Accusations of hypocrisy are flying everywhere in our civic discourse. They appear to be our default form of political attack. This is odd given how ineffective they are in changing people’s minds or actions. After all, you’re being called a hypocrite by someone who you think is a hypocrite. Why should you listen to them?!
Partisan arguments about hypocrisy tend to get very muddy very quickly. It is worth pausing to think about what hypocrisy actually is, why it is constantly wheeled out in civic discourse, and why hypocrisy accusations never get us anywhere.
This is a hypocrisy explainer in 12 points.
What is hypocrisy?
There is no doubt that hypocrisy functions as an imputation of moral failure. No one wants to be a hypocrite. In fact, many people would rather honestly admit (and even persist in) their faults than be a hypocrite.
Here is what I think is a workable definition of hypocrisy:
Failing to act in accordance with one’s self-proclaimed moral principles, especially when one has used those principles to criticize the actions of others.
Consider a purely hypothetical example. If I am a fiscal conservative, and I routinely criticize your liberal government spending, but then I try to pass a tax bill that, by any account, fails to meet any standard of fiscal responsibility, you can charge me of hypocrisy. Why? I am failing to live in accordance with my moral principles. I’ve also used my principles to criticize your actions in the past.
Let’s start with 5 points to make about the definition.
Hypocrisy presupposes self-knowledge. I need to know which values I hold. And if I’ve used them to criticize you in the past, I know them more explicitly. If I don’t know my own values, it is strange to call me a hypocrite. Hypocrisy comes from not knowing or seeing that one’s actions are inconsistent with one’s principles, not from being ignorant of one’s principles. It might even be impossible not to know your own principles.
Hypocrisy, at bottom, is about inconsistency. If I simply do not care about aligning my actions with my principles throughout my life, then accusations of hypocrisy won’t have much power. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I am not a hypocrite. But calling me out presupposes that I desire to be consistent.
If I don’t care about consistency, that is odd. Seemingly, what it means to proclaim moral principles sincerely is to (attempt to) live in accordance with them. If a person does not make the effort, they either do not sincerely believe the principles or we are talking about an odd case.
Trump might be one of these odd cases. He has cleverly avoided charges of hypocrisy by cleverly not having firm moral convictions. One way not to be a hypocrite is to be fully unscrupulous. In that case, our accusations will be about more dangerous character flaws. A hypocrite has at least the pretense of moral concern.
Changing our minds
Hypocrisy presupposes that people haven’t changed their minds about their principles. One way to respond to accusations of hypocrisy is to say that you no longer hold to the principles you once did. If I and my fellow fiscal conservatives stop placing the value of reduced government spending at the center of our legislative priorities, then it would be silly to criticize us for inconsistency. We no longer stand by those values. The inconsistency is intentional and principled.
But then I’m a flip-flopper—the worst conceivable political sin!
The moral principle might still be true
Most importantly, whether the moral principles in question are good or true is left completely untouched by accusations of hypocrisy. In other words, if someone is a hypocrite, their principles might still be true. The person could simply lack strong enough moral character. Or they might not sincerely believe the principles. If I want to pass an irresponsible tax bill, my proclaimed fiscal conservative values might still be the best approach to legislation. Whether they are is a wholly separate debate.
The “do as I say, not as I do line” is meant to capture this idea. It is irritating (because it is a blatant admission of hypocrisy), but as a matter of logic, it is perfectly coherent. You don’t have to follow your own advice to give good advice. Using an accusation of hypocrisy as a refutation of someone’s argument is the “ad hominem fallacy.”
Hierarchy of Principles
All of this is much more complicated, of course. People believe all sorts of principles and hold all sorts of values, and some are more important to them than others. We can construct something of a hierarchy of their principles and values. How they relate will be complex. I might be willing to sacrifice one value to achieve something more important. It happens all the time, especially in politics. This makes accusations of hypocrisy far from straightforward. They are cleanest when a person trangresses their most firmly held value. But that is rare. Without knowing someone’s hierarchy, we won’t know with certainty whether they are hypocrites.
Some principles or values are also more abstract or general than others. For instance, everyone will proclaim a principle like ‘children should have healthcare’. However, we tend not to call people hypocrites when their actions don’t align with these abstract principles. This is because there is always debate about which actions embody our abstract values best. Some people seem to think that repealing Obamacare or refusing to fund CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, is consistent with the value that children should have healthcare (or they are sacrificing the value for something more important). Instead, hypocrites are people who transgress fairly concrete values, like concern for the federal budget. The values or principles must be more closely connected to actions. The more abstract the principle, the more difficult it is to make a compelling accusation of hypocrisy.
