Sunday, June 28, 2009

Apology for hypocrisy, but not amnesty for hypocrites

Defending hypocrisy is nothing novel. But a previous post on the (favorable) shift in America's moral evaluation of extramarital sex, even if it is not matched in deed, got me thinking about it a little more deeply.

Bruce G. Charlton, who is a wellspring of ideas he is frustratingly hesistant (in the opinion of this amateur who is accountable to no one!) to 'go public' with, recently wrote in an email exchange:

Libertarians and secularists have gotten things completely wrong about hypocrisy. Honesty is vital, but hypocrisy about bad things one does is much better than bragging, rationalizing and propagandizing in favour of bad things.

I try to minimize the amount of space devoted here to abstract philosophical discussions of morality, culture, aesthetics, and the like because I'm not smart enough or strong enough a writer to pull them off. I stick to empirical data like a gaper sticks to the beaten trail. Bushwacking is better left to more skillful trekkers. But even the clumsy and cautious feel compelled to step off the path and approach a dell for a better look now and then.

To consider hypocrisy as detestable (or even more so) as rationalization of a pathological behavior is to work toward the ushering in of that behavior if it carries with it even the slightest temptation. If it is tempting, some who oppose the behavior will fall to it and then be attacked for so doing, while those who deny there is anything wrong with the behavior are left unmolested, to wallow in their own crapulence.

The easier stand, not just behaviorally but also morally, is to accept it as being legitimate.
We see this periodically in the US with Republican officials who engage in behavior that is deemed immoral by the mainstream political conservative establishment. Sticking with Orson Scott Card's treatment of the subject of homosexuality and the Mormon Church (sent by BGC to spur me), consider Larry Craig and Mark Foley, two recent high-profile figures to have gone through this. Had Craig been a vociferous proponent of homosexuality, he would not have been pilloried by the national media. Pedastry as morally acceptable is still a minority position even among libertines, but had Foley been an exponent of it, his sufferance it would have been reduced.

That this reduction in shame and punishment for controversial and arguably pathological behavior can be brought about simply by voicing support for, or at least not opposition to, the acts in the first place is inherently destructive to any moral structuring in which the behaviors are deemed harmful. It becomes easier to withhold judgement from or even praise the behavior if it is tempting, even if one has no doubt that it is pathological, as a way of lessening the consequences of engaging in it in the first place.

Consequently, one must subdue individual interest for the well being of the larger society if he is to publicly condemn the behavior. It is difficult enough to do the right thing when you're told it is the right thing to do, let alone when the crowd is shouting at you to go ahead and give in. Weakness is not synonymous with moral failure. Those who recognize the latter while still being consumed by the former should not be taken as living illustrations of the invalidity of the judgement in question just because they are unable to consistently put it into practice.

By preaching the inherent value of individual liberty of action--what might be termed hedonism or "libertinism"--elite opinion makers undercut opposition to individual pathological behaviors.

Yet for very practical reasons, those in positions of stewardship--namely leaders and managers, political and otherwise--need to suffer by losing those positions when acting immorally*, especially when hypocrisy is involved, because knowledge of these immoral actions by others compromises the fidelity of the steward to those he works on behalf of. It is not difficult to imagine how Mark Sanford or Silvio Berlusconi could be subjected to blackmail by third parties aware of their private failings who have objectives at odds with those of South Carolinians or Italians as a whole.

* Here defined as engaging in behaviors that have pathological consequences when practiced in larger society (ie, cheating on income taxes, surreptitious extramarital affairs, lying to constituents, etc).

1 comment:

bgc said...

I was thinking of the maxim attributed to La Rochefoucauld that hypocisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

But I would tend to think that the present mess is something beyond his ken.

In the past, sin (i.e. whatever was regarded as sinful) was punished when detected - and if sin was pursued openly then it was easier to detect.

In the modern intellectual secular world there is no sin (except in a quantitative, and therefore debateable, utilitarian sense); and instead hypocrisy is left as the ultimate 'sin' (i.e. the only real sin is the sin of believing in sin).

So currently one can avoid censure by openly advocating vice and then unhypocritically pursuing it.

This situation seems... how can I put it... unsustainable?