Distinguishing among saints, strivers, hypocrites, and scamps, I implied that the hypocrite is morally superior to the scamp:
Hypocrites espouse high and choice-worthy ideals, but make little or no attempt to live up to them. Scamps, being bereft of moral sense, do not even recognize high and choice-worthy ideals, let alone make an effort to live up to them.
An astute correspondent writes:
Are we sure that we find scamps worse than hypocrites? Suppose a public figure, a man of the cloth, openly extols and professes the virtue of martial [marital] fidelity, but on his out-of-town junkets arranges for high-priced call girls to provide some “companionship”. Remember Jimmy Swaggart? Isn’t he a more offensive character than a husband who admits that he does as he pleases? Doesn’t Swaggart both commit adultery but also maintain a lying pretense of not doing so and being virtuous? I think Swaggart deserves a much lower Circle in Hell than the mere adulterer.
Remember Sartre’s bio of the thief and pimp Genet? In “defense” of Genet, Sartre notes that Genet is at least is no hypocrite. He’s a bad man, but a man who pretended to no virtues and owned his (many) vices. “I am a thief.” Certainly he’s a reprehensible character, but aren’t we even more offended by public figures who embezzle and steal, all the while making pious speeches about maintaining honesty in public office?
To me it seems clear that the hypocrite, though perhaps not much better than the scamp, is yet morally superior to him. The reason is that the hypocrite at least pays lip-service to high standards of behavior. Lip-service is better than no service. Consider self-control. It is better to preach self-control without practicing it than neither to practice nor preach it. Now, as I have argued elsewhere, one cannot prove a point by announcing that it is self-evident. Nevertheless, it seems to me that what I wrote two sentences back is indeed (objectively) self-evident!
I am a conservative while my correspondent is more of a liberal. This is highly relevant since conservatives and liberals view hypocrisy and cognate questions differently. It often seems to me that for a liberal, being a 'hypocrite' is like being a 'racist': it is one of the very worst things one can be. The sneer quotes convey my conviction that liberals do not use these words correctly. They are not all-purpose semantic bludgeons! It is telling that my correspondent mentions Jean-Paul Sartre's defense of Genet. Now Sartre was a hard Leftist, indeed a Stalinist.
Leftists, many of whom are of a rebellious and adolescent cast of mind, have a problem with what they perceive to be phoniness. They are always out to unmask things, to cut through 'false consciousness' and 'bourgeois ideology.' Connected with this hatred of phoniness is a keen sensitivity to what they take to be hypocrisy. They are ever on the lookout for it. So when conservative pundit Bill (William J.) Bennett was caught wasting money on the slot machines in Las Vegas a while back, his opponents on the Left pounced and denounced: "Hypocrite!" they cried.
So pouncing and denouncing, they proved that they do not know what hypocrisy is. Although Mr. Bennett’s behavior was suboptimal, it was neither illegal nor immoral: he’s got the dough to blow if that’s his pleasure. Given his considerable accomplishments, is he not entitled to a bit of R & R? Nor was there anything hypocritical about Bennett's behavior.
A hypocrite is not someone who is morally imperfect or who fails to engage in supererogatory acts. Nor is a hypocrite one who preaches high ideals but falls short. Otherwise, we would all be hypocrites. But if everyone is, then no one is: the term has been drained of meaning. Rightly understood, a hypocrite is someone who preaches high ideals but makes no attempt at living up to them. The difference is between failing to do what one believes one ought to do and not even trying to do what one says one ought to do.
My correspondent mentions the public figure who embezzles while making pious speeches about maintaining honesty in public office. Although the hypocrisy is reprehensible, it would be worse had he embezzled and refrained from making such speeches, and worse still had he embezzled and said publically that embezzling is acceptable behavior for some such reason as that 'everyone does it.' But if he embezzled, was caught, and took responsibility for his misdeed then that would be better than embezzling, being caught, and protesting his innocence.
A hypocrite may lie about what he has done, but that is not what makes him a hypocrite. What makes him a hypocrite is his championing of choice-worthy ideals that he makes little or no attempt to live up to. Perhaps my correspondent is exercised by the following question: Is a hypocrite who lies about a misdeed he has committed, refusing to take responsibility for it, morally worse than a non-hypocrite like Genet who takes responsibility for his misdeeds? That is a different question, and my sense is that there is no easy answer to it. It is better to be a hypocrite than a scamp, but when the hypocrite is a liar while the scamp is not, then the judgment becomes quite hard to make.
One thing seems clear: a scumbag like Genet is not let off from being a scumbag by his honesty about his being a scumbag. It is a fallacy to think that honesty about one's misdeeds excuses them. So when someone says, 'At least he's not a hypocrite,' you say: 'True, he is worse than a hypocrite.'
Then there is the Bill Clinton case. He brazenly lied to the American public when he said, "I did not have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky!" I would classify Clinton as a non-hypocrite who refused to own up to his misdeed. This suggests the question: Is a non-hypocrite who lies about a misdeed he has committed, refusing to take responsibility for it, morally worse than a hypocrite like Swaggart who takes responsibility for his misdeed? The answer to this seems clear to me: Yes!