Pop Ethics Quiz: Is This Hypocrisy?

"Do as I said, not how I wished they would have done before I said it, and definitely not to me now. Got that?"

“Do as I said, not how I wished they would have done before I said it, and definitely not to me now. Got that?”

In 2003, Dennis Hastert, then Speaker of the House and as yet unmasked as a child molester in his days as a High School wrestling coach,  said

But it is equally important to stop those predators before they strike, to put repeat child molesters into jail for the rest of their lives and to help law enforcement with the tools they need to get the job done.”

The news media has labeled this statement hypocrisy. Is it?

It is not.

Hypocrisy is a statement of moral or ethical standards that an individual proves by his own actions that he does not believe. The actions that supposedly mark Hastert as a hypocrite had already taken place when he made that statement in 2003. There is no reason to assume that he did not believe that sexual predators should be stopped and prevented from doing harm to others, even though he had been one, and indeed even if he was still inclined to molest young men in 2003.

This is another version of the flawed argument that a parent who smoked pot as a youth cannot credibly demand that his or her own child not do the same. What makes a hypocritical statement is insincerity and pretense at the time it is made, demonstrated by conduct in close temporal proximity to that statement.

Advocating an ethical standard  that an individual himself has proven incapable of meeting in the past or even simultaneously with the statement does not necessarily make the statement dishonest. Is Bill Cosby a hypocrite? We really don’t know. I suspect that his advocacy of ethical values is genuine and sincere. Being conflicted is not the same as being hypocritical. Politicians can be gay, and still endorse discrimination against gays.

Inconsistencies between past statements and conduct the took place either before the statement or after also does not support an accusation of hypocrisy. Joe Biden should be able to state that presidential Supreme Court nominees shouldn’t be confirmed when the election of a new President looms, and then maintain the opposite years later without being accused of hypocrisy. Changing one’s position, flip-flopping or caving to expediency are still not hypocrisy. If Bill Clinton said that he believes a President shouldn’t dishonor his high office, is that hypocritical? No. It would take a lot of gall to be sure, but it isn’t necessarily hypocritical: maybe he’s learned his lesson.

When former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry lectured students about avoiding drugs, then smoked crack with an old girl friend on a whim, that was hypocrisy.  When Hillary Clinton says, as she has, “No one is too big to jail” while using all of her influence and status to avoid the legal consequences of her State Department e-mail maneuvers, that can fairly be called hypocrisy. When Barack Obama said last week that the white House would not attempt to influence the Justice Department’s decision whether to charge Hillary, and then in the same interview said…

“She would never intentionally put America in any kind of jeopardy. What I also know is that there’s classified and then there’s classified. There’s stuff that is really top secret top secret, and then there’s stuff that is being presented to the president, the secretary of state, you may not want going out over the wire…I continue to believe she has not jeopardized America’s national security. There’s a carelessness in terms of managing emails that she has owned and she recognizes. But I also think it is important to keep this in perspective.”

…that was spectacular hypocrisy, with a dash of arrogance for flavor. The President of the United States opining on the innocence of an individual under investigation is by definition exerting influence on the Justice Department headed by an individual who reports to him.

There are many circumstances that would make Hastert’s 2003 get-tough statement about child abuse completely sincere. He no longer regarded himself as a current abuser. Maybe he rationalized that he never was an abuser. He may have wished that he had been apprehended and stopped after his first episode, long ago. He certainly could believe that it was important to stop predators before they struck, and he knew better than most whether serial predators could be trusted to be released from jail.

Hypocrisy exists when an individual’s statement of values and the conduct that contradicts that statement occurs nearly simultaneously. The news media likes to play “gotcha!” with past inconsistent statements, and they certainly are worth considering in assessing integrity, past judgment and reliability. “Hypocrisy” is regularly misused, however.

Oh, I almost forgot: If anyone can find a non-conservative news source that flagged President Obama’s hypocritical statement regarding Hillary’s e-mails, please link it in the comments. I haven’t been able to find one.


Pointer: Fred

Sources: Chicago Tribune, Washington Times

14 thoughts on “Pop Ethics Quiz: Is This Hypocrisy?

  1. Thanks for the article. I agree. As a parent, I tell my daughter all the time not to do the things that I did. Yes, I did them but I have grown in wisdom and now can share with my daughter the reasons not to do them. It doesn’t make me a hypocrite, just smarter.

    I hope you are able to find a non-conservative site that spoke about President Obama’s hypocritical statement. It is so refreshing to find, on either side, people who point out the inconsistencies on their side. I find it frequently on the conservative side, maybe because those are the only people I want to listen to or read, but I never find it on the liberal side. Even when I point out inaccuracies to that side, all I get is crickets. I am so sad that we don’t value truth anymore as a culture.

    I just started reading your site and am looking forward to reading more. Thank you for standing for truth, even when it’s inconvenient.

  2. BTW, could you give me your email address? For some reason I don’t have the WLDCore.dll on my computer and I can’t click your link and email you. I wanted to give you my name so you know who grace2give is. See, I read your comment policies. 🙂

  3. If I recall, I think Morning Joe participants were scratching their heads for a good while over the Obama commentary; I don’t recall the exact remarks though. But, it’s no wonder if you did not see it: It’s on MSNBC.

