Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Standards and Hypocrites

Professor Vic is a great proponent of hypocrisy as the great unforgivable sin, and in that he is not alone among liberals. To Professor Vic, if memories of past conversations serve me correctly, it is better never to have adopted a standard than to have done so and violated it. Myself, I am less concerned with someone professing until he is blue in the teeth against some great wrong that, in the end, he can’t live up to in his own life. So if I can choose two courses, announce commitment to a standard that I risk violating, or commit to the position that all standards are arbitrary and unnecessary and risk nothing, I’ll choose the former course.

There is also the possibility of choosing alternative standards, some harder than others, and the moral or ethical appropriateness of the standard cannot rest upon the ease with which it can be followed; more times than not, the opposite will be true. On that score, I think that the standards of the Catholic Church, whether or not I can consistently abide by them, are preferable to others. G.K. Chesterton, an early 20th century British writer who was a very eloquent defender of Catholicism, put it this way:

“Now it is very right to rebuke our own race or religion for falling short of our own standards and ideals. But it is absurd to pretend that they fall lower than the other races and religions that professed the very opposite standards and ideals. There is a very real sense in which the Christian is worse than the heathen … The Christian is only worse because it is his business to be better.”

That so many men who profess loudly the rightness of some standard or other should come in the end to be a violator of such standards is not so surprising. In some cases, the best strategy for the weak man is to increase the personal cost of weak behavior by some form of public commitment. And turning yourself into a bullhorn against certain behavior can serve that commitment function. A history of false but very public bravado for a soldier who, in his moment of truth, soils his pants and runs is generally viewed with scorn. But wouldn’t sympathy be more appropriate? Surely in retrospect it becomes clear that he has railed against the supposedly cowardly acts of others, propping himself up as a man who would never walk their path, precisely because he feared walking their path. Who would not have wished that in retrospect he should have raised the stakes even higher to the point where he followed through with what he thought was right?

Alternatively, he could have remained quiet and lessened the abuse he might someday be subjected to in acting on his fear. And in that event, he’d have been more likely to curry sympathy after the fact. But his attempt to be courageous was less whole-hearted.

That a person cannot live-up to a given standard is no argument against the standard. Similarly, the ability of a person to live up to a given standard, but to do so with excessive pride, is no argument against the standard. Chesterton, as always, makes this point in a most entertaining way:

“The modern missionary, with his palm leaf hat and his umbrella, has become rather a figure of fun. He is chaffed among men of the world for the ease with which he can be eaten by cannibals and the narrow bigotry which makes him regard the cannibal culture as lower than his own. Perhaps the best part of the joke is that the men of the world do not see that the joke is against themselves. It is rather ridiculous to ask a man just about to be boiled in a pot and eaten, at a purely religious feast, why he does not regard all religions as equally friendly and fraternal.”

The real hypocrite, and one who is validly criticized, is the public proponent of a standard of behavior who doesn’t think, for whatever reason, that the rule applies to him. You’re really only a hypocrite when you violate your own standards while pretending that they don’t apply to you.


Blogger Professor Vic said...

Hatch makes a great point here. What should we do with a person who cannot live up to the ideals he sets for himself? Should we pity that person for his failures, or criticize him for hypocracy? Certainly all of us failed to live up to our own expectations from time to time.

So, I guess it comes down to making judgements about motives and underlying beliefs. So how should I feel about DeLay and his concerns regarding Democratic filibusters? Should I accuse him of hypocracy for now claiming a moral high ground when he led the charge to block Clinton's nominees, or should I feel sorry for him that back in the 1990s he was unable to live up to the moral code he now espouses? I'll go for hypocracy here.

There are others that are less black and white (Nice pun here) like Strom Thurmond and his illegitimate black daughter. I'm maybe not quite so quick to comdemn as hypocracy that which may deserve pity rather than shame.

Still, I stand by my opinion that hypocracy is one of the great sins, but like many sins, such as thou shalt not kill (unless you are at war or in self-defense or as punishment for murder, etc)or thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's property (except in capitalist societies where incentives underlie the basic economy)there are many shades to this sin.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Clupbert said...

Let's hope vic never rails anyone for spelling errors, because it would be an unmistakable case of "hypocracy". I think hypocracy would be a good word to describe a slow acting democracy. But on to actually giving a comment- Failing to live up to your own standards is ok when the error is minor like saying a cuss word but not liking cussing. But let's say you're a reverend and have an illegitimate child. That is outright hypocrisy, not some simple gaffe.

8:32 PM  
Anonymous Jim O said...

I don't think the problem is taking a stand, espousing beliefs, or even failing to meet your own high standards. The problem is expecting to be taken seriously, or even respected, after public failure.
Take a stand. Rail against the iniquities in today's society all you want. But if you are found with a hooker, have the decency to retire from the playing field. You took a shot, and you fell short. It happens, but don't expect me to follow you when even YOU can't follow you. Next!

10:00 AM  
Blogger Professor Vic said...

In true liberal fashion, I blame any spelling errors on Hatch for choosing a blogging service with no automatic spell checker. Furthermore, had the public schools I attended as a child, teen, and graduate student been better funded, this never would have been an issue in the first place.

At least when I have problems at the blackboard I can always write the word messily enough that no one can say for sure whether I have misspelled it or not. Damn this easily read computer font.

11:32 AM  

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