Philosophy of Hypocrisy

Apparently some philosophers have developed philosophies of hypocrisy, to justify their not following the moral rules they advocate for others. They tried to keep quiet about it:

[Famous philosopher of ethics Henry] Sidgwick was the son of an Anglican clergeyman. Along with many eminent Victorians he could not accept revealed religion. Unlike most of them Sidgwick acted on this doubts and in 1869 resigned from his Fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, which required Fellows to subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles of Anglican doctrine. … Later Sidgwick became a professor and resumed his Fellowship. …

All of Sidgwick’s close friends were male, most of them gay or bisexual for much of their live.  … Commenting on the friends he had made already, ‘Some are women to me, and to some I am a woman.’ … Sidgwick was celebrated in his lifetime for his integrity, but that did not prevent him engaging in Victorian hypocrisy where sexual desire – in himself or his friends – was concerned. Instead his reputation for honesty made the practice of deception easier for him. …

He had long argued the necessity for an ‘esoteric morality’ – a code of conduct that would sacntion the practice of secrecy and deception for strictly ethical reasons. When, towards the end of The Methods of Ethics, he discusses the rules of ordinary morality, he is clear that these rules must be adhered to faithfully by ordinary people. But Utilitarian morality might give a special freedom from ordinary rules to special kinds of people:

on Utilitarian principles, it may be right to do, and privately to recommend, under certain circumstances, what it would not be right to advocate openly; it may be right to teach openly to one set of persons what it would be wrong to teach to others; it may be conceivably right to do, if it can be done with comparative secrecy, what it would be wrong to do in the face of the world; and even, if perfect secrecy can be reasonably expected, what it would be wrong to recommend by private advice or example. … Thus the Utilitarian conclusion, carefully stated, would seem to be this; that the opinion that secrecy may render an action right which would not otherwise be so should itself be kept comparatively secret; and similarly it seems expedient that the doctrine that esoteric morality is expedient should itself be kept esoteric.

(pp.22,57,58, John Gray, The Immortalization Commission, 2011)

The homo hypocritus hypothesis suggests that people will often find themselves having strong intuitions that it is moral for them to quietly evade the usual rules, while still advocating such rules for others.  When could such intuitions offer strong support for the claim that such hypocrisy is in fact moral?

Added 2a: The issue here isn’t whether lies might ever be moral, such as with the proverbial lie to save Jews from the Nazis.  The issue here is examples such that of Sidgwick’s socially-convenient lies on sex and religion, which gained him social support and prestige. What fraction of moral philosophers privately support that type of hypocrisy? How could we know?

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: , ,
Trackback URL:
  • Will Sawin

    When there are strong reasons to believe that acting in that way is not beneficial to the actor.

    Unwieldy verification scheme: Come up with a reason why this hypocrisy makes sense in this case. Make the strongest objectionable statements you can make in support of the reason, and write down the reason. Deliver to an impartial individual in a confidential fashion, and ask their opinion.

    If an arbitrary and bad norm restricts your public actions but is ineffectively enforced on private actions, and you do everything within your power to fight against the bad norm publically without falling afoul of it.

  • lemmy caution

    I have always heard these ideas as associated with Leo Strauss:

    Strauss on reading

    In 1952 Strauss published Persecution and the Art of Writing, commonly understood to advance the argument that some philosophers write esoterically in order to avoid persecution by political or religious authorities. A few readers of Strauss suggest esoteric writing may also seek to protect politics from political philosophy – the explosive reasoning of which might well shatter fragile opinions undergirding the political order. Stemming from his study of Maimonides and Al Farabi, and then extended to his reading of Plato (he mentions particularly the discussion of writing in the Phaedrus), Strauss proposed that an esoteric text was the proper type for philosophic learning. Rather than simply outlining the philosopher’s thoughts, the esoteric text forces readers to do their own thinking and learning. As Socrates says in the Phaedrus, writing does not respond when questioned, but invites a dialogue with the reader, thereby reducing the problems of the written word. One political danger Strauss pointed to was the acceptance of dangerous ideas too quickly by students. This was perhaps also relevant in the trial of Socrates, where his relationship with Alcibiades was used against him.

