Defending Hypocrisy

If we're ever in a debate, please understand that accusations of hypocrisy don't resonate well with me.  Partly this is a function of my own history in this realm.  When I was in graduate school, my thesis adviser would occasionally rail against religious people because of their hypocrisy.  There is no point arguing or challenging the person who has power over your funding and whether you ever graduate with a PhD, so I let the barbs go without comment.  She knew I'm religious and was likely needling me, but she also just talks that way all the time because when you're in academia you can always opine about the Accepted Political Dogmas and if anyone disagrees with you it feels like it's in their best interest not to make it known.

Discourse on non-academic subjects in academia often looks like this: "Religious people are so dumb.  They all talk about the importance of marriage, but then look at all the religious people who get divorces!  So much for their beliefs about the sanctity of marriage."  Religious people who are part of happy marriages don't respond, especially if they're underlings, because they know from experience it won't end well.  Non-religious people pile on, and the silence from the minority is taken as tacit assent to the assertions being made.  I believe this same phenomenon happens in any circle where a majority feels empowered to comment on deeply-held beliefs without challenge (more disparate examples later).  One of the worst ways this manifests is through the accusation of hypocrisy - an accusation that can itself be hypocritical.

On one occasion the lab went to a conference in New Orleans and since it was my first time in the city one of the places everyone recommended I go to visit was Cafe Du Monde.  They're renowned for their beignets and their coffee, so the lab all insisted I try them.

I went and tried the beignets, but I paired them milk because I don't drink coffee for religious reasons. (And because I've never liked the smell.  I don't know why.  I know people who hate coffee but still like the odor.  It's just not my cup of non-alcoholic hot apple cider while strolling through a pumpkin patch).  When I returned and reported that the beignets were pretty good, but nothing to rave about, they rejected my analysis.  They asked about the coffee.

Me: "I didn't get any.  I don't drink coffee."
Adviser: "Well it's not the same without the coffee.  You should go back and get them together."
Me: "No thanks.  I don't drink coffee."
Adviser: "You're only in New Orleans for the conference.  You should just make an exception to your beliefs so you can try the coffee.  It's really good!"

The odd thing here was how easily my adviser criticized all religious people for hypocrisy, but then was disappointed when she tried (but failed) to induce said hypocrisy in an actual religious person.  She was both displeased by religious people who failed to hold to their beliefs, and by religious people who maintained their integrity.  Thus, I don't think she brought up the hypocrisy argument because it was what led her to believe in the insincerity of religious people, but rather that she was disposed to believe bad things about religious people and the hypocrisy argument confirmed her biases.

This leads to the other reason hypocrisy arguments don't usually resonate with me.  I think they're usually wrong about the conclusions they want me to come to.  Accusations of hypocrisy often have one of a few distinct purposes:

  1. Undermining support for a general idea by claiming the idea's proponents don't really buy it
  2. Question the motives of people who support an idea
  3. Devalue the idea itself as invalid or unworkable

Decrying hypocrisy is akin to saying, "You say you believe [X], but I can prove you don't.  Since your behavior doesn't match your claimed beliefs, you must not actually believe them.  You're lying when you say you believe that thing."  Often the argument that immediately follows a claim of hypocrisy is a declaration of what the speaker thinks is the hypocrite's actual beliefs.  After all, if we can't explain the person's behavior based on their stated belief we should immediately cast about for a replacement hypothesis so we can fill the gap in our knowledge. of what the person's beliefs truly are 'deep down'.

Allow me to make an alternate hypothesis: people often hold beliefs they fail to follow.  They still believe those things.  Indeed, the only people who aren't hypocritical are people who have no values to begin with.  The nature of belief is that the more strongly held it is the more aspirational it becomes.  Thus, hypocrisy is a marker of the difference between a person's beliefs and their behavioral ability to achieve those beliefs.  If I say "I believe eating sugar will make me fat, and I don't want to be fat so I'm going to stop eating sugar," that's both a belief and an aspiration.  If I believe sugar will make me fat, but I still eat a piece of birthday pie, that moment of weakness doesn't negate my belief.  It just means I'm human and pie is divine, so maybe cut me a little slack.

