We Are All Hypocrites — It’s Just How We’re Wired

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“The Triumph of Hipocrisy, by Thomas Rowland (1787)

A lot of people are saying that Democrats are being hypocritical about Tara Reade’s sexual assault accusation against Joe Biden. The very same Democrats who demanded that Brend Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court be rescinded because of a similar accusation have now declared that Biden’s denial is “sufficient.”

The people accusing Democrats of hypocrisy are absolutely correct.

A lot of other people accused Republicans of being hypocrites during the impeachment of Donald Trump. The same Republicans who insisted that obstructing justice was an impeachable offense when Clinton did it spent months saying that the Democrats were staging nothing less than a “coup” by impeaching Trump for obstructing justice.

The people who accused Republicans of hypocrisy are absolutely correct.

And, in both cases, the hypocrisy goes the other way too. The Republicans who defended Kavanaugh and the Democrats who defended Clinton were applying very different standards facts that supported their side than they did to a set of facts that endangered them.

And yes, I know that there are differences in these cases too — and that some people manage to find ways to make the differences significant when it helps their side to do so. But no serious, disinterested observer could miss the fact that each side used one set of arguments for “our guy” and a completely different set for “their guy.”

The problem is, though, that there aren’t very many disinterested observers. Just about everybody who entered into these discussions has skin in the game, from the Presidents and Senators involved down to the individual voters shouting about the other side’s hypocrisy in their echo chambers.

And here’s the thing: everybody is a hypocrite — at least to the extent that everybody applies a different set of evaluative criteria to ideas that they agree with than they do to ideas they disagree with. As Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind, the inconsistency is built into the foundations of human reason, and it has been around since the very beginning of sentient thought:

Reasoning can take us to almost any conclusion we want to reach, because we ask “Can I believe it?” when we want to believe something, but “Must I believe it?” when we don’t want to believe. The answer is almost always yes to the first question and no to the second. In moral and political matters we are often groupish, rather than selfish. We deploy our reasoning skills to support our team, and to demonstrate commitment to our team

Human reason did not evolve to find the truth; human reason evolved to defend positions and to convince people to do things that are advantageous to us. Evidence for this proposition has been mounting since the early 17th century — Samuel Bacon identified most of the flaws of our reasoning process in his 1620 book Novum Organum. It has now become incontrovertible.

The process, well established by contemporary cognitive scientists, goes something like this. First, we form opinions for reasons that have very little to do with reason and a lot to do with our underlying psychology, which Haidt explains quite clearly in The Righteous Mind. And then we join or create in-groups based on people who think much the same way. It is only then that we bring our considerable reasoning ability to bear on the problems of the day.

Once we decide what to believe, we are capable of creating all sorts of arguments to make it look like we got there by a reasoning process. We even convince ourselves. Most people see themselves as rational, thoughtful people who have reached the only political and moral opinions that reason will support — which, of course, makes anybody who has not reached those opinions either stupid (incapable of reason) or evil (willing to perversely ignore the plain truth for their own advantage).

What we people often call “hypocrisy” is really just the cognitive dissonance we experience when an argument that we once constructed to support a position we accept no longer works for other positions that we have accepted. It is a potential slippage in our iron-clad belief in our own reasonableness. And as soon as we experience this dissonance, we either have to change our belief system and get a bunch of new friends, or we have to exercise our reason once again to explain why what was sauce for the goose should not be sauce for the gander.

The world would be much less confusing if people developed a set of core principles and applied them in a uniform and disinterested manner to every area of their lives. As wonderful as such a world might be, it would not be a world of human beings, because humans simply don’t work that way?

So what does this mean for Democrats who support Joe Biden after years of #metoo and #believewomen? What does it mean for Republicans who are right now gearing up to confirm a Supreme Court justice, should a vacancy open, despite their refusal to even consider Merrick Garland?

Well, it means that these things are going to happen, and the claims of hypocrisy, no matter how well-founded, aren’t going to matter that much in the long run, since the only people making them will be those who have already made up their minds.

But maybe it also means that we should draw a distinction in our discourse between “hypocrisy” and “inconsistency,” since they really aren’t the same thing. Traditionally, the term “hypocrisy” has been reserved for the sort of behavior portrayed in “The Triumph of Hipocrisy” — the engraving by the 18th-century comic artist Thomas Rowland that begins this post. Here, a minister is in the process of seducing a young mother whom he has visited, in his clerical capacity, to offer Christian fellowship. This sort of predatory abuse of trust that moralists mean when they call someone a “hypocrite.”

Simply being inconsistent in one’s political view is not quite the same thing as hypocrisy; it is is another term for “human being.” It is a trap that everybody is going to fall into from time to time, and, while it provides a lot of fodder for late-night comics and outrage-porn memes, calling it out is not actually a very good argument. It is, in fact, a logical fallacy.

The actual fallacy I refer to is called tu quoque, or “you’re another.” It is the type of ad hominem argument that occurs when a person’s argument is rejected because it contradicts that person’s previous statements or actions. From the standpoint of objective, disinterested reason, it does not matter what somebody said or did before when evaluating the strength or weakness of an argument they are making. If Bill Clinton decided to go across the country promoting monogamy and marital fidelity — and even if he called out another politician for having an affair with an intern — his obvious inconsistency would not make any of his arguments less valid.

Of course, it absolutely would make his arguments less valid for almost all of us because we are human beings, and the character of the person making the argument is extremely important to the way that human beings form opinions. But so is the type of inconsistency that we label “hypocrisy” in our enemies and “rational distinction making” in our friends. It is part of who we are — just about all of us — and is, therefore, something less than an incontrovertible deal-breaker when we deploy it against someone else.

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Michael Austin is a former English professor and current academic administrator. He is the author of We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America’s Civic Tradition

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