Why you shouldn’t call other people hypocrites…or maybe you should, it’s complicated

A.  The tu quoque fallacy

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that correctly accusing somebody of hypocrisy can be a strong rhetorical move in an argument.  If Alfred says that wearing pink is morally wrong, and I can show photo evidence that Alfred regularly wears pink, then you’d be hard-pressed to agree with his position.  This illustrates a point that we’re all familiar with: Showing that a person’s behaviors are inconsistent with their position is a good way to tarnish that position.  But should this be the case?

Let’s say that Alfred had a lot of good reasons to condemn pink-wearing.  Maybe, in this hypothetical world, pink fabric only comes from the United States of Pinkistan, which treats its workers extremely poorly.  Maybe wearing pink is a universally understood signal that you support the Pink party, which holds morally abhorrent views.  Or maybe the production of pink fabric is really bad for the environment.  Whatever the case may be, whether or not Alfred wears pink has no bearing on his argument.  It’s not logically valid for me to rebut his argument with, “Oh, Alfred, but you wear pink!” as if his wearing pink would suddenly mean that the production of pink fabric was environmentally sustainable.

Accusing somebody of hypocrisy as a way of addressing their point is a logical fallacy; it is termed tu quoque (pronounced too-kwo-kway; literally, “you also”), and can be thought of as a subcategory of the ad hominem fallacy.  As I showed above, an appeal to hypocrisy doesn’t address a stated idea itself, and so is not a logically valid form of argumentation, at least not if the purpose of the argument is to determine the truth or falsity of that idea.  Instead, it redirects the argument toward a person’s belief in that idea.  In the hypothetical scenario above, I wasn’t able to show in a logically valid way that wearing pink isn’t immoral; all I was able to show was that Alfred must not really believe that wearing pink is immoral if he does it himself.

Or was I even able to show that?

B.  We’re all akrasics

I don’t think it’s that simple.  Alfred could in theory wear pink and believe that wearing pink is immoral; he would just be logically inconsistent if he did so.  This isn’t really so ridiculous.  Most of us lead logically inconsistent lives, although we might try not to. Procrastination is a universal example; although we know we should start writing that essay/doing that problem set/going to the gym now, we just…don’t.  In our minds, we judge one course of action to be the right and optimal one to take, and then behave in a completely different way.

Even ethics professors, a group of people that you might expect to self-select for logical thinking, can be vulnerable to logical inconsistency.  In a study of the moral behavior of ethics professors, philosophers Schwitzgebel and Rust surveyed over 500 professors, divided into the categories of ethics professors, non-ethicist philosophers, and non-philosophers.  On issues such as voting, vegetarianism, organ and blood donation, and charitable giving, the professors were asked about both their attitudes and behaviors towards these issues.  While it varied from issue to issue, overall, the correlation between ethics professors’ attitudes and their behaviors was low, and was not significantly different from that of non-ethicist philosophers and non-philosophers.  It seems that even spending a lifetime of reflection on one’s moral views doesn’t necessarily impel one to act in accordance with those views.

So why are we so logically inconsistent?  For one answer, we can look all the way back to Aristotle, who posited the lack of willpower, or akrasia (pronounced a-kray-sha), as one potential reason why we don’t always do what we think is right.1  The phenomenon of akrasia is backed up by psychological research, which has found that self-control is a limited resource; as you resist more and more impulses and desires, eventually you start to run out of willpower and your capacity for self-control breaks down.  The important thing here is that this phenomenon is universal.  Alfred doesn’t have to have any sort of malintent to behave hypocritically; he could just be suffering from akrasia, which all of us do from time to time.

(6/27/16 EDIT: The linked research in the above paragraph is now in doubt.  The idea that self-control is a limited resource that can be used up may no longer be scientifically backed up, although it seems the debate is still ongoing.  In any case, I don’t think this necessarily affects the broader phenomenon of akrasia; even if there is no limited bank of willpower, it’s still plausible to me that sometimes people just don’t have the willpower to do what they think is right.)

