Hypocrisy

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Blogs are abuzz with the news the Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) is on a list of people who called a prostitute. Lots of things might be appropriate to say about this, but there's one thing I've been seeing that just isn't one of them. A lot of people have been calling him a hypocrite for being strong on family values politically while having an adulterous relation with a prostitute. This sort of comment derives from ignorance about what hypocrisy is.

According to Merriam-Webster, hypocrisy is "a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not; especially : the false assumption of an appearance of virtue or religion". As far as I can tell, there isn't any evidence here that his claim to be in favor of family values was false, i.e. that he doesn't really believe it. He did do something that conflicts with such a belief, but that doesn't mean he doesn't really have the belief and was just faking it to get elected. That would be hypocrisy. Pretending you believe something in order to get elected fits with the Merriam-Webster definition. It's a kind of dishonesty.

On the other hand, many people often have higher standards for themselves than they actually meet. I certainly do. That doesn't make me a hypocrite. It just means that I'm bad. Being bad and being a hypocrite aren't the same thing. If you're bad, and you realize you're bad, you regret it afterward and not just because of the consequences. If you repent of the action and turn from it, then it reveals that you really disagree with the action but did it out of weakness. You're still morally responsible for it, and if it's a serious wrong then you're morally to blame for a serious wrong. But it's not hypocrisy unless you never really believed it to begin with, and committing an indiscretion like this isn't a sign of never having believed it. We do what's wrong knowingly all the time. There's a difference between that and pretending you're something you're not.

(Note: Vitter has dealt with this issue within his own marriage and has been in counseling with his wife because of it. I think that's evidence that he is committed to his marriage and really is in favor of family values, even if he did something that undermines the family and his family in pretty serious ways. So I would think the evidence is even fairly strong that he's not a hypocrite.)

Update: There may be an inconsistency issue here. I may need to think about that a little more, but I would insist that that's a separate issue from whether he's a hypocrite for merely doing something he believes is wrong. That wouldn't constitute grounds for a hyocrisy charge. But that doesn't mean there's no issue here related to his role as a senator passing laws against pornography while engaging in the act and then thinking his repentance and reconciliation with his wife is sufficient while a criminal investigation of the prostitute is taking place. If Vitter committed a crime, and he's been endorsing the prosecution of that crime, and yet he was complicit with the crime, that is indeed a problem, and it might constitute hypocrisy. I'd need to see the details more to be sure, but that's the suggestion. There is a difference between running a prostitution ring and paying to use one of the prostitutes in that prostitution ring, but I think there might be an issue, but it may not be as simple an issue as it sounds.

11 Comments

Hi Jeremy, I agree with your important clarification of hypocrisy as "a kind of dishonesty", and not merely the failure to live up to one's own standards.

Still, while I'm not familiar with this particular case, it sounds like the kind of case where charges of hypocrisy may not be as straightforwardly misguided as you suggest. Consider especially the first part of the definition: "a feigning to be what one is not". Some leaders on the religious right like to portray themselves as more morally upstanding than the rest of society. It's not just that they *advocate* "family values"; they are supposed to *embody* them.

So, *if* a public figure engages in such moral puffery, their subsequent moral failures would indeed be a case of hypocrisy. We find that they are not the paragons of virtue that they claimed to be.

(Of course, if this particular guy made no such claims, then the charges of hypocrisy would be inapt in his case.)

Hmmm...the particular hypocricy charges I've heard against Vitter is that during the Clinton/Lewinski affair he said something along the lines of "Adultry is grounds for resignation", obviously meaning that Clinton should resign. If he really did say such a statement, and if Vitter has no intention of resigning, then it looks to me to be a case of hypocisy.

Richard, I can't really think of any politician of the "family values" type who makes any outright claim toward embodying family values in a way that's superior. Maybe you just mean the sort of thing that involves showing off one's family in order to show one's desire to promote the family as an institution, but I don't see that as moral puffery.

Wink, I hadn't heard of that statement from him. What I've been seeing is the charge of hypocrisy merely because he has been a family values candidate while having an adulterous relationship. I do think there's a kind of pragmatic inconsistency if you say something at one point and then don't abide by it later. For instance, all the people who got elected while promising not to serve more than one or two terms who continued to serve after that have gone against something they've earlier said, but that's true of any politician who doesn't honor a campaign promise. Is that hypocrisy? I don't think so.