    • Sorry for the digression, in my question. Jack, I agree with your quiz answer: not hypocrisy by Hastert. Perhaps dubiously “do as I say, not as I did,” nevertheless, but also, worthy of benefit of doubt as equivalent to a formerly wayward parent counseling his kids to do as he says, not as he did. I should know that to be true, for as much as I did and for as much as I counseled my kids – and for as well as they have all turned out.

  4. Anyone remember when Richard Nixon was laid into by the press when he referred to Charles Manson as a “murderer” before he was tried? No, No! Manson was then an “alleged murderer” and Nixon just didn’t know his Constitution. (I know this from reading history, of course, as I was not born at the time…)

    Obama, our Constitutional law professor, may know all about the Constitution but just doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about ethics, either. All he knows is what he wants. Support Hillary at the expense of the truth, of the independence of the FBI, of any ethical standard at all. And the Hillary statement is just one example of Obama inserting himself and his office into areas where he has no right or business to be. Apparently the Justice Department is his very own bully pulpit. Some legacy.

  5. (Long-time reader, first time commenter.)

    While I agree that accusations of hypocrisy are often out of place, I don’t understand your reasoning here:

    “He may have wished that he had been apprehended and stopped after his first episode, long ago”

    If he did, why not give himself up to the police willingly?
    Is the implication that a criminal might believe they SHOULD be put on trial, but ethically do everything in their power to avoid that?

    Same for people who support the restrictive drug laws and speak in their favor but have used drugs in the past without being caught.

    To not be a hypocrite when you have engaged in a behavior you have condemned, shouldn’t you actually have ‘paid the price’ for it…?

    • No. That really has nothing to do with it. Remember the temporal feature: You once engaged in conduct you ARE NOW condemning. Present Jack would advocate sending Past Jack to jail, if they were around at the same time. Nothing at all hypocritical about that, and the fact that Past Jack didn’t go to jail doesn’t matter.

      • I think it matters a lot, because it means his sincerity was questionable when he made that statement.

        After all, if he was guilty he had the perfect chance to get *one* molester punished – himself! But he chose not to.
        You don’t think not reporting a known molester (oneself!) from the law is hypocritical in this context?

        Are you saying that Present Jack can condemn what Past Jack did without taking any responsibility or blame for it and still not be a hypocrite?
        Like a moral statute of limitations, allowing one to do do bad things and never ‘pay’ for them, but be ethically in the clear just because X years passed?

        The only way he could be a not-hypocrite in my eyes is if he really believe he wasn’t a molester at the time. As you say ‘Maybe he rationalized that he never was an abuser. ‘. But that would have been one VERY convenient rationalization…

        • Are you saying that Present Jack can condemn what Past Jack did without taking any responsibility or blame for it and still not be a hypocrite?

          If Present Jack condemns what Past jack did, how is that not taking responsibility for it? Do you mean Present Jack has to specify that he did what he has now decided was wrong? That would be nice, but it certainly doesn’t make Present Jack’s proclamation less sincere. A mother who had a child as an unwed teen is obligated to explain that to her own daughter, or else her warning based on personal experience in insincere? Why would you think that?

          • But don’t you think taking responsibility implies actually coming forward and saying ‘I did this, I should pay for it’? And that’s *before* law enforcement finds out.

            Of course, Jack could sincerely regret having done these things and believe people should be punished for them…but not want to ‘pay the price’for them. (fines, jail, loss of reputation).
            It’s better than not regretting it at all, of course, but it’s not enough.
            Do you think Jack would like *other* molesters to not come out and confess? Doesn’t some sort of Golden Rule apply here?

            I suspect this a very common way to see things – how many people confess when they have a reasonable chance NOT to ever be caught, put on trial and judged guilty?
            Not many, I would guess. Of course you would know better, being a lawyer.

            I think talking about being ‘conflicted’ is really too generous here.
            I agree with your gay example in the main post, but only because some people (Catholics) believe it’s not wrong to be gay, but it’s wrong to actually have gay sex.
            Sure, that makes being gay AND condemning homosexuality uncomfortable for them, but there’s no hypocrisy at all as long as they’re chaste.

            As for the mother example – that’s not an actual crime, and being an unwed mother is quite harder to hide, anyway. So I don’t think it’s a good comparison.

            • We’re not talking about crimes, though. Hastert’s act happened to be a crime, but the rules for hypocrisy doesn’t change. You’re attaching a separate set of ethical requirements entirely: confession, remorse, amends, regret, etc. Avoiding hypocrisy doesn’t require any of those. All it requires is being sincere about the conduct one condemns now. Engaging in that conduct contemporaneously may show insincerity, or it may just be self-condemnation of conduct that the individual is ashamed of but cannot stop for some reason. Bill Cosby may not be a hypocrite.

              And a criminal may not be a hypocrite. The hypocrisy in “The Godfather” is the religious piety, highlighted in the assassination sequence.

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