    Ultimately, Strauss believed that philosophers offered both an “exoteric” or salutary teaching and an “esoteric” or true teaching, which was concealed from the general reader. For maintaining this distinction, Strauss is often accused of having written esoterically himself. Moreover he also emphasized that writers often left contradictions and other excuses to encourage the more careful examination of the writing. Leo Strauss’s favourite novelist was Jane Austen.[5]

  • Chris Hallquist


    I’m surprised that this is news to you, and I think your inference about philosophers’ motives is unsupported.

    Anyone who’s gotten a solid intro to ethics shouldn’t be surprised to learn that on act utilitarianism, hypocrisy can sometimes be right. On act utilitarianism, anything can be right so long as it maximizes utility. More specifically, “follow rule X” and “advocate rule X,” are different actions, so in principle there’s no reason why the utility calculations for them couldn’t come out differently.

    So, alternative explanation for why Sidgwick wrote the quoted paragraph: he noticed it was a significant consequence of utilitarianism, and was in the habit of discussing significant consequences of utilitarianism whenever he noticed them. (Philosophers are weird like that–they say things just because they notice those things are entailed by other things they believe. Not normal human behavior, I know.)

    Plus, there are thought experiments that would make an awful lot of people endorse the hypocritical option, regardless of whether they’re imagining themselves benefiting from the hypocrisy. Just imagine a dystopia that not only imposes absurd rules, but executes people for questioning them. Or a situation where someone needs to break an almost-always-beneficial rule to prevent nuclear holocaust.

    P.S.–I’ve found that John Gray, when writing on other thinkers, tends to distort their work.

    • Non-Chris

      The order “follow rule X” is usually also aggregated together with an argument: “be consistent in you actions, have integrity”. ;D

  • Karl Smith

    The homo hypocritus hypothesis suggests that people will often find themselves having strong intuitions that it is moral for them to quietly evade the usual rules, while still advocating such rules for others. When could such intuitions offer strong support for the claim that such hypocrisy is in fact moral?

    If I am understanding you correctly, then when you need partners in crime. We should find people supporting hypocrisy as moral when there are limited network effects to hypocrisy. Its better for you when some other people join you but worse when everyone does.

  • Luke Parrish

    It seems the more rational I become, the more aware I am of my own hypocrisy in a variety of matters. My real (emotionally supported) goals are frequently far less abstract than the pursuit of truth. For example, I want to be liked and listened to. If telling the truth gets me these things, that’s good — and I like to think of myself as someone who gets these things more by telling the truth. But in some circumstances it seems like telling the truth makes people like me less or listen to me less, e.g. telling them that I believe there is a significant chance of a technological singularity. Given the consequence that I can’t talk them into cryonics because they think it implies a belief in the singularity, perhaps I should pretend to strongly doubt the singularity. As I see it, I don’t have a moral duty to convince people that there will be a singularity, only that they should sign up for cryonics.

  • Greg Ransom

    Perhaps the beginnings of John Maynard Keynes’ generation at Cambridge of what Keynes self-described as “immoralists” — Keynes’ generation dropped the hypocrisy and celebrated the special right of the elite to do what they wanted. Keynes read G.E. Moore’s Ethics as sanction to the Cambridge elite giving them “a special freedom from ordinary rules” because this elect group were “a special kinds of people.”

    Read Keynes’ essay ‘My early beliefs’.

  • MinibearRex

    Lying does cause problems. Because of the complicated entanglements between facts, the lie can be found out, and perhaps in a way you don’t anticipate. Most of the danger in lying is that you can’t effectively estimate how likely it is to be found out, and when lies are discovered, it frequently leads to a utility penalty. As a general rule, avoid lying if you can, because you don’t know exactly how much disutility can result from it.

    That being said, lying is justified some of the time. I have no problem recommending that spies for my own country lie if they are undercover. I strongly recommend that undercover cops lie about who they are every single time. And I would consider a person who lies and says “No, officer, I don’t have any Jews in my basement” to be a hero. Lie when you have to, but try to avoid it as much as you can.

    With regards to Luke’s question, I would recommend more of a policy of lying by omission. You still are deliberately concealing evidence, so you can’t delude yourself into thinking that it’s much better from a moral standpoint, but the chances of your lie being found out, along with the negative utility that will result if you do, drop substantially. I talked my parents into signing up for cryonics without having told them that I had deconverted from Christianity, and I think that I made the right decision there.

  • Alrenous

    My moral philosophy leads to the conclusion that moral hypocrites aren’t entitled to moral rights.

    Any moral theory that not merely condemns hypocrisy, but inevitably lead to specific and relatively drastic consequences, is a pretty good signal of sincere anti-hypocrisy.