Why are accusations of hypocrisy appealing?
So hypocrisy is a person failing to align their actions with their principles. And whether the principles are true is a separate issue. This illustrates a reason why accusations of hypocrisy are appealing:
You can make an accusation without taking a position on the principles. You can stay out of the debate entirely. This is because you are not debating principles at all. In other words, accusations of hypocrisy are what we might call internal critique: they involve pointing out the inconsistencies within a person’s life and worldview. To make the accusation you step inside their worldview and assess the person’s actions on the basis of their own values. This is opposed to an external critique, which involves questioning the person’s values directly. An external critique requires you to reveal your own position (“this principle of yours is wrong”). An internal critique does not (“you are not following your own principle”). Accusations of hypocrisy do not require you to reveal your own stance. This explains why accusations can come from someone who agrees with the person’s principles or from someone who doesn’t.
People often confuse the distinction between internal and external critique. If you call me a hypocrite for my tax bill, I make a mistake by saying, “Since when do you liberals care about the deficit?” You’re not making any claims about your own views, as we saw in 4. The truth about my conservative principles is not in question. The accusation is about whether my actions are consistent with my principles. You are making an internal critique.
With this in mind, there are a number of other reasons why ‘hypocrisy as internal critique’ is appealing.
The View from Nowhere
The internal critique gives the irresistible appearance of objectivity. It is impersonal and matter of fact. To make the accusation you must have an understanding of the other person’s position. In an internal critique you must step inside and share the perspective of another. This demonstrates a certain level of intellectual sophistication. But more than that, accusations of hypocrisy show that you understand the person’s position better than they do. You are able to point out an inconsistency that they did not see. Or you are pointing out their dishonesty or bad faith. In either case, the accusation is powerful because it requires knowledge of the other person.
Your opponent is stupid or unprincipled
In politics especially, accusations of hypocrisy function to make your opponent look stupid or unprincipled. It means that they lack character. By extension, you are implying that moral character is important and therefore taking the high ground. The accusation gives us a glimpse of what you suspected of your opponents all along: they don’t actually care about their “principles.” It was always masking a corrupt desire for power. You are pulling back the curtains on their worldview and showing how hollow it is.
As we saw above, strictly speaking, accusations of hypocrisy do not enable you to claim moral high ground directly. Your behavior and principles are irrelevant to the accusation. Nevertheless, accusations come loaded with implications. We act as if identifying hypocrisy requires a personal concern for moral consistency. And if you want your accusation to have the intended effect, you better not be a hypocrite yourself. But more on this in point 12.
An Easy Critique
Accusations of hypocrisy are appealing because they don’t require any detailed knowledge of policy, history, or statistics. External critiques are often more difficult because you need an argument, based on evidence, for thinking that a person’s principle is mistaken. If I am a fiscal conservative, you can claim that I am wrong, but showing why requires a great deal of information. You need to do research. The internal critique is simpler. It requires that you take me at my word and then point out my actions that are inconsistent with my previous pronouncements. You need no expertise. And as I pointed out in 7, you need no position of your own.
Why are hypocrisy accusations ineffective?
We have some of the pieces in place for explaining why accusations of hypocrisy routinely fail to make a difference. But I need to make a distinction first. There is a difference between the accusation being ineffective and it being inaccurate. A hypocrisy accusation might be ineffective simply because it fails to identify hypocrisy. You might be flat-out wrong in calling me a hypocrite. But let’s set the easy case aside. Even if someone is genuinely a hypocrite, the accusation almost always falls flat. Why?
“You don’t understand the complexities of my view”
I said in 5 that people’s hierarchies of values and principles are complicated. And accusing someone of hypocrisy involves knowing another person’s worldview. This shows why it is so embarrassing and gut-wrenching when someone calls you a hypocrite. It means someone else knows my complicated values better than I do. Shouldn’t I be the expert, especially when I’m using my principles to critique others? Conceding the accusation means admitting ignorance of one’s own worldview. That is devastating.
