I frequently check into a British website called “UnHerd” to get a different perspective on things, and it is often an enjoyable and stimulating experience. From its “About” page:
UnHerd aims to do two things: to push back against the herd mentality with new and bold thinking, and to provide a platform for otherwise unheard ideas, people and places. We think this approach is more needed than ever. Societies across the West are divided and stuck, and the established media is struggling to make sense of what’s happening. The governing ideologies of the past generation are too often either unquestioningly defended or rejected wholesale.
It’s easy and safe to be in one or other of these two camps – defensive liberal or angry reactionary – but UnHerd is trying to do something different, and harder. We want to be bold enough to identify those things that have been lost, as well as gained, by the liberal world order of the past thirty years; but we strive to be always thoughtful rather than divisive. We are not aligned with any political party, and the writers and ideas we are interested in come from both left and right traditions. But we instinctively believe that the way forward will be found through a shift of emphasis: towards community not just individualism, towards responsibilities as well as Rights, and towards meaning and virtue over shallow materialism.
They are going to have to do better, however, than the kind of shallow commentary represented by the recent essay on hypocrisy, which stepped on two ethics landmines before it even started, with this heading:
Hypocrisy is not the worst thing on earth: No one cares if progressives don’t practise what they preach — so long as what they’re preaching is good.
Those familiar with the Ethics Alarms Rationalizations list will immediately flag the flagrant use of #22. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”
I think it’s fair to say that I hate that rationalization, and that I immediately, and perhaps unalterably distrust anyone who resorts to it. The second ethics breach is the incompetent use of “good.” What does that mean, in this context? Right? Practical? Effective? Not bad?
This raised a tangential ethical problem for me: I increasingly am tempted to stop reading when an author appears t be dishonest, lazy, sneaky or dumb in the first few sentences. Usually I don’t, and occasionally I am glad I didn’t, but most of the time I find that my initial instincts were correct.
In this case, the author, conservative pundit Ben Sixsmith, does an acceptable job explaining the misuse of hypocrisy accusations, a topic often explored here. For example, he writes,
Another weakness with charges of hypocrisy is that using someone’s failure to uphold their standards as a means of discrediting those standards is a classic example of the ad hominem fallacy, or, in British English terms, playing the man and not the ball. I don’t want to be too much of a debate nerd. Such accusations can reveal some things about those standards — not least that they are hard to keep. But it does not prove that they are wrong to hold.
If Harry and Meghan use private jets while handwringing about climate change, for example, it might say something about Harry and Meghan but it says nothing about climate change. If Neil Ferguson meets his girlfriend while in lockdown it might say something about Neil Ferguson but it says nothing about epidemiology. If I tell people smoking is dangerous but indulge in a quiet cigarette behind closed doors, that does not mean tobacco is a health product.
I agree: that’s a crucial distinction often ignored in the culture wars.
The main argument in the essay, however, is that conservatives too often default to a charge of hypocrisy rather than effectively attacking the progressive position at issue. He concludes,
…Right-wingers hope their opponents will hang themselves with their own cord. But it can also be tedious and ineffectual. It allows progressives to lead the conversation — with their values front and centre, even when they are being criticised — and reduces conservatives to the role of anklebiters. One should have enough pride in one’s own beliefs not to spend all of one’s time holding others to theirs. I mean, if your opponents lived with scrupulous consistency, would you have to admit that they were right all along?
Somehow, Sixsmith manages to miss one of the most important reasons to call out hypocrisy, which is that it strongly suggests that an advocate has been lying all along, and is promoting values and policies that he or she doesn’t believe in or care about merely to gain power and to gull the gullible. As an ethicist, I regard serious hypocrisy as demonstrating untrustworthiness. Sixsmith calls it “one of the lesser vices,” and I don’t see how he can reach such a conclusion.
For example, the Democratic Party’s nomination of a proven sexual harasser like Joe Biden as its candidate to unseat President Trump is signature significance of a frighteningly Machiavellian mindset. This same party was eager to ruin lives, careers and reputations based on rumors and and unsubstantiated accusations of long past misconduct as it preened over #MeToo, culminating in the disgusting hearings on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. Yet all of this outrages and sanctimony evaporated as soon as polling showed that the former Vice-President was regarded as the least repugnant of the contenders for the nomination. Suddenly, no progressives cares about sexual assault and sexual harassment any more.
I make a major issue of this, not because I want to minimize the problems of sexual harassment and sexual assault, which I emphatically believe are not adequately addressed in the workplace and the culture, but because the progressive and Democratic use of the issue proves…
- …they were more dedicated to exploiting the issue for political gain than in solving a problem
- …that these are people interested in power above all else, and lack consistent values and principles
- …that what they say, and even what they say passionately, may be calculates and cynical ruse
- …that they cannot be trusted, and must mot be trusted with great power.
To return to the introduction to Sixsmith’s essay, what “they” are preaching cannot confidently be considered “good” if they are just cynically saying so for their own benefit, and the preachers most definitely cannot be considered “good” people, because they are deliberately attempting to deceive.
That is not a “lesser vice.”