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Tuesday, March 24, 2009


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The following is excerpted from Neal Stephenson's /The Diamond Age/, one of the best science fiction novels I have ever read, set about 40 years in the future. This particular section is a rather amazing discussion of our culture's current views of hypocrisy: http://fukamachi.org/wp/2006/04/18/hypocrisy/

What do you all think about this HIGHLY fictionalized case?
I too live in Gold Canyon, and one Wednesday I go into my local Circle K to buy my weekly Lotto ticket. The clerk says “sorry, your friend Dr Vallicella just cleaned us out. 100 tickets. He’s been buying 50 per week for a long time, but now he’s really stepping up. He tells people on his blog, you know, not to buy Lottos. I think he just wants to discourage competition!” Later that day I see Dr Vallicella and, without telling him I know, ask him if he has had a long-standing gambling addiction. He denies it, and from my experience of the man, I believe he has no problem with compulsions or addictions. His Lotto purchases are not akratic or neurotic behaviour. Have I then unmasked a hypocrite?

Sometimes etymology is helpful and exerts a force in controlling the present meaning, sometimes not (e.g., "egregious"). HYPOCRITES in Plato means a stage actor, and it continues with this meaning into Roman Imperial times, though by the first century AD it had also acquired the pejorative sense of a poseur. So in the NT.

An actor is someone who impersonates another on the stage. A stage impersonation is necessarily intentional or deliberate. A hypocrite is someone who in real life impersonates or poses as someone else who has (moral) excellences the hypocrite lacks. Hence, we say his impersonation is a deliberate and mendacious pretense, in word and deed, to be better than he is in some morally significant way.

The case of Seneca is instructive. The facts, as Bill says, are not certain, but here they are (from memory). Seneca serves as Nero’s tutor and then secretary/advisor until he resigns late in Nero’s reign. During this period Seneca amasses great wealth. In fact, he earns the reputation of being one of the richest and most money-hungry men in Rome. Making money and advising the murderous Nero are his day jobs. At night he writes all these famous letters and essays pushing a hard Stoic line: externals like wealth and power aren’t goods, we would do much better spurning them and pursuing virtue, etc. I can’t recall a letter where he actually claims he is doing his best to live a virtuous life, but he certainly implies it in many places. He poses as at least a Stoic proficient in the letters, wile in fact he is living in a way completely foreign to the one he commends. Is he hopelessly akratic and neurotic, or just a big hypocrite?

The Lottery Player (http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2009/03/the-lottery-player.html) is but one of my posts in which I fulminate against state-run lotteries. I have never purchased a lottery ticket in my life and never will. But suppose I do what Phil fantasizes me doing. In these counterfactual circumstances, I do what I advise others not to do. This is exactly similar to the Bill Bennett case except that Las Vegas gambling is not state-sponsored though it is state-sanctioned. The question is whether one can be a hypocrite with respect to the supererogatory. Note that there is nothing immoral or illegal about gambling/buying lottery tickets assuming that one can afford them. We can also assume with Phil that there is nothing akratic or compulsive or neurotic about the behavior.

Now was Bennett's behavior hypocritical or not? Well, it depends on one's theory of hypocrisy. This is one of the points I am trying to drive home. It's a *theoretical* question, a question that can be answered properly and definitively only within the context of an adequate comprehensive theory of moral phenomena, one that covers not just hypocrisy but related phenomena such as self-deception, bad faith, insincerity, lying, exaggerating, bullshitting, and so on. One cannot go simply by 'what one is inclined to say.'

Phil is inclined to say that Bennett is a hypocrite. But what is his basis for saying that?

Bullshitting bears some relation to hypocrisy. Harry Frankfurt has given us a theory of bullshit. Without such a 'regimentation' all manner of things could be called bullshit.

So I would challenge Phil to tell us what his method is.


Thanks for the link. That is a good piece of writing and does bring out some of the issues I have been discussing. I had to laugh, though, at the utter stupidity of the one comment appended to the piece.


I note that you did not address one of my central points, namely, that to judge whether a man is a hypocrite one would have to know his intentions, and how could you know that without pretending to be something you are not?

"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."

Just quick points. Suppose I've lost my legs in a terrible accident. I can sincerely hold forth on the value of running, never intend to run, tell you that I never intend to run, and be no hypocrite. It seems necessary that the hypocrite be able to perform the actions he recommends. On the other hand, suppose I do sincerely intend to perform what I claim is valuable. I might still be a hypocrite, since my motive for performing the action might not be the reasons I offer for it's value. For instance, suppose I urge you to do logic exercises because it improves logical acumen, and such acumen is valuable. Suppose now that I do such exercises, but only to impress Sue and her friends, and never pursue it for it real value. I'm still a hyocrite, despite the fact that I am sincerely pursuing what I claim is valuable. The problem is that, despite appearences, I'm not pursuing what I claim is valuable. I'm pursuing Sue.

Better. I'm pursing what I claim is valuable, but only as a means to impressing Sue.

At the end of the second paragraph you say,

"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."

Well, assuming you mean the term 'hypocrite' becomes useless because it becomes meaningless, I would have to risk being hypocritical myself by pointing out the blatant hypocrisy in your use of a contrast argument after having gone on at length in recent weeks about how bad they are.

