Hufflepuff Cynicism on Hypocrisy

Epistemic Status: I’ve been thinking about this for a number of years, looking for steelmen of the position against hypocrisy. I haven’t found anything satisfying yet, but maybe you can tell me why hypocrisy is actually bad? Barring that, I’m rather confident in the view expressed here.

“Hypocrisy is bad” is a deeply-rooted assumption in our culture. If I’m trying to give someone advice, I’ll flinch away from saying things I don’t do myself. For example, I don’t have a driver’s license, so I would hesitate before suggesting that someone else get one. If I do suggest it, I’ll get kind of apologetic, and hedge my statement with “but I haven’t gotten one yet”. This, despite the fact that whether I’ve gotten one is almost irrelevant to whether they should get one. It seems to me that this habit is universal in American culture, and I’d be surprised (and intrigued!) to hear about any culture where it isn’t.

I think the anti-hypocrisy norm is likely based on a blame/​praise model of advice. If advice is always norm-enforcing criticism, and is tied to how many “social points” you score, then the anti-hypocrisy norm prevents a particular type of social exploit. A hypocrite can enforce, and claim to believe in, norms which they themselves break. They score social points, gaining status and power, based on an unfair self-favoring application of rules. Rulers who are above the laws they themselves enforce violate our fairness norms; they are the very image of corruption.

However, this problem can be addressed in a more specific way by calling out unfairness, building power structures with transparency and accountability in mind, and deserving trust as a community. The cost of the anti-hypocrisy norm is too high; it throws out too much useful advice, constraining the directions in which we think when we’re trying to help one another.

Rob Bensinger already wrote a whole post on why hypocrisy is a bad concept, which I also endorse. Ironically, though, he has a different concept of hypocrisy than me, so my argument against the concept is somewhat different. He treats “hypocrisy” as “inconsistency”, and points out that winning an argument by pointing out inconsistency is not very informative: showing that someone holds two incompatible views doesn’t tell you which of the two is right.

I think of “hypocrisy” as specifically referring to an inconsistency between words and actions.

Put simply: inconsistency between words and actions is no big deal. Why should your best estimate about good strategies be anchored to what you’re already doing? The anti-hypocrisy norm seems to implicitly assume we’re already perfect; it leaves no room for people who are in the process of trying to improve. We know people have akrasia. Also, akrasia isn’t necessarily the only reason why actions may differ from words. It’s important to be able to think and talk about better ways of doing things without necessarily changing courses at the drop of a hat. This is especially true in group coordination situations. Scott Alexander argues that anti-hypocrisy norms for journalists prevent them from suggesting improvements to society.

Flinching away from giving advice you don’t yourself follow is accompanied by a knee-jerk reaction which discounts advice from others if we realize that the advice was hypocritical. Even though I’ve been trying to root out this mental habit for a long time, I still catch myself updating away from advice when I realize that the person who gave it doesn’t follow it. It feels relevant; decisive, even. Upon examination, though, it isn’t.

One counter-argument is: if the hypocrite lacks experience with what they preach, they likely don’t know what they’re talking about. There may be obstacles to following their advice which they simply haven’t experienced.

This may be relevant, but if so, I emphasize that it should be considered in and of itself, not as part of an anti-hypocrisy flinch. Why? Because personal experience is not the only way to gain knowledge. The anti-hypocrisy norm is founded in part on a non-Bayesian model of knowledge which emphasises personal experience and vivid stories from close in your social network. We should instead asses another person’s beliefs on merits.

It’s also largely contradicted by Beware Other-Optimizing. The advice-giver successfully following the advice themselves is not much evidence in favor of the advice. So, checking for hypocrisy is not a very good test of advice quality.

Anti-hypocrisy norms do provide a safeguard against using knowledge of cognitive biases to become more effective at motivated arguing, if you can successfully stop yourself from calling out biases in others when you haven’t conquered them yourself. However: this, too, is a very weak heuristic. Conquering a bias in yourself should not give you free license to use that particular bias as a claim against others. Nor should failing to conquer a bias stop you from trying to help others conquer it.

