Civil Libertarianism and Hypocrisy

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Civil libertarianism is a general emphasis on individual rights as opposed to government interference in how people choose to live their lives. Some people hold to civil libertarianism purely as a political philosophy, and others base it in a kind of moral libertarianism about there being nothing morally wrong with most of the things they favor allowing people to do legally. Someone like Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine, had better take the latter view when it comes to sex-related acts that he wants legal, at least unless he's going to admit to being a thoroughly immoral person. So I suspect that what's grounding his advocacy of first-amendment free-speech rights for the porngraphy industry that he's part of is a moral libertarianism. There's nothing wrong with what his magazine publishes, so there should be no laws against it.

What he doesn't like is social conservatives who speak out against sex-related acts of certain sorts and then commit acts privately that many of their constituents would disapprove of. This is what's called hypocrisy, provided that it's not just a moment of weakness but a regular pattern of saying one thing and doing another, with full realization that their words apply to themselves and just no willingness to let that affect their life. We just heard Flynt on the radio talking about his campaign to catch politicians doing this sort of thing by paying anyone a million dollars if they can come up with photographs of politicians in the act.

Something seems funny about the position Flynt is taking. He denies that this is revenge against those who have caused him legal trouble in the past. So what is his motivation? Would you expect a civil libertarian who thinks people should pretty much be able to do what they want to be concerned about what these politicians are up to? It's not as if he thinks those acts are immoral or anything. So it's not the acts that he has a problem with. The only things left that he could complain about are (1) their public stance and (2) the disconnect between their public stance and their private behavior. I'm not sure either justifies what Flynt is doing, at least not unless you add some additional moral premise that might move in the opposite direction of the moral libertarianism that often undergirds civil libertarianism.

Flynt has a legitimate complaint against the policy recommendations of social conservatives, given his civil libertarianism. On his view those policies are terrible. He objects to restrictions that prevent people from getting married to other people of the same sex, mutilating their fetuses to death, using chemicals (i.e. drugs) to destroy themselves and the kids in their neighborhood that they deal them to, taking advantage of desperate people in order to have sex with them (i.e. hiring prostitutes), taking advantage of desperate people in order to photgraph them nude (i.e. running a porn magazine), and so on. He wants people to be free to do those things, and he thinks he has a moral objection to stopping people from doing such things. So the views of social conservatives are, on his view, wrong.

But how does that in itself justify calling them out on their behavior? If someone who publicly opposes interracial relationships has a private interracial affair on the side, the fact that I disapprove of their public stance does not by itself provide a reason for any action with regard to their behavior. I need to have some further attitude toward the behavior to motivate treating them in a certain way because of that behavior. But the problem is that I don't think there's anything wrong with an interracial relationship, and so I shouldn't be talking about the relationship itself as if it's wrong. If I also don't think there's anything wrong with a secret relationship, then the fact that it's secret makes no difference.

It has to be that the combination of speaking against it and doing it is what motivates Flynt. But does it morally justify him, given his other views? I'm not sure it does. If the general approach he advocates is to let people do what they want, then why not let people do one thing while saying another? He has to have some <i>moral</i> condemnation for hypocrisy if he thinks he ought to be calling people out for something he doesn't think is sinful to begin with. I can think of a few reasons why he might.

First, he might think hypocrisy is harmful in a way that the sexual acts themselves are not. But why would that be so? As far as I can tell, it's merely the policy view that he thinks is harmful, not the acts or the combination of the acts and the policy view.

Second, he might think that it's wrong for some other reason. But I wonder what the other reason might be. Generally people of Flynt's mindset want to issue a moral condemnation only when behavior harms. Can he justify saying hypocrisy is harmful in a way that these sexual acts aren't harmful (assuming the acts aren't harmful, as he does; I would not grant that myself)? I'd need to see a justification for such a view, because I can't think of any.

Third, he might not think the hypocrisy is wrong in itself, but he might instead think these people deserve whatever they get because their policy views are so bad that if bad things happen to them as a result then they get their just deserts. But he did say that he wasn't doing this out of revenge. If he wanted to make the distinction between revenge and justice, then he should merely report them to the police and let them handle it (if the behavior is illegal). Otherwise, how isn't it revenge?

So I'm left thinking that Flynt doesn't have any moral justification for doing what he does. He wants to hold these people accountable for sexual behavior that he has no problem with, and he wants to do it purely because he doesn't like their policy views, all the while saying that it's not revenge because of how people who hold such policy views have made his life more difficult (not that much of his difficulties have come from laws that he would find oppressive; he's been able to make plenty of money even with those oppressive laws). I'm left wondering if there isn't an inconsistency in his own views. I won't call it hypocrisy, because it isn't hypocrisy unless he can see that what he's doing violates his own principles. But I don't see how it can fit with his views, as I understand his views (and maybe I've gotten him wrong).

For several years, I've thought that the last sin for those who reject the idea of objectively moral wrongs is hypocrisy. If you don't want to condemn anything in a moral way, you can at least condemn people by their own standards. Sure. That's fine. I suppose civil libertarianism also gives Flynt to right to say what he wants about other people too (although I guess he has to argue that this doesn't harm the people he's calling out or at least that it's worth the harm for some reason, whatever that might be). But is it morally justified? It's hard for me to see how, although I'm open to suggestions.

2 Comments

Jeremy, why can't Flynt just believe that hypocrisy is morally wrong? After all, Jesus did. There may not be much else in common between their moralities, but it seems you are condemning Flynt for agreeing with Jesus on this one! Maybe Flynt's set of moral principles is inconsistent, although I don't quite see why there is an inconsistency here, but is it intrinsically morally wrong to hold an inconsistent set of moral principles? If you want to condemn Flynt, I think you should do so for the ways in which his morals go against Christian teaching, not for the one point on which they agree with it!

I'm not criticizing the belief that hypocrisy is wrong. I'm wondering if Flynt has a foundation to explain why it's wrong, and barring that I'm wondering if he has a justification on his premises for his calling out of people who are doing things he has no problem with. If not, then I'm wondering if what he's doing is in structurally similar to what the people he's doing this to are doing (and I pointed out one way it's clearly not).

None of this minimizes my own belief that hypocrisy is wrong any more than it minimizes my belief that most of the behaviors he's talking about are wrong. I was just struck by several things he said that seem at odds with his more fundamental views.

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