By the way, I love your blog. I've been reading for a while but this is my first comment.


Glad you like the blog and thanks for the comment. I was hoping someone would make your objection which I saw coming. True, I rejected contrast arguments earlier, arguments of the form:

1. If a term T is meaningful, then there are items to which T does not apply.
2. There are no items to which T does not apply.
3. T is not meaningful.

I reject as false (1). For example, 'self-identical' is a meaningful term, but there are no items to which 'self-identical' does not apply. So I reject as unsound the following contrast argument:

1* If 'hypocrite' is meaningful, then there are people to whom 'hypocrite' does not apply.
2* There are no people to whom 'hypocrite' does not apply.
3* 'Hypocrite' is not meaningful.

I reject as unsound this last argument because I reject as false both premises.

But note the difference between 'hypocrite' and 'self-identical.' We know that everything is self-identical and nothing self-diverse. We also know that some people are hypocrites and some are not even given the fact that we disagree as to the correct definition of 'hypocrite.' Given the fact that some but not all of us are hypocrites, we cannot so define 'hypocrite' that it applies to everyone. If we did that we would drain the term of its specific meaning and render it useless. It would still have a meaning, but a meaning so broad as to be useless.

Consider 'morally defective.' The phrase applies to all of us, but this fact does not render it meaningless. To think otherwise is to make the mistake embodied in the major premise of contrast arguments. By contrast, 'hypocrite' does not apply to all of us. Therefore, to use it is such a way that it does is to renbder it useless for the specific purpose that we need it for.

I sum, I didn't give a contrast argument; I didn't contradict what I said earlier; and I didn't fail to practive what I preach. You, however, confused uselessness with meaninglessness.


Your point seems correct. Suppose X is morally required and I publically enjoin the doing of X. I am able to do X. I sincerely intend to do X. Your point is that I might still be a hypocrite if my intending to do X is not for the right reason. That sounds right. But if all these conditions are met, including the one about intending for the right reason, and I fail to do X out of weakness then I am not a hypocrite.


You've misjudged me on the Bennett Case. I did not presume to judge. I don’t have a copy of the Book of Virtues, and I don’t know what he says and what he personally professes regarding gambling. While I don’t see the attraction myself, I understand that some people (including my mother-in-law!) find it a highly enjoyable recreation. Where’s the harm, unless you lie about it or spend more than you can afford? A wealthy man who drop a few hundred playing slots is not irrational, or immoral, or hypocritical.

I didn’t pass over your point about intentions in my two exempla. I took pains to make it clear that both Bill the Gambler and Seneca were perpetrating deliberate or intentional deceptions. When a behaviour goes on for a long time and can even be called chronic—Seneca was about his daily money-grubbing in Rome for a dozen years or so—then it’s impossible to dismiss it an impulsive lapse. (Bennett was seen at the slots once, I asume.) Unless there is some hidden psycho-pathology, we see Bill the Gamble and Seneca engage ,but try to conceal, behaviours they habitually want and choose to perform. Where I’m not sure I agree with you, is the requirement that we need to know what exactly are their motives or intentions are. We can know, I’m suggesting, that actions are intentional or deliberate without knowing what the intentions are.

Most cases of hypocrisy confirm the banality of evil. The hypocritical politicians and business people and tele-preachers that are unmasked every day are hypocrites because they really love money and power and illicit pleasures, but know that their public positions required them to hide their vices. Nothing mysterious or very interesting there, but there are some cases, like the two exempla I tried to construct, which are different because we don’t so easily understand why that man would subject himself to living like a hypocrite. I don’t pretend to understand why Seneca was a grand hypocrite, but it seems to me that he was. Likewise, I don’t understand why Bill the Gambler wastes much of his income on Lottos.


You wrote: “[I]f 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. … [W]ithout access to his intentions no just accusation of hypocrisy can be made.”

I’m not sure of your purpose in making this point, Bill, because I doubt you actually believe it is impossible for us to assess another’s intention. (Unless it was the Maverick Provocateur who wrote this. ;)

We do have access to the intentions of others. That’s how we judge their words and deeds. That’s how we determine whether a homicide is self-defense, manslaughter, or murder. However, that access is indirect. We rely upon our knowledge of what is essential in human nature to put the directly observable particulars of an act in a context from which we can reasonably infer the actor’s intention. I don’t think this is controversial pace the die-hard nominalist.

Granted, we may not always learn enough from the particulars to determine intention, so judgment must be reserved in many cases. Even so, I don’t see how the critic of a hypocrite is necessarily a hypocrite himself – at least, if he is not posing as a mind-reader.

Bill T


You wrote: "We can know, I’m suggesting, that actions are intentional or deliberate without knowing what the intentions are."

This strikes me as self-contradictory. If I judge an act as intentional, then I am claiming to know the intention of the actor -- namely, to willfully commit the act he did. Now, if by intention you mean motive, I will grant your point. Indeed, the criminal justice system agrees with you. While intent is often an element of a crime that must be proven, I do not believe motive ever is.

Bill T

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