Politics

A Little Bit of Hypocrisy Goes a Long Way

Politicians like Tim Murphy are often called hypocrites, and the term doesn't always fit. It might here.

Do as I say, not as I do.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Is Tim Murphy a hypocrite? That charge has been understandably lodged after news broke that the Pennsylvania Republican, a pro-life member of the House of Representatives, pressured his former girlfriend to have an abortion. In recent years, the same accusation has been leveled against supporters of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars whose children didn’t serve, and opponents of school vouchers who send their own children to private schools. Are all of these people hypocrites? Some of them? None of them?

To answer the question, let’s begin with what ought to be common ground: It’s wrong to use the word “hypocrite” for individuals who simply fail to live up to their own standards. Were that the definition, all of us would be hypocrites, because all of us do things, pretty much every day, that we know we shouldn’t.

The hypocrite is something different -- a person who pretends to an unearned virtue. Abraham Lincoln once entertained his generals with the story of a teetotaler who was offered some lemonade and then told by his host that the drink would taste better with a bit of brandy in it. The teetotaler answered that he had no objection, as long as the brandy was added “unbeknown” to him. 1  This is exactly what the word hypocrisy has traditionally described: The teetotaler did not have a brief moment of weakness. He wanted the benefit of public virtue while maintaining in private what his admirers would have considered a vice.

Pastors in the 19th century liked to illustrate hypocrisy with the tale of a man who was on trial for public drunkenness. When the bartender was asked on the witness stand whether he recognized the defendant, he replied that he did, and that he recognized the judges, too. The point was that the court was sitting in judgment on a man who had done what they themselves had done.

The word hypocrisy has long held an honored place in our political discourse. At times it seems there is no larger public sin. After President Barack Obama underwent a virtual colonoscopy as part of an annual physical, critics charged his administration with hypocrisy for refusing to cover the sedation-free procedure under Medicare. President Donald Trump has been derided as a “chickenhawk” -- a word that has come to describe the supposed hypocrisy of a pro-military politician who has never served in the military.

But I’m skeptical that these are examples of hypocrisy. We can readily come up with reasons for providing the president with exceptional medical care, and though military service is honorable and admirable, I’m not sure why it’s more desirable in one commander-in-chief than another. In neither case is the president in question pretending to a special virtue.

That’s perhaps one reason that the abortion case has long been a flashpoint for charges of hypocrisy. If Politician A opposes, say, the use of public funds to pay for abortion, but nevertheless uses his own private funds for the purpose, we are much closer to the traditional model. If Politician A is a hypocrite, however, so is Politician B, who sings the praises of public schools but would never dream of sending his children there, and refuses to spend public money to offer the poor the same choice.

Yet hypocrisy is not always a bad thing. The philosopher David Nyberg, in his book on deceit, offers the example of Al Campanis, a baseball executive who was fired in 1987 after telling a television interviewer that there were few black managers and general managers in the sport because so many of them lacked the “necessities” for the post. Nyberg quotes the journalist Jeff Greenfield:

Campanis was fired for lack of hypocrisy; that is, for expressing openly the opinions held by a good percentage of those who hire and fire in the world of sports -- or for that matter, in finance, politics and journalism.

Plainly Greenfield was right then and would be right now. There are lots of people who hold prejudices about the abilities of others. In the case of such people, Nyberg argues, a bit of hypocrisy is welcome:

Of course we would prefer to convert the bigots, but that is not a practicable alternative in many cases. Next best is to lessen their chances of spreading their odious beliefs by inhibiting their expression. If that means, by unspoken agreement, that we expect some hypocrisy in the public forum, so be it.

A part of me agrees. As a longtime advocate of civility in public discourse, I am obliged to believe that there are times when all of us should say things that we do not precisely mean (and vice versa), for the sake of living a common life. Still, I would probably be more comfortable with Nyberg’s contention did it not track so closely the model of activists on campus and elsewhere who endeavor to shut down speech they dislike: You can keep your ideas, the activists say, as long as you don’t talk about them. This invitation to hypocrisy can go too far.

Besides, even hypocrisy in a good cause is not necessarily good hypocrisy. Here the philosopher Christopher O. Tollefsen offers a useful distinction. “Even hypocrites who attempt to deceive,” he writes, “may have some moral motivation if the deception is done for the sake of others.” He gives the example of a father who conceals his adultery because of a genuine concern about how disclosure would affect his children. 2  That’s the good kind of hypocrisy. Here’s Tollefsen on the bad kind:

The agent simulates virtue in this case not because of a recognition that the appearance of vice can corrupt or harm others, or because he is still somehow allied with virtue, but because the appearance of virtue brings with it certain rewards.

In other words, the hypocrite in this second case is deceiving us simply because it helps his own life or career. This is essentially the charge being leveled against Murphy.

Does it fit? I don’t know the man, and so I cannot really say. If in a moment of weakness, Murphy violated his own principles, he is guilty of nothing more than being human. If, on the other hand, he espouses principles to which he himself is unwilling to adhere, then the charge of hypocrisy is one he has richly earned.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. Lincoln told the story toward the end of the Civil War, when he was asked by his military commanders whether the rebel leaders should be allowed to escape. General William Tecumseh Sherman would later write that he “inferred” from the story that the president “wanted Davis to escape, ‘unbeknown’ to him.”

  2. Yes, it would be better were the father not adulterous at all, but that is not the point of the example.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

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