(Aside: There's a common tradition that you get to choose the kind of birthday cake you want.  For years I could never figure out what kind of cake to pick, since I'm honestly not that thrilled about the general idea of cake.  I mean, cakes are fine and all, but they're down a few rungs on the dessert ladder for me.  Even great cake combinations aren't really about the cake.  Red velvet cake on a brownie a la mode?  If you said supplies were low and I had to pick only two of those three elements, red velvet cake wouldn't make the cut.  And that's one of the better varieties of cake!  That's when I realized how broad my birthday choice could be.  I could request a birthday pie. This essentially hijacks the whole birthday cake phenomenon and makes the annual celebration something I can look forward to.  Seriously, any kind of pie?  I'm in.)

To highlight this phenomenon, let me give a few more popular hypocrisy examples I frequently see.  I'll try to choose disparate examples to capture everyone reading this, perhaps multiple times.  If you read this list and can defend hypocrisy in your own groups but not in others', maybe that says more about your viewpoint than about theirs.

  • Environmentalist activists taking private jets to give speeches about taking care of the environment
  • Conservatives complaining about wasteful spending but being unwilling to cut defense spending
  • Progressives billionaires who don't go ahead and pay lots of extra money in taxes; the federal government will take more than you owe if you offer
  • Libertarians wanting to eliminate government programs even while actively taking advantage of government programs
  • Religious people not living up to the standards they set for themselves - as per earlier
  • Any atheist who "prays in a foxhole"
  • Parents who don't follow their own parenting advice - especially when 'exigent circumstances' arise
  • Grandparents who know how to raise the next generation differently than they raised the last one

Often, a belief about how the world 'should' be is also a personal goal.  It says something about the person who professes the belief that they want to do or be something better than what they currently are.  But the nature of a goal is that when you set it you haven't achieved it yet.  If the simple act of setting a goal meant you'd achieved it New Year's Resolutions would be a different phenomenon.

The greater the aspiration the larger the goal, and the longer it will be before you achieve it.  Categorical ideas like those above can be so broad that 'achieving' their implied behavioral goals often easily pushes past the normal human lifespan.  Criticizing someone who holds those beliefs as hypocritical can be the same as insisting they abandon their goals because they're trying (but not always succeeding) to live up to them.

What's wrong with an environmentalist trying to take better care of the world around them?  Or the conservative seeking to keep government accountable and efficient?  Or the progressive trying to ensure the system isn't taken over by moneyed interests?  Or the libertarian trying to increase freedom?  Or the religious people trying to live more honest lives?  Or the atheists trying to apply rationality?  Or the parents trying to civilize the next generation?

I think for all of these, the behavior transgresses when they try to force me to abide by their beliefs.  Therefore, an appropriate response is not to question whether the person actually holds the beliefs they espouse.  You can certainly try to argue and/or disprove the foundations of that belief, but claims to disprove it because aspirations don't match actual behavior aren't going to win the day.

Yes, you can believe in something you want to become.  Indeed, most people do.  And that's not a bad thing.

There is one good hypocrisy argument.  If I'm being hypocritical and you notice it, call me out on it with the intent to encourage me to live up to the beliefs I hold.  In my experience that's one of the most effective arguments you can make.  The difference between it and bad hypocrisy arguments is that the bad arguments are trying to tell me what I believe.  You don't know that.  The good argument accepts that I believe the things I claim and challenges me to live up to them.


