Being Hyper-Critical of Hypocrisy - by Kenny Collins


You're probably familiar with the word "hypocrisy" or "hypocritical". It is a concept seen as negative (you don't really hear "hypocrite" being used as a compliment) and might come up in television dramas, celebrity drama, or politics. An easy way to describe it is when someone's actions don't match their advice. That seems to justify why it's bad: the person is being deceitful or inconsistent.

It seems very clear-cut; hypocrisy is bad, and it's obvious what is and what isn't hypocritical. But, as most things are, it just is not that simple. And as usual, we can commence our hypercritical deconstruction of the concept.

The Oxford Languages Dictionary gives the definition of hypocrisy as:

the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one's own behaviour does not conform

We can start by making the distinction between personal goals/behaviours vs moral goals/behaviours. Personal behaviour optimizes your own well-being, and guides your life in a way that you think is best for you. Moral behaviour optimizes for the society's well-being, and guides society in a way that you think is best for the society.

Hypocrisy deals with the case where someone's behaviour does not align with their stated moral standards. Naturally, this is often because people are trying to fulfill their personal goals instead of their moral goals.

Take the example of a man who holds the moral opinion that social media is ruining society. He regularly complains about it to his friends and wishes that social media would cease to exist (or at least diminish in power). At the same time, he is also a programmer working at a big social media company.

Off the hop, we could justifiably accuse him of being a hypocrite. How can he hold the standard that social media is immoral while also continuing to aid in its growth as an employee there? His actions do not align with his stated moral goals, presumably because he is trying to fulfill personal goals instead (such as making a lot of money). Hypocrisy at its finest!

However, what if it's revealed that he's been working at the tech company to save up enough money to buy it out and destroy it? Or to hire BGP hijackers to shut the website down for a day? Well, you get the less extreme examples, maybe he volunteers in his spare time at anti-social media protests, or as an employee at a phone-free vacation spot. The point is that maybe he is behaving in line with his ethical beliefs, and just requires his programmer salary to meet his physiological needs to continue these moral pursuits.

Eh, now it appears more tricky. Acting in ways that appear to be contrary to one's moral beliefs (we'll refer to this as "inconsistent" from now on) does seem to have some logical basis behind it sometimes. That means we can't just label all inconsistent behaviour hypocritical.

To fix our mental model, let's construct a spectrum that runs from hypocrisy (unjustified) to pragmatism (justified). On one end of the spectrum, we have people who disregard their own moral principles for no reason (other than personal benefit, presumably). On the other end, there are people who go against their own moral principles for pragmatic reasons that lead towards a greater good.

One recent instance of inconsistent behaviour involves a socialist streamer who criticized rich people for having large and expensive houses (amongst other things). It then became public knowledge that this streamer had bought a house in Hollywood worth approximately 3 million dollars. Hence, his moral standards ("buying expensive houses is bad") conflict with his (personal) behaviour (buying an expensive house). Barring any good reason for this, we might deem this "hypocritical" behaviour.

We can also imagine an activist who has qualms with the role of fast food and unhealthiness in the modern world. He does research in various restaurant chains and their effect on people and presents his findings to health boards. On occasion, this involves late nights of work, and he sometimes orders takeout to hold him over. Is he a hypocrite for leveraging the benefits of unhealthy food whilst criticizing it? Maybe not - we might deem him to be on the spectrum nearer the "pragmatism" side.

A similar example could be environmental activists who advocate against wasteful carbon emissions such as from airplanes, but end up having a high carbon footprint due to travelling to climate change conferences and the like.

The popular meme below shows an example of pragmatic inconsistent behaviour. Man 1 appears to be a serf or a peasant living under bad conditions, and wishes for society to improve. Man 2 calls him a hypocrite for 1) wishing for society to improve 2) while participating in society, although we know Man 2 is being ridiculous, since that inconsistency is totally pragmatic. The peasant is "supporting" the system, yes, but he is only doing it in order to survive and get by, and would of course like the situation to be improved. The comic is encouraging inconsistent behaviour, demonstrating how it can be pragmatic.

We can easily make this comic portray an anti-inconsistent message by changing the pragmatist to a hypocrite. Instead of making Man 1 a worker struggling to get by in life, we can change him to a king who has all the means necessary to improve life for the lower class in poverty. Of course, he doesn't act on his moral beliefs (remedying the class imbalance) because he'd rather continue to act on his personal desires (staying rich and in power). Now the comic is making fun of inconsistent behaviour (pointing to hypocritical behaviour).

One other note about the concept of hypocrisy is that while it is useful to make someone's character look bad, it is not actually an argument. In other words, just because someone is being hypocritical does not mean they are wrong. If they've stated their moral position and justification on a topic, just because they behave in discordance with that position doesn't mean their moral opinion is wrong.

As Norm Macdonald points out, rapists tend to be hypocrites, since they are not normally public advocates of rape (i.e. they hold moral standards against rape) but still commit sexual offenses (i.e. they hold personal standards for rape). Similarly, if a politician is publicly anti-abortion (and gives reasons for it), and it's revealed he had his partner get an abortion, it doesn't nullify their moral position on abortion. Same goes for someone stealing, jaywalking, embezzling money, etc. - they can believe that what they are doing is bad for society (immoral) but good for them (personally).

For any of these cases, it doesn't work to go "Aha! You said X was immoral, but you hypocritically did X! Therefore X is now moral!" No, they did X not because they thought it was moral, but because they thought it would benefit them personally. And for you to show that X is moral (or immoral), you still have to go through the actual ethical logic.

Other cases of inconsistent behaviour can be labelled somewhere on the spectrum above. Thomas Jefferson called slavery a "hideous blot" while at the same time holding slaves. Modern-day critics of capitalism often vocalize their concerns through Apple and Samsung products - created through capitalistic means.

Like everything, it is subjective and up to your judgment which of these cases are closer to the serf (pragmatism) and which are closer to the king (hypocrisy) in the context of the above meme. Where you label philosophies and people along this spectrum requires thought and discussion to do so in a sensical manner. It is not as simple as considering all inconsistent behaviour hypocritical and lambasting people for not exactly adhering to their principles. At the same time, people should have a responsibility to practice a lifestyle in the same spirit as the principles they preach.

This distinction is tricky, and the nuances of it are not considered most of the time, especially online, where it is particularly easy to sling insults like "hypocrite" without any real justification.

Isn't it awful how people can just say anything they want on the Internet?