FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT Al Gore urges us all to reduce our carbon footprint, yet he regularly flies in a private jet. Former drug czar William Bennett extols the importance of temperance but is reported to be a habitual gambler. Pastor Ted Haggard preached the virtues of “the clean life” until allegations of methamphetamine use and a taste for male prostitutes arose. Eliot Spitzer prosecuted prostitution rings as attorney general in New York State, but he was later found to be a regular client of one such ring.
These notorious accusations against public figures all involve hypocrisy, in which an individual fails to live according to the precepts he or she seeks to impose on others. Charges of hypocrisy are common in debates because they are highly effective: we feel compelled to reject the views of hypocrites. But although we see hypocrisy as a vice and a symptom of incompetence or insincerity, we should be exceedingly careful about letting our emotions color our judgments of substantive issues.
Allegations of hypocrisy are treacherous because they can function as argumentative diversions, drawing our attention away from the task of assessing the strength of a position and toward the character of the position’s advocate. Such accusations trigger emotional reflexes that dominate more rational thought patterns. And it is precisely in the difficult and important cases such as climate change that our reflexes are most often inadequate.
Thus, listeners should temper such knee-jerk reactions toward the messenger and instead independently consider the validity of the message itself. It also pays to examine closely what the duplicitous deeds really mean: from some vantage points, such behavior may actually support a hypocrite’s point of view, significantly softening the hypocrisy charge in those cases.
One surprising truth about hypocrisy is its irrelevance: the fact that someone is a hypocrite does not mean that his or her position on an issue is false. Environmentalists who litter do not by doing so disprove the claims of environmentalism. Politicians who publicly oppose illegal immigration but privately employ illegal immigrants do not thereby prove that contesting illegal immigration is wrong. Even if every animal-rights activist is exposed as a covert meat eater, it still might be wrong to eat meat.
More generally, just because a person does not have the fortitude to live up to his or her own standards does not mean that such standards are not laudable and worth trying to meet. It therefore seems that charges of hypocrisy prove nothing about a topic. Why, then, are they so potent?
The answer is that such allegations summon emotional, and often unconscious, reactions to the argument that undermine it. Such indictments usually serve as attacks on the authority of their targets. Once the clout of an advocate is weakened, the stage is set for dismissal of the proponent’s position. Consider the following two examples:
Dad: You shouldn’t smoke, son. It’s bad for your health, and it’s addictive.
Son: But, Dad! You smoke a pack a day!
Amy: Have you seen Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth? We need to reduce our carbon footprint right away.
Jim: Al Gore? You know he leaves a huge footprint with all his private jet flights!
In the first example, the son feels that his father is not an appropriate source of information on smoking because Dad is a hypocrite. The accusation of hypocrisy does not so much defeat Dad’s position as nullify it, almost as if Dad had never spoken. The same holds in the case of Gore’s airplane, although the speaker, Amy, is not the alleged hypocrite but rather Gore, the authority to which she appeals. In both cases, hypocrisy is proffered as evidence of the insincerity or incompetence of a source, providing ammunition for ignoring his or her advice or instruction.