  1. Have you read Diamond Age by Stephenson? He has a passage about hypocrisy very much along these lines that has always been one of my favorite scenes: (contains the selection in question, but other stuff as well)

    Also I feel like the environmentalists/private jet example is a bad one (I would go with environmentalists who eat meat or drive a car) for a few reasons:

    1- It doesn't appear to be the occasional bit of weakness. Most environmentalists who take private jets use them a lot.
    2- Take a private jet is particularly bad for the environment, and teleconferencing or flying commercial is pretty easy. When someone mugs someone we don't call him a hypocrite we call him a thief. Under their standards they're doing something exceptionally egregious.
    3- You could make nuanced arguments for all of the others (more or less) but taking a private jet doesn't have some steelman it's basically pure selfishness.
    4- If you had had the coffee it would have harmed no one. Regardless of the hypocrisy of it. By their standards they're harming everyone.

    1. Haven't read it. I'll check it out. Sounds like he's hitting on basically the same theme I did, which is nice to see that others see this as a similarly poor debate tactic. It's more for confirming biases with your friends than it is for winning arguments.

      As to private jets, I don't know. The optics are certainly bad, so if someone is actively using a private jet to evangelize for an environmental cause you have to assume one of the following: A. that person is completely insincere - 100% cynical in their advocacy - and although they take great pains to be SEEN to be doing good, they're okay being seen doing the opposite, completely undermining themselves; B. that person is too stupid to connect the high environmental impact of their actions (or at least even be able to see that it would be bad optics to do so) with the cause they're advocating; or C. that person has carefully considered the costs as well as the negative PR hit they're going to take, but charters the private jet anyway because in their experience it's still the best way to promote larger policy changes.

      I'm sure there are cynical people out there, and the occasional fool and his money haven't yet been parted, but I don't think it's always true that the private jet use must certainly be proof that the environmentalist is a bad actor. I try to be charitable, especially since I don't fly in circles where private jets are ever a consideration.

      In certain circumstances private jets can be economical to run ( - as someone who once flew a grueling 4-day route similar to the one he outlines in this video, I'd say a private jet experience that takes one day would have made a huge difference) Indeed, I can think of multiple ways to use a private jet in my line of work that could save millions of dollars and reduce development time by weeks or months. Of course, that's in pharmaceuticals, where a blockbuster drug that makes billions of dollars per year is worth as much as $10 million per day of patent exclusivity.

    2. It's true they're bad for the environment, but I think I really can steelman the private jet environmentalist. Let's say you have a particularly influential person, and by using the private jet they're able to visit a lot more people - and influence them - than they would have been able to if they'd taken commercial air service. This is almost certainly the case. Now let's say the difference between private/commercial air service is a handful of meetings. The results of those meetings are that a mid-sized European country adopts legislation reducing their emissions, and a South American nation shifts their energy production infrastructure strategy away from coal. The per year decrease between the private jet and commercial air service could easily be many times the one-time environmental impact from the airfare. Thus a rational environmentalist should certainly not take the commercial flight, as it will hurt their cause relative to the private jet. So I'm not convinced the private jet environmentalist is necessarily a bad example:

      1 - I could easily see an environmentalist guiltily taking that private jet they mathematically justified, yet that they still feel morally culpable about using. They look like a hypocrite, and they probably feel like one as well, but the alternative is to demand they reduce their fervor for their cause. That person's feelings fit my post pretty closely.
      2 - There is a case for private over commercial, and it's not just convenience (as above). As someone who flies around the nation (and sometimes the world) for a living I can attest that there's a meaningful difference between teleconferencing and meeting someone in person. The more sensitive or character-driven the decision, the more important it is to meet in person.
      3 - Maybe you don't buy my steelman of private jets, but I hope you can agree that an individual making a decision about using one might rationalize their use of private jets along these lines. They don't have to be factually correct to be sincere.
      4 - Most environmentalists agree private jet usage is a drop in the ocean compared to larger institutional and policy decisions. The net 'harm' is small in both relative and absolute terms. Indeed, claiming direct 'harm' for such a small thing is a bit (dare I say) alarmist, considering the concern is about global trends over long timescales. Given the environmentalist is trying to affect long-term trends, not one-off usage, it is kind of apples-to-oranges.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

A better addiction

Covid-19: Epidemiology is useful

Open Questions: The Origin of Life