These cases might be genuine changes of mind, or they might be moral weakness. If they had a strong view, and then once they realized what the situation was like when they were in it, their view changed. A number of people got to Congress in 1994 after pledging to fight for term limits and then realizes that term limits in Congress would cause problems they hadn't at first been aware of. Some of them had promised to limit themselves voluntarily and kept to that promise anyway, while others didn't. That might constitute breaking a promise, but I don't think breaking a promise is hypocrisy as long as they genuinely meant it at the time the promise was made. If they changed their mind or just had a hard time following through with it, it's not hypocrisy. If they just said it to get elected without really intending to do it, then it's hypocrisy.

Now I don't think we could know if Vitter made his comment (assuming he really made it to begin with) with genuine intent to resign if he ever had an adulterous relationship. But it's possible he meant it and now he doesn't agree with it anymore or is simply morally weak in not following through with his own view. (Or maybe we'll see him resign but he needs some time to bring himself to do it.) So I'm not sure this is hypocrisy.

It seems to me that you're working with an overly narrow construal of hypocrisy. You don't have to present yourself as believing something you really don't believe to be a hypocrite. I don't think most of the instances in the gospels where Jesus used the term fit the narrow construal you seem to be using. Consider, for instance, what is perhaps the best-known passage in this regard: Matthew 7:3-5. I don't think one gets off the hypocrisy hook if you really believe that others are pretty bad and that you are pretty good, and so you are not presenting yourself as believing anything you don't really believe. The targets of that passage (& I take it we're all potential targets: this is something almost everyone is susceptible to & must watch out for) are quick to see the faults of others, but very slow to see their own faults. They may really believe that others are relatively faulty while they themselves are relatively faultless, but they are hypocrites nonetheless. Given this way of being a hypocrite, if someone judges that adultery is grounds for resignation when others are guilty of it, but judge that it's not sufficient grounds for resignation if they themselves are the ones guilty of it, this seems a pretty clear case of hypocrisy. It doesn't get you off the hook if you really stop believing that it's grounds for resignation when it's you who are caught -- if your being caught causes you to genuinely change your mind. *Some* hypocrites don't really believe what they present themselves as believing. But some of the worst hypocrites (&, on my reading, at least, some of the ones that most bothered Jesus) are the true believers: they really truly believe what they present themselves as believing. Their problem is that they tend to believe what favors their own case.

And I think that failures to live up to what one publicly puts forward can be hypocrisy even if one really believes what one presents oneself as believing. Here we should focus on the first half of the Merriam-Webster definition you give. I think those who can sense the hypocrisy in this case sense that when you present certain rules, guidelines, or ways of life as vitally important -- when, for instance, you present yourself as a "strong family values guy" -- you inevitably present yourself as someone who by and large lives by those values yourself (unless you explicitly acknowledge your own shortcomings in the area). If your own secret behavior is extremely out of line with the values you publicly preach, that's the very essence of (an important kind of) hypocrisy. To take another example, if an Al Gore-like character (this may apply to Gore himself, at least in the fairly recent past [I understand he's straightening out the problems here]: I haven't followed the story enough to know) publicly professes the importance of conservation, but turns out to be an energy guzzler himself, that's a form of hypocrisy, even if he really believes in the importance of conservation. An extreme disconnect between one's own private behavior and the values one publicly professes is a type of hypocrisy -- that I think can be understood as a form of the first part of the definition you give -- and if not, then so much the worse for the definition. You write:

On the other hand, many people often have higher standards for themselves than they actually meet. I certainly do. That doesn't make me a hypocrite.

Right: That by itself doesn't make you a hypocrite. But if you publicly proclaim the importance of certain standards -- at least in a certain way -- while your own behavior is radically out-of-line with those standards, then you're a hypocrite.

But I should say a bit about the "in a certain way" clause. You can very publicly proclaim the importance of certain standards while radically falling short of them yourself without hypocrisy if you publicly proclaim them in a way in a way that acknowledge & emphasizes the fact that you yourself fall far short of what you're preaching: "For some reason, I can't get myself to take the steps needed to do any serious conservation. I'm the chief of sinners here. I probably waste more energy than anyone in this room. Still, I can see the vital importance of conservation, and I'll try to get you to see it, too, and maybe we can then all work on our behavior together." *That* doesn't seem to me to be hypocrisy - though I could understand if someone thought it still was. That's not presenting yourself as something you're not. But I take it Vittner didn't accompany his own family values preaching with acknowledgements of his own horrible faults in that area.