    Combine this with intentionally soliciting moral criticism specifically to check for hypocrisies…

    Still, someone may still be skilled enough to evade detection. It’s impossible to be utterly sure, but that’s normal. The point is just to make it difficult.

    So, in line with soliciting criticism: these guidelines seem sufficiently discouraging for hypocrisy. More would run into diminishing returns; they aren’t worthwhile. Would you agree?

    (Also important: at first glance a moral theory may consistently advocate secrecy. But it would need to very, very specific as to the situations and conditions. “May render an action right” is way, way too vague; such are dead giveaways for sly intentions. Incidentally, mine doesn’t allow deception of any sort.)

  • Pingback: Recomendaciones « intelib

  • BenSix

    Don’t know if you’ve seen this, tangentially related…

    Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis.

    • daedalus2u

      There are two things that people use their ability to reason for.

      There are fundamentally two ways to reason, with a “theory of mind”, which is the part of the brain that does social reasoning and is necessary to understand how someone else is thinking, you emulate their thinking process using the data that they transmit to you via language such that you really do understand the mental concepts they are using to generate the language they are transmitting to you.

      The other way to reason is with your “theory of reality”. This is very undeveloped in many people. A “theory of reality” is only useful in so far as it actually corresponds with actual reality. A “theory of mind” is only useful in so far as it corresponds with the “theory of mind” of someone you are trying to communicate with.

      People use reasoning to change their “theory of reality” so that it actually corresponds to actual reality, or they use reasoning to change their “theory of reality” so that it corresponds to the “theory of mind” that matches everyone else.

      Changing what you believe to match people you are trying to suck-up to is a “theory of mind” activity. This is how most people “reason”. They simply adopt the beliefs of someone else. That is what the social power hierarchy tries to accomplish, the people at the top try to impose their “theory of mind” on everyone below them. That only works in social situations, it doesn’t work in things like AGW, evolution or Obama’s birth certificate. Unfortunately when you have people who are not members of the “reality based community” (people who perceive reality only through their “theory of mind”), then they can cause tremendous harm, like unfunded catastrophic wars, gigantic oil well disasters, death panels, and AGW.

  • Philo

    The Sidgwick case concerns what we might call “outward hypocrisy,” in which the perpetrator is fully aware that he is violating a rule which, though he *advocates* it in public, he knows he does not really consider to be universally valid. It is not the Robin-Hanson-style *inward hypocrisy*, in which the perpetrator is not conscious of having any reservations about the universal validity of the rule, and violates it (for personal advantage) without being vividly aware of what he is doing.

    Sidgwick obviously thought that a certain rule of conduct might be properly adopted by one person but not by another, because of the different circumstances or the different personal characteristics of the two people; also that an exceptional person who was following a rule not fit for the majority of people might be justified in concealing the rule he was following, and in advocating a contrary rule for the masses (which would, in practice, have to be expressed as a rule *for everybody*, without qualification). And, finally, he thought that it might be questionable behavior even to draw this circumstance–that *outward hypocrisy* was justified in some cases–to public attention.

    Eventually he judged that the *outward hypocrisy* of lying about one’s religious beliefs merely to procure a fellowship was intolerable, and he rejected it (at least for himself). He never reached a similar judgment about lying about one’s sexual orientation and behavior, perhaps because the penalties for honesty were much more severe. And he seems to have judged that speaking frankly about the possible justifiability of outward hypocrisy in a few passages of a scholarly tome that would not be widely read was justified.

    Anyone who takes this view of the justifiability of outward hypocrisy will be tempted by special pleading of his own case–persuading himself that certain convenient hypocrisies are justified for him when really they are not. Sidgwick impressed his contemporaries as one who would successfully resist such temptation, and so far as I can see they were right.

  • Evan

    My moral philosophy leads to the conclusion that moral hypocrites aren’t entitled to moral rights.
    Still, someone may still be skilled enough to evade detection. It’s impossible to be utterly sure, but that’s normal. The point is just to make it difficult.

    You really believe no human beings are entitled to moral rights?

    You seem, like many people, to have mistaken moral hypocrisy for moral insincerity, and assume that the reason a person advocates on moral rule for others while breaking it personally is because of some sinister desire to look good to others while simultaneously doing what they please. No doubt that is the case occasionally. However, another possible reason for moral hypocrisy is simply that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. That is, the person advocating these moral rules really believes in them, but lacks the willpower to obey them all the time.

