The case for hypocrisy

Logical consistency is not the highest value.

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Related: The case for logical fallacies

Julia Galef makes an interesting point in her recent book The Scout Mindset: our beliefs come as tangled knots, not isolated strings. Changing one belief often implies that we change many others.

Consider Sarah, whose relationships, political beliefs, worldview, daily activities, and ethical code are all fundamentally derived from her religious beliefs. Sarah can’t merely decide that God doesn’t exist or that Hinduism is correct instead of Judaism or whatever; if taken to heart, such a change in worldview would imply reform of virtually every other aspect of her life: her belief that abortion is intrinsically immoral, her belief that contributing significant time and money to her congregation is an ethical and meaningful thing to do, and her belief that it is good and appropriate to go to Synagogue every Friday, among countless others

If Sarah wishes to maintain a harmonious, coherent set of practices, beliefs, and attitudes, it would take a tremendous amount to convince her that God isn’t real—crucially, more than if this belief were siloed away from the rest of her life and mind.

This isn’t an indictment of religion. It would take an equally huge amount of evidence to convince me that I should convert to orthodox Judaism—more than if my non-religiosity was siloed away from my other beliefs and behaviors.

The key clause, though, is “if Sarah wishes to maintain a harmonious, coherent set of practices, beliefs, and attitudes.” Why should Sarah wish to do so? Why should anyone?

The case against hypocrisy

Before making the case for hypocrisy, let me explain why, in many respects, hypocrisy is bad and maintaining a consistent set of practices and beliefs is good. I’m not just steelmanning to strengthen my later argument; hypocrisy often really is something to be avoided. The word has several definitions, but I’ll use Merriam-Webster’s

Definition of hypocrisy

1a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not behavior that contradicts what one claims to believe or feel

Also, much of the rest of this post will apply to plain old inconsistency, or holding two or more contradictory beliefs.

In general, from a non-religious perspective, our beliefs do not intrinsically matter (to others, that is; they may directly impact our own conscious experience). Our actions do. It doesn’t matter whether you believe that animal suffering is bad, or that Trump is awesome, or that we should end homelessness. It matters whether you act on those beliefs, perhaps by foregoing factory farmed animal products, voting and donating to the Trump 2024: Make America as Great as it was From 2016-2020 campaign, or becoming a YIMBY activist in your city.

The thing with action is that sometimes it’s hard. Chicken nuggets taste good. Voting can be a hassle. Getting rid of single family zoning might decrease your property value.

Our natural, moral distaste for hypocrisy is a decent solution. We get outraged when someone who professes to believe X does or believes something in that seems to conflict with X. That’s why Tweets like this one are so delicious.

To a large extent, this is a force for good! Lots of people are well-intentioned and want to believe true, good things, and many succeed in doing so. Our aversion to hypocrisy is a clever socio-psychological mechanism to turn good beliefs into good deeds. The process might look something like this:

  1. John becomes convinced that buying factory farmed eggs is bad.

  2. He keeps buying factory farmed eggs out of habit and behavioral inertia.

  3. He feels bad about being a hypocrite or becomes worried that others will see him as a hypocrite.

  4. John stops buying factory farmed eggs.

Cool. Now, for the contrarian take.

The case for hypocrisy

One man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens.

Confucius (just kidding, I don’t know who said it first)

Our aversion to hypocrisy can also have the opposite effect. For example…

  1. John becomes convinced that buying factory farmed eggs is bad.

  2. He keeps buying factory farmed eggs out of habit and behavioral inertia.

  3. He feels bad about being a hypocrite or becomes worried that others will see him as a hypocrite.

  4. John decides that buying factory farmed eggs actually isn’t bad, or just tries to forget about it (and this need not come from conscious deliberation).

Ok, you might ask, why is hypocrisy the problem here? If John didn’t feel bad about being (seen as) a hypocrite, wouldn’t he have kept buying factory farmed eggs anyway? Maybe. He certainly would have found it easier to continue buying the eggs while holding the intellectual belief that doing so is wrong.

But aversion to hypocrisy isn’t the only reason people do things.

Even if John doesn’t care one iota about his hypocrisy per se, he might eventually decide to stop buying the eggs for some other reason in the same way he might donate to the Humane League since doing so isn’t in direct contradiction with the belief “buying factory farmed eggs is fine.”

