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.