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Monday, March 30, 2009


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Wouldn't be a bad name to call hypocrisy in reverse 'hypercrisy', since it is culpably too critical of one's own values, etc.

But just to underscore an earlier point. It is not hypocritical to present oneself as favoring behaviors or practices that one never intends to pursue. One might be simply unable to pursue them. It is not even hypocritical to present oneself as favoring behaviors or practices that one can, but would not, pursue. Rock climbing and mountaineering are wonderful for a variety of reasons, including the virtues such practices instill. Still it might be possible, but too too risky, for some frailer advocates to engage in it. Hypocrisy is a very subtle concept, I think.

Dissembling virtue

I too despair of finding a felicitous name for the species of self-misrepresentation we are here calling “hypocrisy in reverse.” Perhaps for the purposes of this short comment you will permit me to call him the dissembler of virtue. I want simply to re-enforce the point that such people really exist and their deception is harmful.

Hiding one’s virtues cannot be accounted a vice in itself. Some people are by nature very modest and abhor any form of self-promotion ( not good character traits for a writer! ). Some winners of the VC and CMH reluctantly tell their stories of great courage with the utmost modesty. Sgt Erwin is an example that comes to mind. Sgt Erwin was the navigator on a B-17 flying over Germany in 1944. On his last mission, a large burning flare was blown back into his aircraft. Sgt Erwin picked it up, carried it some distance to the flight deck, and finally jettisoned it, saving the plane and his crewmates, but severely burning his face, arms and hands. If Sgt Erwin says he is not a brave man, I don’t call him a hypocrite.

The true dissembler of virtue disparages the virtues he takes care not to be seen practicing. He is follower of the old maxim, feign vice and dissemble virtue. If you encounter such a person and unmask him, he will say something like “I find that if people know that I am generous, honest, etc, they tend to exploit these traits or at least over-rely upon them. Whereas if they think I’m greedy and mean-spirited, they are much more scrupulous and careful in dealing with me.” We understand this thinking, but we see the fallacy in it, I’m sure. His pretense of vice or at least virtuelessness does not in fact induce virtuous conduct in others. Vice is extremely contagious (as the present of the world economy can testify!). The virtuous man who dissembles his good traits encourage popular cynicism about morals. Nor is the pretense good for the dissembler himself in ways I’m sure you understand. It is a vice.


'Hypercrisy' is an interesting suggestion. But it would be better if we could find an existing word in English or a foreign language. For example, we have no word in English for what the German *Schadenfreude* denotes so we borrow the latter.

I was playing with the following pseudo-etymology of 'hypocrite': from hypo and krinein. Accordingly, a hypocrite is one who is insufficiently self-critical.

I agree with the two main points you make. I was assuming all along a sort of analog of 'ought implies can': One cannot be a hypocrite with respect to a recommended behavior unless one is able in some measure to realize it. And perhaps also it must be a behavior that ceteris paribus it would be good for the particular individual who recommends it to pursue.


I was aware of the maxim, 'Feign virtue and dissemble vice.' The converse I learned from you. Source?

You point to an interesting moral phenomenon. A man who is reliable might try to get himself perceived as unreliable so that people won't ask him to do things. A philosopher who wants to avoid committee work and other administrivia may cultivate an air of abstractedness, absentmindedness, and impracticality so as to stay off committees. He feigns vice and dissembles virtue. Such dissembling of virtue is itself a vice (or at least something morally bad)and so can be classified as a vice of self-presentation. But it is not hypocrisy.

And yet good writers such as T Nagel and J Shklar refer to this as hypocrisy. But I'll have to check to be sure.

Dissembling Virtue 2

Vices are vices because they do harm, harm both to the unfortunate individual in whom they take up residence (perhaps incurably), and harm to the society that must deal with the conduct of “vicious” individual. I can’t recall any good discussions comparing the personal and social harm that even the common vices like intemperance, dishonesty, and cowardice cause. Presumably, we are going to want to compare harms if we are going to argue that one vice is worse than another.

As far as studying the harm they do, I think the vices of misrepresentation represent virgin territory. I regard hypocrisy is a devastating affliction, a cancer-like vice, that utterly corrodes and distorts any positive self-image and sense of self-worth. I understand that most hypocrites are hypocrites for profit, but the price is too high! What do you think a man like Jimmy Swaggart really thinks of himself? Why does he go living? I invoke the name of Swaggart also to raise the social costs of hypocrisy. What did those in his church who had trusted him and supported him financially suffer in the wake of his exposure? Jimmy liked his whores after services. I could ask the same question about Jimmy Barker and his church.

Bill has the raised the spectre of the man who conceals his virtues under a façade of feigned vice or at least virtuelessness. We must investigate the inner harm that wearing this kind of mask causes. This man wears his feigned vices as a kind of armor against the world which he believes will prey upon him or target him if he dares to profess his virtues. This defensive posture surely rests upon a view of the world that is deeply cynical and morally pessimistic. The burden of pretense is heavy here too. Much remains to be said.

Gluttony is an excellent vice to contrast with hypocrisy. I was thinking about this earlier today when I was in a public place with a lot of fat people: gluttony is one of the hardest of vices to hide or dissemble, since one displays its results on one's person at all times if practiced enough.

Lust, by contrast, is much easier to dissemble. It is a good thing that lust does not manifest itself in the size of one's genitalia in the way that gluttony manifests itself in the size of one's gut. Good for the body if not the soul.

I have a nominee in the category of Best Hypocrite in a major film or play. May I let the nominee introduce himself and give us a brief taste of his credentials:

It is as sure as you are Roderigo,
were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.
In following him I follow but myself—
heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
but seeming so for my peculiar end.
For when my outward actions doth demonstrate
in compliment extern, ‘tis not long after
but I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
for daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

What Iago shows us or reminds us is that sometimes a hypocrite can conceal a really bad character under the mask of virtue. “Honest” Iago spends four acts of the play convincing Othello that he is a loyal, trustworthy, honorable, and caring subordinate. He is constantly striking the pose of a virtuous man trying to help his general deal with the treachery & infidelity of others.

If we can separate parts of a man’s character, I think we would agree that the worst part of Iago’s character is not his hypocrisy, bad as that is, but rather his malevolent and murderous intent toward Cassio and Othello and Desdemona and anyone else he fancies might have slighted him. But Iago’s hypocrisy is certainly tainted and worsened by the evil it is concealing. This is another problem with comparing hypocrisy with other vices. Iago’s hypocrisy is an essential and indispensable part of his villainy, and he would not have had a chance to succeed without it.

(The quote is from Iago’s second speech in the play, Act 1, Scene 1. 56-66. A prize to anyone who can puzzle out the meaning of the counterfactual “were I the Moor, I would not be Iago”.)

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