The English 'hypocrite' derives from the Greek hypokrites, actor. Although one cannot use etymology to show what a word means or even what it ought to mean, let alone its 'true and inherent meaning' (there is no such thing), in the present case the etymology provides a valuable suggestion as to how the word is used and how it ought to be used in an adequate and comprehensive theory of moral phenomena. The suggestion is that the hypocrite plays a part in public that is at variance with what he is in private. (This formulation may need refinement in light of the possibility of a man's playing a role before himself alone. I once wrote in my journal: "Am I a poseur in the pages of my own journal?" The question makes sense and suggests that a person could be a hypocrite in private.)
Roughly, then, a hypocrite is a dissembler: he puts on a false or misleading appearance thereby concealing rather than revealing his true nature. One way is by preaching what one has no intention of practicing. Picture the corpulent Schopenhauer seated at a table laden with delectables holding forth with a show of vast erudition on the moral worth of dietary abstemiousness and asceticism in general all the while availing himself without restraint of the table's bounty. It is not merely the discrepancy between profession and actual behavior that makes the hypocrite. For not everyone in whom there is this discrepancy is a hypocrite. What makes the hypocrite is the absence of the intention to live in accordance with the moral demand that he enunciates. If I sincerely intend to live in accordance with a moral standard, then my inevitable lapses, even if frequent, do not make me a hypocrite. If everyone who exhibits weakness of the will in some or all respects were a hypocrite, then we would all be hypocrites, with the consequent 'semantic drainage' rendering 'hypocrite' a useless term.
So I lay down the following necessary but insufficient condition for a person P's exhibiting hypocrisy at a time t in respect of standard S: P exhibits hypocrisy in respect of S at t only if P sincerely intends to satisfy the demands of S at or around t. I should think that this is a condition of adequacy for any theory of hypocrisy. It lays down a condition for the correct use of the term regardless of how people misuse it in ordinary language. Ordinary language is but a point of departure in philosophical inquiry: we start from it but are not tied to it and often must deviate from it.
(It is worth noting that to exhibit hypocrisy at a time with respect to a standard or ideal or demand is not to be a hypocrite: a hypocrite is a person who typically or rather habitually exhibits hypocrisy with respect to many standards or ideals or demands. Don't ask me how many.)
Now I come to my double-barreled point. First, if I must know your intentions if I am to accuse you of hypocrisy justly, then it would appear that just imputations of hypocrisy are difficult if not impossible. Given my temporal and linguistic and cultural distance from the Roman Stoic Seneca, how can I, with any show of justice, accuse him of hypocrisy? Historians and classicists may perhaps have good evidence of a yawning chasm between what he preached in his writings and certain facts of his life such as his amassing of wealth. But without access to his intentions no just accusation of hypocrisy can be made.
Second, if I do accuse someone of hypocrisy do I not, by this very accusation, evince hypocrisy in myself? For do I not, in levelling an accusation of hypocrisy, pretend to be other than I am, namely, a person with the power to discern the intentions of others? Do I not pretend to be better than I am, more discerning than I am, more en rapport with the demands of morality than I am? We noted at the outset that a hypocrite is an actor, a phony, a pretender, a dissembler: he makes himself appear to be what he is not. But the critic of the hypocrite does the same: he postures as one who can peer into the soul of another to ferret out the other's insincerity.
Consider the liberals who jumped all over Bill Bennett, he of The Book of Virtues, when he was discovered wasting money on Las Vegas slot machines. Whether or not Bennett was a hypocrite in respect of his slot playing -- and I would argue that he was not -- it seems clear that some of the liberals who accused him were. For they could not have known whether it had been his intention to adhere to some stringent and indeed supererogatory demand regarding gambling. They were pretending to judge where they could not judge.
There is a related point that needs to be explored in a separate post, namely, whether one can be a hypocrite in respect of the supererogatory. There is no reasonable moral duty that one refrain from drinking and gambling as such. There is certainly nothing wrong with taking a drink and shaking hands with a one-armed bandit. Now suppose a man recommends abstention from gambling on the ground that the time and money spent could be put to better use. If he lives in accordance with his recommendation, then his doing so is supererogatory: meritorious, but above and beyond the call of duty. But suppose he recommends abstention from gambling, but has no intention of refraining from occasional, moderate, legal gambling with his own money that he can afford to spend. Is he then a hypocrite when he gambles? I incline to a negative answer. There is no hypocrisy in respect of the supererogatory. I concede that this is not obvious and needs further examination.
One more observation. What was it that so incensed so many liberals and leftists about Bennett's behavior? It is not that he failed to practice what he preached, but that he, an imperfect man, made moral judgments of others. But if a hypocrite is a morally imperfect person who makes negative moral judgments of others, then by the same token, some of Bennett's critics were themselves hypocrites: for they, imperfect to a man, made negative moral judgments about Bennett.
This raises some further questions. Must one be morally perfect for one's moral judgments of others to be free of hypocrisy? Is that the meaning of the NT "Judge not lest ye be judged?" Could a case be made that all moral judgments of human beings by human beings are hypocritical? I rather doubt it, but the question is worth exploring. It is also worth exploring whether some libs and lefties think this and whether this is what fuels their outrage at the 'hypocrisy' of conservatives.
Furthermore, can you legitimately skewer another for failing to do what you yourself think there is no moral obligation to do, e.g., refrain from adultery? Suppose that Lenny the Leftist waxes gleeful over some televangelist's getting caught with a Lost Wages hooker. Now Lenny has no objection to any and all sexual acts among consenting adults. So what fuels his gleeful outrage at Telly's adultery? Is it not a fake outrage? A hypocritical outrage? If the demands you place on yourself are ridiculous, then what am I doing when I criticize you for not living up to what I think there is no obligation to live up to?
The plot thickens.