Thursday, January 28, 2016

Ditching the Word 'Hypocrite'

Rob Bensinger wants us to "Ditch the word 'hypocrite'"

He has a well organized post listing reasons to do so which can well seem compelling. Yet, I am not convinced.

The first thing we should do is define the term ‘hypocrite’.

Bensinger seems to think that a hypocrite is a person whose actions do not conform to his stated principles. It is, then, applicable to a person who condemns drinking while he continues to drink, or who asserts an obligation to public service while she avoids public service. We see this definition used in one of Bensinger's arguments:

"Ambitious goal-setting and self-improvement can look like behavioral hypocrisy. Accusing someone of hypocrisy because their deeds don’t live up to the moral principles they endorse encourages people to have low, easily-met standards."

This is not how I would define the term. A hypocrite is a person who holds two (or more) moral standards – a strict moral standard that applies to other people, and a less strict moral standard that applies to himself and his tribe. The two examples above do not count as hypocrisy unless we assume the first agent does not condemn himself for drinking and make efforts to stop, or that the second agent has no sense of guilt and does not judge herself immoral for her lack of public service.

It may be true that ambitious goal setting can "look like" hypocrisy only to those who do not understand the term. To ditch a term because it is sometimes misused is somewhat drastic.

Another of Bensinger's objections is, “It’s obviously a personal attack, and personal attacks obviously make people defensive, and defensiveness is obviously boring and terrible.”

This is true, the term is used to condemn and criticize others. Other terms used in making personal attacks are ‘thief’, ‘embezzler’, ‘liar’, ‘rapist’, ‘child molester’, ‘murderer’ and ‘terrorist’. All of these terms are used in making personal attacks. That, alone, provides no reason to quit using them. However, there are reasons to object to attributing them to people unjustly or rashly

A call to quit using any of these terms would invite the additional implication that whichever term is being dropped applies to an activity that is not wrong in fact. If we were to drop the term “rapist”, this would have the unfortunately implication that rape is not wrong and that people who commit rape are not to be condemned. Similarly, by dropping the term ‘hypocrite’ some would understand this to mean that having a double standard is legitimate and not to be criticized.

A third of Bensinger's arguments is that the term is simply not needed. If a person is guilty of performing an action that the person has condemned others for performing, we do not need to focus on his inconsistency. We could accomplish the same end by focusing on the wrongness of the action.

However, a charge of hypocrisy, when it is true, provides a particularly efficient way of explaining the wrongness of the action. Rather than going through the reasons for condemning the action and getting the agent to understand and accept those reasons, a charge of ‘hypocrisy’ points out, “You already know the reasons for condemning this activity and you already accept that they are good reasons to do so. All that is left is for you to condemn the act when it comes from you for those same reasons.”

On the other hand, there are always two ways in which an inconsistency can be resolved. An agent can conclude, “I am wrong not to condemn myself as harshly as I condemn others”; or the agent can conclude, “I am wrong to condemn others more harshly than I condemn myself.” By focusing on the actual wrongness rather than the inconsistency, we can direct this resolution in the right direction. However, if we know (or at least have strong reason to believe) that the agent will resolve the conflict in the right direction, then we have reason to present the arguments quickly and efficiently - by noting that the agent is already aware of and accepts those arguments.

Finally, I want to address Bensinger's point that hypocrisy is used to dismiss whole groups based on the errant behavior of one individual.

Even if your community is a standard deviation above most groups in the virtue of Temperance, the mere fact that you’ve endorsed Temperance means that any small misstep by anyone in your group can be used to charge you with hypocrisy or hubris. And hypocrisy and hubris are approximately people’s favorite things to accuse each other of.

This tendency to blame whole groups for the misdeeds of an individual is bigotry. Bigotry hardly depends on the fact that the term "hypocrite" exists on our language, such that abolishing the term ends bigotry. These evils need to be confronted directly - by condemning those who engage in and promote bigoted judgments, not by shifting the blame to those who speak truthfully about hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy exists. It is real. We do no good by setting up a social norm saying that there exists something that is a part of the real world that we are not permitted to talk about or to point to where it exists. It does even less good to say that this is something that must not even be named.

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