So what happens is that people fall back on the complications of their worldview and maintain that their accuser does not truly understand it. People reaffirm their expertise. This usually involves drawing some fine distinctions: how this situation is different from those in the past, how the relevant principle is different from the one the accuser has in mind, how the accuser doesn’t understand the action correctly. The distinctions give the appearance of nuance. As we saw in 7, accusations of hypocrisy require intellectual sophistication through sharing the perspective of another. In essence, they derive their power from a demonstration of superior nuanced thinking. Certainly the alleged hypocrite will resist here. They will seek to show that their accuser is in fact not nuanced but has failed to understand the principle or action correctly. This turns the tables. The accuser is making a claim to intellectual superiority. But they failed, so they are in fact inferior. This is because they arrogantly stepped into someone else’s worldview and didn’t realize their ignorance.
If you criticize my tax bill on the basis that it is fiscally irresponsible, I will certainly respond that you have failed to understand either my bill or what it means to be conservative. I won’t stand for your posturing as if you understand my worldview better than I do! The bill is more nuanced than you think. You’re underestimating how much it will grow the economy. The wealthy people are the job creators. So the money from their tax breaks will drip or leak or seep down to the lower classes. It is a new economic theory that you don’t understand.
Bad Faith Politics
In order for an accusation of hypocrisy to work, the person must sincerely believe the principles they proclaim in public. Especially in politics, that simply might not be the case. The principles could be the public face of a darker agenda. If I am a fiscal conservative, I typically voice concern for these principles when I am attacking my political opponents. When it comes to invading countries or, as you now know, giving tax breaks to my wealthy donors, it certainly appears that the principles are not as important to me as I let on.
The dispute is over how much value fiscal responsibility holds in my hierarchy. My fellow conservatives and I surely wouldn’t mind passing budget neutral bills. But when given the opportunity to accomplish what we value more—like personal enrichment, enrichment of our donors, setting the stage for cutting entitlements of poor people, or just getting something done—we are happy to jettison ‘fiscal responsibility’ talk. However, you can be forgiven for thinking that my conservative approach to the deficit and budget ranks high on my hierarchy of principles since I employ it constantly in my attacks on Democrats. It looks like it is time for me to admit that my attacks were either largely disingenuous or I’m now a hypocrite.
The 2 levels of hypocrisy accusations
Finally, the combination of 4 and 8 makes everything muddy. We act as if discovering hypocrisy is validation of our view and refutation of our opponent’s view. We are wrong, plain and simple. If I am a devoted and consistent fiscal conservative, no amount of liberal hypocrisy would make my approach to the deficit more likely to be the correct one.
But a lot more is happening in an accusation of hypocrisy. For instance we do not point out hypocrisy when we are guilty of the same hypocrisy. If I transgress my values and vote for my irresponsible tax bill, I do not turn to my colleague who cast the same vote and call him a hypocrite. I could. And I’d be right. But I don’t.
Why? My accusation would obviously be ineffective. Why? Because my colleague would simply flip the accusation back on me. When I say, “Do as I say, not as I do,” my colleague will roll his eyes and then get to work registering as a pass-through business.
Somehow and some way, the character of the accuser is relevant. To see how we need to distinguish two aspects or levels to accusations of hypocrisy: the moral and the political. This, in my view, is the key to cleaning up the mud. How does it work?
Accusations come from people who take themselves to be fairly consistent moral individuals. This matters because, as we saw in 1 and 2, hypocrisy presupposes a shared value of self-knowledge and consistency. But the accusation is often something more than a claim of moral failure. It is a political power play. (It might always be both!)
When we consider the political level, the character of the accuser becomes relevant. If you are using your accusation of hypocrisy to claim moral high ground, my ability to show you to be equally guilty, though not relevant on the moral level (see 4), would prevent you from doing so. You’d fail on the political level.
The distinction between the moral and political levels of accusations helps us understand the phenomena of “whataboutism”: the technique of responding to all moral critiques with accusations of hypocrisy. Trump and Putin regularly utilize it. Whataboutism functions through implicitly shifting the conversation from the moral to the political level. This is why the person making the moral critique is often thrown off balance by the “But what about…?” response. The counter response of “That’s not what we’re talking about now” is fully accurate, but it operates on the moral level. Putin and Trump aren’t interested in that. They want to draw you into a comparison of characters. There they have the advantage because a) they, not you, are dictating the level on which the conservation operates; b) based on the fact that you are making a moral critique, Trump or Putin know that you will be sensitive to charges of moral failure; c) it will always be easy to flip moral critiques around on others, especially when you don’t care about the truth.
It is useful to interpret accusations of hypocrisy through the two levels, moral and political. We shouldn’t be surprised that politicians are leveraging moral language for political purposes. But understanding how they do it helps us consume media responsibly, spot manipulation and spin, and recognize propaganda. These skills are becoming more important by the day.