Stop Calling Everyone a Hypocrite

Chances are you’ve come across something like this before:

Isn’t it hilarious how hypocritical socialists are? They sit there in their sweatshop-produced Che Guevara T-shirt, sipping Starbucks coffee while posting on Facebook about how capitalism is oppressive.

Or maybe this is more up your alley:

What a hypocrite! Ayn Rand spends her life railing against “looters” and “moochers,” then ends up becoming one herself.

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As satisfying and as rhetorically effective it may be to call your opponents hypocrites, it is quite often unwarranted. The two examples provided above are examplars of a broad phenomenon of overusing the accusation of hypocrisy.

However much socialists might dislike capitalism, they still have to live in the real world. And that means participating in the capitalist economy. Socialists presumably believe that a socialist economy would be just as good at producing T-shirts, coffee, social media sites, and smart phones. Given how miserably socialist societies have failed at providing their citizens with a decent standard of living, we may well see such beliefs as delusional, but delusion is not the same as hypocrisy.

Ayn Rand fled her native Russia – at the time a socialist hellhole – to live in America, one of the least socialist countries in the world. Nevertheless, she also had to live in the real world, which includes such socialist programmes as Medicare and Social Security. Rand opposed these programmes, but of course she was still required to pay into them. How does it make her a hypocrite if she then takes advantage of these programmes to get back some of the money that was taken from her?

Did she ever make the claim that accepting money from the government is immoral? Not having read anywhere near everything Rand ever wrote, I can’t know for sure, but I suspect the answer is no. If her critics can find such a statement, they may be right about her being a hypocrite. Given that she publicly took the opposite position, I’m not holding my breath.

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It’s not hard to see why accusations of hypocrisy are so prevalent today. If you accuse someone of violating one of your own values, they might just brush off the accusation by rejecting that value: accuse Ayn Rand of selfishness and she might just shrug and thank you for the compliment. Accusing someone of violating their own principles is a lot more effective.

However, this creates the perverse incentive of making moral people easier to attack. The stricter your moral code, the easier it is for someone to accuse you of hypocrisy. Nevertheless, someone who follows a strict moral code and occasionally strays from it may still be far more moral than someone who doesn’t hold to any code. Yet the first person is a hypocrite, while the second is not.

Consider the case of Thomas Jefferson. He is frequently, and with some justice, accused of being a hypocrite on the question of slavery. Jefferson believed slavery to be immoral, yet he was a slave owner. He did undertake various efforts to oppose slavery legislatively (see for example this article), and he freed some of his own slaves, but he could have and should have done more.

However, focusing on Jefferson’s hypocrisy is misguided. The problem is that Jefferson was a slave owner, not that he was a hypocrite. If Jefferson had instead been an ardent supporter of slavery, we should hold him in much lower esteem. We want influential people like Jefferson to point out the moral failings of their own societies, even if they participate in them. Having been born into a family of slave owners and into a society which regarded slavery as normal, it took tremendous courage and integrity for Jefferson to oppose slavery as openly as he did. Instead of condemning him for hypocrisy, we should praise Jefferson for the high moral standards he set, even if he didn’t fully live up to them.

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