    In creating homo hypocritus, natural selection was quite subtle. Rather than simply instill us with a secret desire to profess false beliefs, while enhancing our self interest when others weren’t looking, it actually instilled us with sincere beliefs, and then sabotaged our willpower so we were unable to follow them consistently. It also made our willpower get stronger when others are watching, for obvious reasons.

    All humans are mentally incapable of consistently following their moral beliefs. A moral theory that mercilessly punishes hypocrisy is useless, it will merely encourage people to stop professing moral beliefs. The key is to strike a balance where you punish people enough to make them obey their beliefs more often, but not enough to scare them out of even having those beliefs.

    One of the few positive points of religion is that it recognizes this aspect of the human species. Much of modern religion, especially Christianity, deals with the knowledge that we lack the ability to consistently follow morals (it would help if religious morals weren’t made deliberately impossible to follow, but even if they were more reasonable we’d still have trouble). I think one this is one aspect of religious morality worth importing into secular moral philosophy.

    • Alrenous

      Because of your criticism, I realized what when I think about a hypocrite, I think of someone who won’t admit they’ve broken their own rule when it is pointed out to them.

      One should almost never be obligated to work out in advance if your actions will harm someone else – it’s just too difficult – especially when it is so easy to simply ask.

      You really believe no human beings are entitled to moral rights?


      All humans are mentally incapable of consistently following their moral beliefs.

      Only thing I disagree with. Hard is not impossible.

      A moral theory that mercilessly punishes

      My theory is not in fact merciless.

  • burger flipper

    Gotta love this message even more coming from a libertarian intellectual working at a public university.

  • Trevor Blake

    Do as I say now, not as I say otherwise – territory well explored by the egoists.

  • Former Phil Grad Student

    I once studies with a moral philosopher who stole things from his neighbors, faked illnesses to skip teaching & complete projects, betrayed colleagues, and opportunistically spoke like a bigot about a homosexual philosopher he was against hiring (for selfish reasons).

    He wasn’t a very good moral philosopher from the point of view of good philosophy and he wasn’t a man of high character — but he would good at producing publications for those excited about pursuing the technical details of one research cul de sac built upon an opening move error.

    The filter of academia filters for “normal science” puzzle solving — publish or perish work in a formal paradigm.

    It doesn’t filter for deep or sound work — or for good character.

  • Evan

    Gotta love this message even more coming from a libertarian intellectual working at a public university.

    From what I understand, Robin is a consequentialist libertarian. Under his principles there’s nothing wrong with doing work in a public institution if it advances the cause of liberty on the net.

    I find pretty much all arguments in the vein of “If you don’t believe in big government never associate with anything publicly funded” to be deeply silly. If you followed that argument to its logical conclusion that would mean that anyone in North Korea who disagrees with the government would be forbidden to eat food, since food is grown by the government over there.

  • Chris Hallquist

    I think the “Added 2a” may have been directed at me. Yes, I gave some rather extreme examples. The point is not that they justify Sidgwick’s behavior, rather, the point is that they provide an alternative hypothesis for why Sidgwick may have expressed the views he did.

    A couple other notes:

    (1) According to Wikipedia, Sidgwick was made an “honorary fellow” at Trinity after resigning his regular fellowship; it’s possible that the honorary fellowship didn’t require him to sign any statement of belief.

    (2) Sidgwick lived at a time when people when to prison for homosexuality. Unless he was publicly advocating for those laws, calling him a hypocrite is a bit of a stretch. There’s a difference between just being in the closet and being a hypocrite.

    • Chris Hallquist

      *Went to prison

      (Look at the amazing proof-reading powers I acquire after sleep!)

    • Rodney Polkinghorne

      Sidgwick lived at a time when people when to prison for homosexuality.

      Actually, the British government hanged homosexual men until 1867. The real Sidgwick was himself one of the Jews in the basement, and his opinions on secrecy aren’t surprising.

  • mwengler

    Someone who eschews hypocrisy can never be broadly influential, because the population believes a bunch of wrong stuff. Look at any even vaguely successful political candidate, they pander to their “base.” Only in limited circumstances do they take a stand against their base. For example, Republican leaders did state clearly that Obama was born in the U.S. and is legitimately president despite the passionate denial of this by birthers.

