenomenon of religious credence, which, I have often argued, is not the same as factual belief.

Are religious credences genuine “beliefs”? I’m often asked this question, and my response is always the same: the question just replicates the ambiguity I’m seeking to dispel. The word “belief,” as it’s used in everyday speech, can and often does refer to religious credences, which is why it would be misleading to say religious credences aren’t “genuine beliefs.” But that linguistic fact is entirely consistent with my view that the psychological properties of religious credences are starkly different from those of factual belief. (You can also check out an earlier blog of mine for some discussion of this matter.) In any case, we can be sure that someone with the religious credences that embryos are full humans won’t always (or even often) act in ways someone would who factually believed that same content.

Though we won’t ever know for sure whether DesJarlais and Murphy are Craven Liars or Credence as Make-Believers, it remains true that, whatever they are, the two psychological models are different. And the Credence as Make-Believe model does a better job, I think, of explaining why hypocrisy often continues long after it’s discovered. The Craven Liar knows he doesn’t think what he says is true, so he is apt to switch to a different scam when his hypocrisy is revealed. But the Credence as Make-Believer believes in belief, as Dan Dennett would put it, and hence his game of make-believe, which is ever at risk of sliding into hypocrisy, is more likely to continue.

To this point, not only did they vote for it, but both Tim Murphy and Scott DesJarlais were co-sponsors on Congress’s recently passed H.R. 36, which outlawed abortion after 20 weeks (Senate will consider the bill next). Murphy has resigned due to his scandal and stepped down from Congress on October 21. DesJarlais still represents Tennessee’s 4th Congressional district and appears to have no plans to retire soon.