Sunday, November 30, 2014
First Aired: 
Sunday, July 8, 2012

What Is It

Hypocrites believe one thing, but do another. Jefferson opposed slavery, but owned slaves. Jesus professed universal love, but cursed an innocent fig tree. Jerry Brown opposes the death penalty, but as governor of California will be responsible for executions. Hypocrites all – but vile hypocrites? Surely it was better that Jefferson was a hypocrite, and articulated the case against slavery, than not opposing it at all. Does it take courage to defend a view that you, yourself, don't have the courage or the character to follow through on? John and Ken try to practice what they preach with Lawrence Quill from San Jose State University, author of Secrets and Democracy: From Arcana Imperii to Wikileaks.

Listening Notes

There’s a lot of hypocrisy in the world, especially in politics, but is it really so bad? Is it one of the worst kinds of vice or just a necessary evil? John suggests that we should first get clear on what a hypocrite is, so the two philosophers attempt to work out a definition through some examples. John eventually suggests that a hypocrite is someone who knows he ought to be one thing, but pretends to be another. Ken, not satisfied with that definition, offers some counterexamples to put pressure on it. They arrive at some difficult questions: what exactly is hypocrisy? How is different from lying, insincerity, or weakness of the will? And how bad is it, really?

Political scientist Lawrence Quill joins the conversation. He proposes that hypocritical behavior bothers us so much in large part because we want to take people’s words and actions as representative of their character. Hypocrisy reveals startling inconsistencies between behavior and character. But, Ken asks, can these inconsistencies ever be good? Lawrence claims that they absolutely can—indeed, acting hypocritically can even be virtuous. John helps him defend this bold claim by providing an example in which revealing one’s own beliefs might seem wrong. Ken points out that representing oneself falsely can undermine the foundations of our relationships with other people. Lawrence dismisses this anti-hypocrite stance, arguing that being authentic can lead to devastating consequences. Certainly, he thinks, it’s important to be transparent in our private lives, but a different set of standards should apply in the public sphere.

Lawrence concedes that there are at least some situations in which hypocrisy is bad. So how do we know when and how much hypocrisy is permissible? He suggests that to strike the right balance, politicians need that all-too-rare virtue of moderation. He says, however, that we shouldn’t expect some formula or set of rules that guarantees right conduct if we act in accordance with it. Ken points out that this is very much in the spirit of the “virtue ethics” school of moral philosophy. Our hosts then give us some final thoughts. John points out that our definitions of “hypocrisy” might not be able to capture our emotional reactions to it. Ken reasserts his position: hypocrisy might sometimes be expedient, but it’s truly a vice.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 5:22): Caitlin Esch investigates famous cases of political hypocrisy. Ernesto Dal Bó, a professor at UC Berkeley who researches political influence and corruption, helps analyze these cases. 
  • 60 Second Philosopher (Seek to 49:18): Ian Shoales brings to attention the wide range of behaviors that are similar to hypocrisy, in particular “false fronts.”