    Further, we didn’t evolve brains and speech to tell the truth, we evolved them to get resources and get laid. The society of our species has been a big part of the “environment” for which we have been evolving fitness for a long long time, predating our becoming human certainly. Where honesty conflicts with fitness or sexual selection, one should expect fitness or sexual selection to win, because for a million years those in whom it did not win did not number among our ancestors.

    If there is a bias to be overcome, I think we must accept that we need to examine all statements from all commentators for hypocrisy. Fortunately, I think we can be pretty honest about dishonesty in others, I don’t think evolutionary psychology has prevented that in us. But as with wisdom teeth, the appendix, the lizard brain, and big boobs that give us backaches, I think the best strategy is to work with our hypocrisy and our biased minds rather than to rail against them as if that might somehow allow us to escape them.

  • GNZ

    One of my hobbie horses – is that i think hypocrisy is underrated.

    1) i think that it is very hard not to be hypocritical, or to act in such a way that others cant paint you as hypocritical, often being intentionally hypocritical is just picking where you will do so rather than becoming more so. (ie the actual choice you are faced with is not the wholistic one).

    2) I think the sort of problem where you lie to the nazi is pretty common, as is the sort of internal conflict case where you are addicted to a drug but say that it is bad.

    and most importnatly

    3) Often the hypocricy is solved by going with the immoral instinct – so a anti-hypocricy fetish can be a push for worse moral behaviour.

  • Miguel Lahunken

    Hypocritical society thrives on secrecy. Here’s an example of suppressed knowledge. Spread the most classic secret, the supreme grand secret of the “lodge”, which,
    thanks to modern medicine, can be printed on a bumper sticker:
    VAGAL STIMULATION IS AS EFFECTIVE AS LSD. Behind the old “Iron Curtain”
    there was a disease recognized that is
    deceitfully diagnosed to be schizophrenia in the West. It was called “shamans’
    disease” and is caused by scar tissue in the parasympathetic (muscarinic)
    nervous system. This nervous system is called “muscarinic” after the hallucinogenic drug
    muscarine, found in the fly aminita mushroom; and, muscarine doesn’t cross the
    blood brain barrier. It works by exciting the whole muscarinic nervous system
    and thereby overriding the inhibitory neurons in the brain. But, it is unpopular
    in the West due to the way it excites the digestive system.
    This has been kept secret by those who cash in on this secrecy, occult
    secrecy. In yoga, the plexuses of the muscarinic nervous system are called
    chakras, presented to the common people as “spiritual wheels of light along the
    spine”, but they are not in the spine, they are the major plexuses of the
    parasympathetic nervous system in the body.
    This muscarinic nervous system stimulation is called “kundalini” in yoga,
    and when yoga students reach the degree where they are allowed to know the truth
    about their own bodies they must sign contracts of secrecy.
    So, your children may have only acquired scar tissue in their
    parasympathetic nervous systems, which can be treated medically other ways, but,
    there are dopamine blockers to be sold, and, special interests want to keep
    their profitable secrets.
    Of course one international organization is behind this, a well known
    secret society, whose “temple” represents the human body, and whose “holy of
    holies” represents where the largest muscarinic nerve, the vagus nerve, emerges
    from the brain into the body in the nasopharynx.
    LSD used to be used to carry out a horrible treatment called the
    “Clockwork Orange” treatment. Here the victim has over 50% of the brain awakened
    consciously for use. It is called by “Grof Transpersonal”, “perinatal matrix three”, and
    here the victim experiences all the sufferings of people shown in a film by
    going backward and forward in time to inhabit each and every body shown,
    experiencing their torments as real as life.
    Today this is being done by exciting the parasympathetic nervous system by
    “waterboarding”. It was mentioned in an article about this, in a popular news magazine,
    that “efforts were made to have the water irritate the nasopharynx”, where the main trunk of the
    vagus nerve emerges from the brain, proceeding down into the body.
    Crucifixion also causes so much muscarinic nervous system stimulation that
    the victim will body switch into everyone he knows. God knows everyone, so it is
    known that Jesus Christ is in you and I and everyone this way.
    When a “schizophrenic” patient has more that 50% of the brain consciously
    awakened (it shows on an MRI) they are catatonic, but they are out body switching
    into everyone and every character they have seen, even in every movie they ever saw. Less severe
    schizophrenic symptoms occur with brain use percentages less than 50%.
    The solution, to establish better treatment for our children, and fellow man, is to spread
    this knowledge to common public knowledge.

    Reply, Reply All or Forward | More