In this age of postmodernism and relativism, it is rather difficult to get very many people to agree on anything. Nevertheless, there is one thing that just about everyone seems to agree on, and that is that hypocrisy – the state of pretending to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that one does not actually have – is wrong. It seems we all have, in some sense, internalized Jiminy Cricket’s timeless advice to “always let your conscience be your guide” and it could even be said that hypocrisy is the one unforgivable sin universally recognized.
My concern in writing about hypocrisy today is not primarily to explain all of the problems with hypocrisy or to exhort you to live according to your beliefs. Rather, I want to help you understand some of the dangers associated with our culture’s myopic focus on (and understanding of) hypocrisy, and what you can do about them. The biggest danger is what I call the Hypocrisy Argument (HA). The hypocrisy argument takes many forms, but the feature they all have in common is an accusation of hypocrisy followed by an insistence that the supposedly hypocritical person remain quiet on some moral issue. Consequently, I sometimes just call it “silencing by sin.”
Silencing by sin is a common tactic of Satan, and it has spread throughout our culture today as the quickest and most effective way of stifling discussions of morality and ethics in the public square. Basically, if a person tries to start a moral discourse in the public square, the silencing by sin strategy uses that person’s moral guilt to make him or her feel hypocritical for speaking out. In an effort to avoid hypocrisy, the person who might have spoken out on a moral issue voluntarily silences himself or herself. This is particularly effective because everyone has moral guilt and because of the fact that our culture universally recognizes (even though scripture doesn’t) that hypocrisy is the unforgivable sin. The HA as it is normally used is fallacious, because it reasons from a person’s moral guilt to the necessary silence of that person on moral issues (a non sequitur) and because it uses the moral guilt of a person to distract from the bigger moral questions at hand (a red herring).
Consider the following examples of the HA that I have heard used at the personal, group, and national levels:
- Personal – When abortion comes up, I have heard this used: “It is hypocritical for you to say that abortion is wrong if you yourself had an abortion.”
- Group – In discussions of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, the following example is common: “Straights can’t say same-sex marriage is detrimental to the institution of marriage when divorce is so prevalent in our culture. Straights have already destroyed marriage themselves.”
Another example related to abortion is the claim that it is hypocritical for pro-life advocates to oppose abortion unless they are willing to adopt all of the unwanted babies.
- National – I’ve encountered this one several times while discussing foreign policy regarding Iran recently: “Iran only got to be the way it is because of U.S. involvement. They hate us because we made them that way. They may want to nuke us, but morally we’re no better.”
You may notice two common flaws in the Hypocrisy Argument in practice. First, it often shifts moral topics, so that moral guilt (or at least supposed moral guilt) in one area is used to silence someone on another topic. “You support the death penalty, so how can you call yourself pro-life? It’s hypocritical to support the death penalty but complain about abortion” would be an example of this topical shift. At first glance there may appear to be some similarities between abortion and the death penalty, but the similarities evaporate on closer inspection. Abortion is about ending the innocent life of an unborn child, while the death penalty is about punishing a violent criminal convicted of heinous crimes – the topics are morally distinct. I mention this not to morally defend or condemn the death penalty, but to illustrate the topical shift that sometimes occurs when the HA is in play.
The second common flaw is equivocation about who the guilty party actually is. In other words, the hypocrisy argument shifts the blame using very broad strokes. Consider the group and national examples given above. In the same-sex “marriage” debate, blame for the destruction of marriage is cast on heterosexuals, even though many heterosexuals have not been divorced and oppose divorce for the same reasons they oppose same-sex marriage. In the Iran foreign policy debate, the blame is shifted down a generation. It was not my generation’s decision to become involved in the problems of Iran, and even the generation that did decide to become involved in Iran did not do so monolithically or unanimously – a small number of people actually made the decisions that led us to where we are today.
Even if these flaws are avoided, the Hypocrisy Argument still often fails, because when used the way it is commonly used, the HA does not accurately capture what hypocrisy really is. Regarding the former point, consider English author Dr. Samuel Johnson’s elaboration:
Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.
Hypocrisy is not merely failing to live up to a moral standard one holds – it is pretending one lives up to the standard, even though one does not, and then condemning others for the same thing. Notice for instance that it is quite possible for a smoker to earnestly believe that smoking is terrible for one’s health and to implore others not to take up the habit of smoking, but yet be constitutionally incapable of breaking the habit himself. This is not hypocrisy. It is a failure, to be sure, but it is not hypocrisy. Likewise, the woman who campaigns to end abortion-on-demand after having had an abortion herself is not for that reason hypocritical; she may legitimately regret having had an abortion and wish to prevent others from the same guilt she herself faces.
Stay tuned for the next post, which will explain how the Hypocrisy Argument should be properly used, how to avoid being silenced by it when discussing morality in the public square, and how to use our culture’s understanding of hypocrisy to your advantage when doing evangelism and apologetics.