The argument from hypocrisy

It’s too bad so much political argument nowadays is based not on what’s true and what’s false, or what’s right and what’s wrong, but on the allegation of hypocrisy and consistency.

Al Gore lives in a big house that must use a lot of energy; therefore global warming is a myth.  Liberals exaggerated the rowdiness at Tea Party rallies; therefore complaints about Fox News mix-and-match footage are invalid.  Soviet generals participated in the Nuremberg trials; therefore there were no Nazi war crimes.  I am not making up any of these arguments.  What’s wrong with them?

First, almost everyone is open to that charge. Inconsistency and hypocrisy are universal human foibles.  Hardly anybody, certainly not me, has thought through their ideas thoroughly enough to be sure they are free from internal contradiction.  Hardly anybody, certainly not me, can claim that they live up to their best ideals all the time.

Second, such charges shift the basis of the argument from the real to the hypothetical.  Instead of saying, “X is true and I can prove it,” you say, “If your side says Y, my side is entitled to say X” or “Your side did Y in situation A, so you have no standing for criticize my side for doing X in situation B.”

Third, a person can be 100 percent consistent and 100 percent honest and be wrong 100 percent of the time, and someone else can be completely inconsistent and completely hypocritical and still be right 50 percent of the time.

Fourth, the argument from hypocrisy is the classic refuge of the person who is unwilling or unable to distinguish truth from falsehood, and right from wrong.  And when you lose the ability to make those distinctions, you are lost.

Neal Stephenson in his science fiction novel The Diamond Age (1995) had a classic comment on how this way of thinking might look a couple of generations hence.

“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 criticize others—after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism?”

Finkle-McGraw paused, knowing he had the full attention of his audience, and began to withdraw a calabash pipe and various related supplies and implements from his pockets. ……

“Now this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticize others’ shortcomings.  And so it was that they seize on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices.  For, you see, if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticize another person by contrasting what he has espoused from 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 behavior—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. ……

“Because they were hypocrites,” Finkle-McGraw said, after igniting his calabash and shooting a few tremendous fountains of smoke into the air, “the Victorians were despised in the late twentieth century.  Many of the persons who held such opinions were, of course, guilty of the most nefarious conduct themselves, and yet saw no paradox in holding such views because they were not hypocrites themselves—they took no moral stances and lived by none.”

“So they were morally superior to the Victorians—” Major Napier said, still a bit snowed under.

“—even though—in fact, because—they had no morals at all.”

As for myself, I make no claim to consistency, impartiality or lack of bias.  What I write in a current post may well be contradictory to what I wrote in a previous post.  I change my thinking as I live and learn.  What I do claim is that I can support my assertions with fact and argument, and that I will change my mind when and if somebody can disprove my facts and refute my arguments.

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