Be comfortable with hypocrisy

Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age takes place several decades in the future and this conversation is looking back on the present day:

“You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of a climate, you are not allowed to criticise others-after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism?” [...]

“Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others’ shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour-you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.” [...]

“We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy,” Finkle-McGraw continued. “In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception-he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it’s a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing.”

“That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code,” Major Napier said, working it through, “does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.”

I’m not sure if I agree with this characterization of the current political climate; in any case, that’s not the point I’m interested in. I’m also not interested in moral relativism.

But the passage does point out a flaw which I recognize in myself: a preference for consistency over actually doing the right thing. I place a lot of stock—as I think many here do—on self-consistency. After all, clearly any moral code which is inconsistent is wrong. But dismissing a moral code for inconsistency or a person for hypocrisy is lazy. Morality is hard. It’s easy to get a warm glow from the nice self-consistency of your own principles and mistake this for actually being right.

Placing too much emphasis on consistency led me to at least one embarrassing failure. I decided that no one who ate meat could be taken seriously when discussing animal rights: killing animals because they taste good seems completely inconsistent with placing any value on their lives. Furthermore, I myself ignored the whole concept of animal rights because I eat meat, so that it would be inconsistent for me to assign animals any rights. Consistency between my moral principles and my actions—not being a hypocrite—was more important to me than actually figuring out what the correct moral principles were.

To generalize: holding high moral ideals is going to produce cognitive dissonance when you are not able to live up to those ideals. It is always tempting—for me at least—to resolve this dissonance by backing down from those high ideals. An alternative we might try is to be more comfortable with hypocrisy.

Related: Self-deception: Hypocrisy or Akrasia?