Maybe he doesn’t give up eggs but does start making an offsetting donation to effective animal welfare charities. Maybe he starts buying humane-certified eggs most of the time. Whatever you think about their moral worthiness, these alternatives might be available to John in a way that egg abstinence is not

Identity

This is particularly likely if John’s egg consumption is tangled up with other beliefs and identities.

For instance, say John is a die-hard keto bro who thinks Big Vegan is conspiring with the seed oil industry, Big Pharma, and the FDA to push inflammatory and insulin-spiking fruits, grains, and unsaturated fats on the American people, and understands his egg consumption as a vote against this industrial complex.

Ok, fine. If John’s ultimate goal in life is to avoid hypocrisy but he is unwilling to forego the eggs, he’ll do whatever it takes to avoid the conclusion that buying factory farmed eggs is wrong. And if he does this, he’ll never have a reason to explore alternatives like making an offsetting donation or spending a bit to purchase a more ethical brand.

Now, let’s say John has a bit more tolerance for his own hypocrisy. Or, to use a less-loaded word, “compartmentalization.” For a while, John recognizes that factory farmed eggs are bad but keeps buying them anyway. Without the need to immediately resolve this apparent conflict, John’s modus tollens turns into something almost like modus pollens:

In less pretentious academic terms, ‘Compartmentalization is ok’ John’s reasoning goes like this:

  1. It still might be wrong to buy factory farmed eggs, even if I do keep buying them (‘not Q’ does not imply ‘not P’).

  2. My identity is wrapped up in egg consumption, so I will keep buying eggs (not Q).

  3. Ok, factory farmed eggs are still bad. (P)

  4. If I accept (2) and (3), what should I do about it? Maybe donate to THL and try to find a more ethical brand when I can.

and Anti-hypocrisy John’s reasoning goes like this:

  1. If it is wrong to buy factory farmed eggs, I won’t buy them (if P then Q).

  2. My identity is wrapped up in egg consumption, so I will keep buying eggs (not Q).

  3. Therefore it can’t be wrong to buy factory farmed eggs (not Q, therefore not P).

What’s going on here?

Strictly speaking, Anti-hypocrisy John could logically and coherently donate money or do something similar just like is ‘Compartmentalization is ok’ alter ego. But, in the real world, my claim is that an aversion to hypocrisy/inconsistency often leads to a hasty rejection (likely not after conscious deliberation) of whichever of the two conflicting actions or beliefs is easier for one to reject.

For John, that means forgetting about or ignoring the ethics of egg consumption before he even has time to ponder whether there might be a decent-but-imperfect way of sorta reconciling his conflicting beliefs and actions

Two wrongs don’t make a right

A hyper-simplified illustration:

  • Jane believes bad thing 1 and bad thing 2, which are perfectly consistent.

  • Tim believes bad thing 1 and good thing 2, which are contradictory and render him a hypocrite.

Which person would you rather be? Well, I’d rather be Tim. Intellectual consistency is not the highest value, and I’d rather be half right than entirely, consistently wrong. If Tim decides that hypocrisy must be avoided at all costs, he has two choices:

  1. Believe bad thing 1 and bad thing 2

  2. Believe good thing 1 and good thing 2.

As an empirical matter, which option Time goes with probably depends on whether he is more personally invested in question 1 or question 2. But Tim doesn’t know which beliefs and actions are ‘good.’ No one says to themselves “sucks that I believe things that are immoral and false, but at least I’m not a hypocrite.”

Instead, an aversion to hypocrisy serves as a potent motivation for coming to the conclusion that one’s preferred action or belief is in fact true or good. Sometimes this will happen to be correct, but often it will not. Permitting hypocrisy gives us some breathing room to make the decision.

Conclusion

I’m not making the claim that we should ignore or unequivocally embrace hypocrisy. However, tolerance for inconsistency can better allow people to gradually change their behaviors and beliefs without facing the near-impossible task of wholesale behavioral or ideological reform.

Ultimately, I think that tolerating hypocrisy is generally wise when the “worse” of two conflicting beliefs is more closely held or linked with a person’s identity. Our tangled knot of beliefs is only tangled insofar as hypocrisy must be avoided, and sometimes taking a knife to the rope is the only way to improve the knot.

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