Hypocrisy (Scourge), The Fallacy of the

The fallacy that, if what I do falls below the standards of what I say, my argument can be dismissed without further ado. This fallacy arises from the obvious discomforts of a contrast between good words and bad deeds, like those of Measure for Measure’s Angelo: upright in public, outrageous in private.

And yet, if an argument is a good one, dissonant deeds do nothing to contradict it. In fact, the hypocrite may have something to be said for him. For instance, he may not be making any claims at all about how he lives, but only about his values in the context of the argument. There is no reason why he should not argue for standards better than he manages to achieve in his own life; in fact, it would be worrying if his ideals were not better than the way he lives. He is not dazzled by his high personal standards; he does not make an icon of himself as the model of good moral conscience. He is not defended by his sincerity from the possibility of self-criticism. His ideals are not limited to what he can achieve himself.

What matters is whether his argument is right or not. With accusations of hypocrisy in the air, difficult questions about real problems short-circuit into ad hominem quarrel.

Hypocrisy is a bad thing with good qualities. Sincerity is a good thing with bad qualities; it shines a light on the simple certainties of your feelings on the matter, rather than on the awkward realities of the case. Some of the most intensely savage people this planet has ever produced were noted for their sincerity and their incorruptible and austere lives. There was Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794), largely responsible for the reign of terror during the French Revolution, but, in his own life, the “Sea-Green Incorruptible”.H58 And there was Conrad of Marburg (d. 1233), thin with fasting, who, in imitation of Jesus, rode on a donkey from place to place on his mission to discover and burn heretics and witches. For groundbreaking catastrophes, we have to turn to the incorruptible. We are safer with those who are not preoccupied with admiration of their own moral standing, confident that they can think no wrong.

If required to choose between sincerity and hypocrisy (writes the theologian David Martin), “Give me a friendly hypocrite any day”.H59


Related entries:

Ad Hominem, Humour.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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