I failed to point out what in particular about Matt 7:3-5 I'm going by in drawing from it a lesson about (at least one form of) hypocrisy. It's this: Jesus's complaint is not that his targets see the plank in their own eyes but then present themselves as not having a plank. Rather, it's that they don't see the plank in their own eye. Their problem isn't presenting themselves as believing what they don't believe, but in their tendency not to see or believe certain things out of self-interested motives. To take one more example from the gospels...
Matthew 16:2 He answered and said to them, "When it is evening you say, '[It will be] fair weather, for the sky is red'; 3 "and in the morning, '[It will be] foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.' Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot [discern] the signs of the times.
Here the complaint isn't that they can discern the signs of the times, but present themselves as not believing what they discern, but their failure to discern the signs. It seems important to the charge of hypocrisy that this isn't a purely intellectual failure -- which seems to be why Jesus points out that they're not dummy's & they have the intellectual ability to discern other signs. The problem has to do with what's behind their misjudging. But the problem is presented one of (a certain kind of) misjudging, rather than of judging but then presenting yourself as believing something else.

Matthew 16:2-3 turns out not to be in most manuscripts -- and most translations don't have the charge of "Hypocrites!" (I was using the New KJV). So use Luke 12:54-56 instead. All the points I make above apply.

Jesus' complaint against the Pharisees was that they had a double standard of sorts. They tried to worm their way around the intent of the law when the law wasn't in their favor, but they tried to hold people to the letter of the law when it wasn't in their interest. In a way they weren't endorsing the law when they said they were endorsing it. They were endorsing their version of it, but it wasn't what God intended.

Weakness of will seems to be a very different thing. It's one thing to have a moment of sin when you consider what you're doing wrong or even to have lots of such moments with repentance afterward. It's quite another to pretend you didn't do it, to weasel around definitions of words to make it seem as if you didn't do it, and so on. The latter seems to be the kind of hypocrisy Jesus had in mind. The former, as far as I know, might be what happened here.

I'm not sure you have to give an explicit statement that you're imperfect to avoid hypocrisy when you pronounce on moral issues that you have a particular weakness in. If I were tempted to a certain sin that I believed to be wrong, and I was assigned a passage to teach in a Bible study that rotates leaders, and that passage happened to teach the issue in question, I might well say that I'm imperfect on the issue in question while leading such a study.

On the other hand, it might be an issue that would cause problems for my wife or my family if I were to make it known. I may not want to reveal that. Therefore, it would be wrong for me to reveal the information. There might be ways to indicate that we all struggle, that no one's perfect, and that I'm not putting myself above others without explicitly admitting that I have a problem with the current issue. I would say such a person isn't necessarily a hypocrite. And given that this is an issue for Vitter, I can understand why he didn't publicly confess this immediately when his wife found out about it but waited until it was already public knowledge to apologize for it.

As I read about how Vitter sold himself as a family values guy (& especially how he would go after other pols), it sure doesn't sound like the kind of humble advocacy that can co-exist with a radical departure in his own private behavior from the values he was preaching while not making him a hypocrite. Rather, it appears to be a textbook case of hypocrisy.

That may well be. I haven't investigated much into how he campaigned. My main point still seems to me to be true. People who were saying it's hypocrisy merely because he did something that goes against what he's said to be right need to say a lot more before calling him a hypocrite.

Remember that if any of the Pharisees had repented of his hypocrisy, Jesus would have welcomed them with open arms. So, in the case of Senator Vitter, we should be like Jesus and welcome his repentance for adultery. If we say that hypocrisy is a sin, but have no room for forgiveness, then we are no better than the Pharisees that Jesus condemned.

But, I suspect, that the hypocrisy charge is not about renewing the soul of fellow citizens (or fellow Christians). Rather, it is about trying to find flaws in people whose messages we despise. For some reason, we mistakenly find comfort in our wretchedness when we find those more wretched than ourselves. But ridiculing another's inadequacy is no substitute for purifying our own hearts. This, I will call, the leaky-soul fallacy.

Yes, I really do also hope that people are far more forgiving of Vitter than he has been of his political opponents whose moral failings he has attacked.

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