Friday, November 10, 2006


Robert T. Miller defines hypocrisy. It isn't what a lot of people think it is.

A man is not a hypocrite because he violates a moral norm in which he sincerely believes. President Clinton, I am sure, believes that adultery is wrong, and he violated the norm against it in his dalliance with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky; but this made him an adulterer, not a hypocrite. Similarly, decent parents think they ought to be patient with their children, but an overworked mother who snaps at her child at the end of a long day is guilty of impatience, not hypocrisy. Violating norms we sincerely accept does not make us hypocrites. If it did, hypocrisy would not be a peculiar kind of wrongdoing but a concomitant of all wrongdoing.

Wrongdoing like that in my examples is not hypocrisy because it flows from weakness, not malice. Contrary to our sincere intentions and wishes, we sometimes do things we know to be wrong. Immediately after doing them, we acknowledge, at least to ourselves, that we have done wrong. We wish we had not done wrong, and we intend to do better next time. Unless we live in one of the stricter religious communities, we do not announce these faults to the world; rather, for various reasons—some good, some bad, depending on the circumstances—we may even conceal them. All this makes us weak, not hypocrites. When President Clinton concealed his affair with Ms. Lewinsky, he may have perjured himself or obstructed justice, but he still did not become a hypocrite.

Hypocrisy is a much worse form of moral wrongdoing. It’s a certain kind of lying, and so can be done only consciously and intentionally. In particular, a man’s moral character comes from what he takes as his final end in life, his understanding of the human good, and the hypocrite is a man who dissembles about what he thinks this good is.
The hypocrite pretends to accept and live by one set of values when, in fact, he accepts and lives by quite different ones. Thus a man who professes belief in the norm against adultery and seeks a reputation as a family man but all the while keeps a mistress, relishing his time with her and intending to keep her indefinitely, or at least until he can replace her with a yet more sexually attractive woman—this man is a hypocrite. So too the corporate executive who cultivates a reputation for honesty and lectures the business community on ethical issues but meanwhile engages in a scheme of financial fraud over many years, hoping to keep his ill-gotten gains when he retires to Bimini. Such people pretend to live in accordance with values that they do not hold and have no desire to hold. Their whole lives are lies, lies about what they think the human good is. That species of lying is hypocrisy. [emphasis added]

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