Is there epistemic value in political hypocrisy?

Randy Cohen alluded to a variant of the everyday dilemma most of us face in his goodbye column: does the personal ethics of an ethicist matter to the ethicist’s ethical discourse? Though partly in jest, his point was well made thus,

I say with some shame, there has been no such gradual change in my own behavior. Writing the column has not made me even slightly more virtuous. And I didn’t have to be: it was in my contract. O.K., it wasn’t. But it should have been. I wasn’t hired to personify virtue, to be a role model for the kids, but to write about virtue in a way readers might find engaging. Consider sports writers: not 2 in 20 can hit the curveball, and why should they? They’re meant to report on athletes, not be athletes. And that’s the self-serving rationalization I’d have clung to had the cops hauled me off in handcuffs.

We face this to a lesser degree in our lives given most of us don’t take the exalted title of being an Ethicist. However, personal hypocrisy as an opposing argument is quite often too easy and too tempting to let go. The argument that one may make more reasonably and less funnily against the use of personal hypocrisy is easy: if the merit of argumentation is judged by the merit of the proponent’s morality, human motives will be aligned to explain one’s status quo and not take the argumentation to its highest epistemic value. In other words, not only is the use of hypocrisy as an argument make for poor argumentation but it defeats the purpose of argumentation.

Another set of people in even more exalted positions than ethicists and even more prone to attacks of hypocrisy happen to be politicians. The question here is: does a politician have to personally live up to the code one proposes for the rest of the population? That’s a far more complicated question than the ethicist transgressing the limits one is aware of by virtue of being an expert in such awareness. Extreme right wing socially conservative politicians often face this problem: if they are caught doing reasonably libertine or even liberal things, does that invalidate their conservative principles or their own ability to bear the message of such conservatism? Likewise, do limousine liberals have to be paragons of the virtue they pontificate on?

The muddling of this only gets worse when electoral campaigning is involved. Any opposition politician in any democracy tries to accuse the government of the day of everything and its opposite; hoping something will stick. For instance, Narendra Modi, India’s principal opposition politician currently, does this often; such as criticizing the government’s fiscal profligacy and the poor allocations of funds to proposed spending programs at once. How does a voter judge a politician in this case? And how does history judge the politician and more importantly, the policy? Thoughts welcome.

One thought on “Is there epistemic value in political hypocrisy?

  1. dagalti

    //if the merit of argumentation is judged by the merit of the proponent’s morality, human motives will be aligned to explain one’s status quo and not take the argumentation to its highest epistemic value. In other words, not only is the use of hypocrisy as an argument make for poor argumentation but it defeats the purpose of argumentation.//
    Well written.

    Reminded me of something from Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray

    Basil Hallward: “I don’t agree with a single word that you have said, and, what is more, Harry, I feel sure you don’t either.”

    Lord Henry Wotton: “How English you are Basil! That is the second time you have made that observation. If one puts forward an idea to a true Englishman–always a rash thing to do–he never dreams of considering whether the idea is right or wrong. The only thing he considers of any importance is whether one believes it oneself. Now, the value of an idea has nothing whatsoever to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it. Indeed, the probabilities are that the more insincere the man is, the more purely intellectual will the idea be, as in that case it will not be coloured by either his wants, his desires, or his prejudices.

    Now, coming to your question.

    How does a voter judge a politician in this case?
    The voter ignores the track record of the accuser when assessing the merits of his accusation.
    The track record is relevant only to extent of judging the accuser as the alternative.

    And how does history judge the politician and more importantly, the policy?
    A little harshly I guess.
    It would be topical to invoke Gandhi today. Even if not to answer this question, but to ruminate on something tangential.

    Gandhi abandons the non-cooperation movement after Chauri Chaura when things had reached a fever pitch – much to the consternation of many of his colleagues. And he couched it in a moral argument about realizing that the people not being ready’

    In his autobiography, Nehru writes about how this angered, bewildered and confused him. Having set this precedent, he worried that consistency would dictate they would have to abandon every initiative, at the slightest show of violence. And this is something that could be easily engineered by the opposition.

    He then reasons to himself that the real reason could have been that, with nearly all the leaders in prison, Congress lacked the right leadership and Gandhi probably sensed this and yielded a tactical position to make a huge gain on the ‘moral’ side – significantly recasting the nature of the debate, struggle thenceforth.

    This is as close to an suggestion of hypocrisy as it gets with someone like Gandhi.

    Note: a decade later, when the Civil Disobedience Movement is declared, Gandhi specifically mentions upfront something to the effect that he would be undeterred by minor incidents of violence would not make a case to call off the movement.

    Does this render invalid Gandhi’s stand in making morality the cornerstone of his politics ?

    To go a little meta, we must also bear in mind the fact that the suggestion that Gandhi’s choice of ‘making or morality the cornerstone’ was itself informed by its tactical advantages, comes from Nehru whose subscription to non-violence was purely on utilitarian terms.

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