Hypocrisy and Public Life


Revelations about the infidelities of prominent social conservatives like South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and Nevada Senator John Ensign have led many to mock advocates of public virtue who nonetheless succumb to personal vice. But what’s so bad about hypocrisy?

Print Friendly

La Rochefoucauld famously said that “hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue.” This is often understood to mean that the hypocrite who says one thing but does another, says what he says because he knows it is right. The hypocrite possesses the knowledge that his behavior is wrong or sinful, and so speaks the truth, even while not living it.

There is something to this. A person’s failure to live up to his stated moral code need not call either the validity of that code nor his belief in the code in question. In fact, given the inevitability of moral failure in our lives, it is similarly inevitable that those with strong moral convictions will sometimes fail to act in the way they publicly identify as morally appropriate.

But is hypocrisy really nothing more than the inability of persons to live up to their own moral code? No. Hypocrisy does not just involve disconnect between word and deed; it involves dissimulation, falsity in how one acts. The hypocrite does not merely make assertions he believes to be true about morality while failing to abide by them. He also makes false assertions, often by his deeds. He deceives others by creating the appearance of virtue while succumbing to vice. Creating this appearance may, of course, take a great deal of work; consider what is involved in maintaining the illusion—to one’s spouse, one’s children, and others—that one is being faithful in marriage, if one is actually having an affair.

This makes hypocrisy, just in itself, morally bad for the hypocrite. For, an important and basic aspect of human well-being entails our striving to achieve a unity in the various aspects of our practical lives and selves. Our practical judgments must be harmonized with our choices, our choices with our actions, and all with our feelings. Otherwise we are at war within ourselves, agents who know what is good but choose what is not, or who choose what is good but rebel internally because desire prods us in some other direction. Integrity is a matter of bringing all these aspects of our practical life into line with one another.

But it is also a matter of what we could call the inner and the outer aspects of ourselves. All of us are aware of the internality and privacy of our thoughts, our intentions, and our character. These aspects of ourselves are expressed through our assertions and actions. That the outward assertion should express the inner person is natural in the sense that assertion—stating that such and such is the case—is the natural way to communicate what one believes to be true, even though one’s primary purpose in such communication is not typically self-disclosure but the disclosure of truth.

The truth of our assertions is particularly important because communication forms a partial basis of any community. There can be no shared purposes without communication, and in the absence of shared purposes, no forms of the good of sociability, and no virtue of justice to structure social life and lives. Moreover, all the substantive basic goods—life and health, knowledge, art and aesthetic experience, work and play—would suffer insofar as cooperative action for their sake would be impossible without communication.

Assertions, accordingly, play a central role in the moral life, insofar as they are necessary for communication and communication is necessary for cooperation, sociality, justice, and the pursuit of all the substantive goods. It thus seems that the “natural” relationship between assertion and truth is not enough; rather, the character of the asserting agent must be properly ordered as regards his acts of assertion by a virtue, which Aquinas calls truthfulness. It is this virtue that is instantiated in an agent’s character by a particular type of intrapersonal unity, integrity, or authenticity, a harmony of the inner with outer aspects of the person.

Now the hypocrite seeks to appear in a certain way that is at odds with at least part of what is true of him: while sinning, he seeks not merely to assert what he knows to be true, but to appear not to be a sinner in the relevant respect. This suggests that hypocrisy is possible only where there is a repetitious character to the wrongdoing, for the wrongdoer must now try to maintain the virtuous image that is usually the consequence of upright behavior. Hypocrisy thus creates an ongoing tension between the agent’s inner and outer self that would be solved by a frank admission of failure, repentance, and a resolution to do better. This tension is intrinsically bad—it involves a privation of the good of integrity—and can obviously be corrupting in further ways, as agents who experience such tension can be led to rationalize the wrong they are doing, resulting in self-deception at best, and a deep turn towards vice at the worst.

Even hypocrites who attempt to deceive may have some moral motivation if the deception is done for the sake of others. For example, an adulterous father genuinely can be concerned about the effect of his adultery on his children. Here again, hypocrisy pays a kind of tribute to virtue: the agent maintains an awareness of the right and a kind of commitment to it, even while the moral structure of his life begins to crumble.

But there can be a further wrong in hypocrisy, and it is this wrong, I will argue, that creates special problems for at least some figures in public life.

The form of hypocrisy that seems most especially egregious is that in which the “tribute” paid to virtue is entirely specious. The agent simulates virtue in this case not because of a recognition that the appearance of vice can corrupt or harm others, or because he is still somehow allied with virtue, but because the appearance of virtue brings with it certain rewards. These might be merely the maintenance of personal reputation, and the goods that go with that; in a worse case, it might be the ability to obtain or wield power, goods, or influence; and in the very worst case scenario, it might be for the sake of corrupting others and eventually undermining the very values to which the hypocrite pays lip service. This last end is especially important in considering the wrong that hypocrisy does, for, as so much recent history suggests, a side effect of hypocrisy can be to bring the values trumpeted by the hypocrite into disrepute. I will return to this below.

Few people’s lives will go as well as they should if they cannot preserve their reputation. But a politician’s work is built in large part on a foundation of reputation; how their constituents see and think of them will affect whether they are re-elected; how their colleagues and others think of them will affect considerably their political efficacy and their political power. Not all aspects of reputation will be equally important, of course, but a politician whose relationship to his constituents and colleagues is based in part upon the moral claims he is willing to make—claims about the sanctity of the marriage vow, or the social importance of marriage and family, for instance—has a deep need to maintain the appearance of virtue, lest his political career crumble.

Political life thus significantly increases what would be the ordinary temptation accompanying wrongdoing: hypocrisy engaged in not out of charity but for the sake of reputation and external goods. Continued engagement in political life by a morally erring politician is thus a grave threat to that politician’s moral welfare, a threat that continues even after the inevitable discovery and public confession—after all, the need for an appearance of penance can swamp, even in a good person’s heart, the need for genuine and deep conversion of heart.

But some politicians, no doubt, can overcome, internally and in their pursuit of moral uprightness, the temptations to hypocrisy which wrongdoing and scandal create for them. And of course it is not for any other person to judge of some particular politician to what degree that politician’s repentance is genuine or not. But the fact that I pointed out above remains: even for those public figures whose hypocrisy is motivated by charity, or a desire for external rewards, as opposed to those motivated by a desire to bring down the values that their actions contravene—even for these less despicable hypocrites, the side effect of hypocrisy where crucial moral concerns are at issue is grave. Pro-family or pro-life politicians who abandon their families, pro-reform leaders who violate the law, or even church leaders who fail to protect their flock all bring to their causes a crisis of faith when their dissembling is made known, a crisis they must grieve at if they are as truly committed as they claim.

The conclusion is clear. F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong in asserting that there are no second acts in American life, but there should be no public second acts for public figures who have fallen and now need to pick up the pieces of their moral lives. Both for the sake of their own character and for the sake of the values they claim to hold dear, immediate resignation from public life seems, in almost every case, to be the best course.

Christopher O. Tollefsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. His latest book, co-authored with Robert P. George, is Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (Doubleday, 2008). Tollefsen sits on the editorial board of Public Discourse.

Print Friendly



Related Reading


Web Briefings

PD logo

Want more great articles?

Sign up for daily or weekly emails!

subscribe button