One reason for the anti-hypocrisy norm which I do find more concerning is that an inconsistency between words and actions is a good indicator of dishonesty, so a norm against it may be a significant safeguard against liars. Again, though, the heuristic seems over-emphasized. There are discrepancies between words and actions which suggest that someone is lying, and there are those which don’t. What I see isn’t people considering whether hypocritical advice is coming from liars. What I see is an unthinking knee-jerk reaction which discounts hypocritical advice.

Putting your money where your mouth is, overcoming akrasia, doing the best thing you can figure out how to do, seeking to understand and honestly state the motives behind your actions: there are all things which we value, which point toward minimizing the discrepancy between words and actions. Anti-hypocrisy norms don’t help us work toward these things, however. If anything, they Goodhart on minimizing the discrepancy, by encouraging us to align words with actions in cases where it prevents maximal honesty and truth-seeking.

So, what do you think? Have I failed to Chesterton-fence this one? Why do people flinch away from hypocrisy? Is hypocrisy bad? Am I failing to see something? Is my hufflepuff cynicism blocking me from seeing the advantages of holding people to their words /​ holding people to higher standards?

Hat tip: The seed of this post was planted long ago by my friend Thomas Kroll, who once said that the one idea he would have people remember him for was that hypocrisy isn’t bad.


Thanks to a number of discussions in the comments, several important distinctions have been called out, which I was conflating.

Most importantly, I was ignoring the question of norms and status claims, and arguing as if all advice is about the epistemic question of whether it would be useful to do some thing. Hypocrisy about norms is problematic, because it is easy for a hypocrite to set up unfair (self-serving) norms which can’t be called out as unfair/​unjust in any other way than to call out the hypocrisy itself (due in part to limitations on what can be publicly called out—other objections to the rule may simply not be clear/​defensible). There’s a case to be made that this in itself justifies the anti-hypocrisy flinch, because it is too difficult in practice to detangle norm-setting claims from non-norm-setting ones.

I also conflated my point with whether “hypocrisy is bad”. It should be noted that hypocrisy absolutely implies that something unfortunate is going on: either the hypocrite is lying, or mistaken, or taking suboptimal actions which they have enough information to improve. The issue, metaphorically, is that this is just like saying that if you’re travelling, then you must either not be where you want to be or headed in the wrong direction. Avoiding travel doesn’t necessarily make you where you need to be; avoiding hypocrisy doesn’t necessarily help you say the right words or take the right actions.

Other important distinctions:

Joachim Bartosik points out that I’m not clear on which of these questions I’m asking:

1. Are there good reasons to be suspicious of advice that advice giver doesn’t follow themselves?
2. Is there a good reason to support social norms against hypocrisy?
3. Are there good reasons to avoid giving advice that I don’t follow myself?

To this, I might add “are there good reasons to avoid taking actions which go against something I said?”

Along similar lines, my discussion with Said resulted in a number of possible rules around hypocrisy which we might follow or question:

1. hypocrisy ⇒ what hypocrite said is wrong

2. hypocrisy ⇒ what hypocrite said is not evidence

3. hypocrisy ⇒ hypocrite is blameworthy

4. hypocrisy ⇒ hypocrite is to be viewed with high suspicion, on priors

5. hypocrisy ⇒ EITHER what hypocrite said was wrong, OR they are blameworthy

6. hypocrisy ⇒ hypocrite is to be treated as a hostile agent for the purpose of evaluating their words in this context

7. hypocrisy ⇒ call out hypocrisy

8. it’s a conversation about norms, and the hypocrite is making an implicit status claim with their words ⇒ hypocrisy should counter-indicate the norm fairly strongly and also detract from the status of the hypocrite

My primary intention in the post was to argue against #1 and #2. I still think they are bad rules; hypocrisy provides a small amount of evidence against a claim, but I think it’s highly over-emphasized in practice. I also disagree with all of the others, except for #8, which I think is true because of the earlier-mentioned point about hypocrisy and norms.