C.  What do we do with you, Alfred

OK, so I can’t call Alfred a hypocrite in order to rebut his argument, because that would be committing a logical fallacy.  I also can’t prove that he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying, because he could just be suffering from akrasia (maybe he thinks he looks really good in pink, so it’s hard for him to stop).  But the situation still remains that he is acting against his moral standards.  Can I call him a hypocrite to change his behavior?

Part of me wants to cut Alfred some slack.  This part of me worries that if I call him out on his logical inconsistency, then he might change his moral standards rather than his behavior.  He might choose to continue to wear pink, and might start thinking, “Well, the United States of Pinkistan isn’t so bad…” in order to rationalize his choice.  

And yet another part of me doesn’t want to let Alfred off the hook so easily.  Shouldn’t we be holding people to their moral standards?  If Alfred is suffering from akrasia, then won’t pointing out his hypocrisy give him that extra push he needs to change his behavior?

The scenario with me and Alfred is at the interpersonal level.  What’s interesting is that we can view this same scenario at different magnifications.  Zooming all the way in, we reach the individual level; I am Alfred and Alfred is me. Here we face the same dilemma: How much should I, as an individual, try to hold myself to higher moral standards in order to change my behavior?  And how can I do so without leading to rationalization of the “United States of Pinkistan isn’t so bad” sort?

(Long aside: As a vegan, this is something I struggle with a lot.2  The maximum standard I could hold myself to is being 100% animal-product-free.  But should this maximum really serve as my target?  There are multiple risks to trying to hold myself to that standard.  I could use up a lot of my limited self-control, leaving less self-control for other areas of my life, which could be damaging.  I could also start to resent veganism, and subsequently start rationalizing away the principles underlying my veganism.  I’ve settled on being OK with being 90-95% vegan, because the first 90-95% is a lot easier to achieve than the last 5-10%, so there’s a bit of a diminishing returns effect going on here.  But I recognize that a reasonable person could take a look at that line of reasoning and see “rationalization” written all over it.)

Zooming out, we can take this to the group level, too, provided that the group in question is held together by some core principles.  Instead of just one Alfred, let’s imagine a whole bunch of Alfreds running around, so many that they eventually start a Society of No-Pink-Wearers (these Alfreds are not a creative bunch).  We can imagine two possible scenarios.  In one scenario, the Society of No-Pink-Wearers is super strict, so that anybody who can’t help themselves and wears pink on occasion gets shunned, and is kicked out of the society.  It wouldn’t be hard to imagine a number of people outside the society who want to join, but who suffer from akrasia, so they can’t meet the strict standards that The Alfreds enforce.  The result is these outsiders start readjusting their moral standards; now all of them are thinking, “Well, the United States of Pinkistan isn’t so bad…”  As a result, the membership of the Society of No-Pink-Wearers dwindles and it eventually dies out.

In the second scenario, the Society of No-Pink-Wearers isn’t very strict at all.  They don’t have high standards for membership, and so while the Society starts off with a core of faithful members, it eventually becomes a large society where most of the members are nominally No-Pink-Wearers, but in reality wear pink almost as much as they would otherwise.  The Society’s message is diluted and it has almost no impact on the broader culture.  After a couple generations the message is completely lost and joining the Society becomes something you do just because your family did it.  Given these two scenarios, how much should a group hold its members to logical consistency?3

The basic question underlying all three levels of magnification is whether people, when faced with a mismatch between their moral standards and their behavior, are more likely to alter their behavior to match their principles, or the other way around.  The answer will likely vary greatly from individual to individual, from interpersonal relationship to interpersonal relationship, and from group to group, but maybe there are general trends that could be teased out if this question were studied empirically.  I would be interested if anybody has any evidence from psychology, sociology, or history that could shed some light on this.

The Conclusion Box: Providing information to-go.

A: Accusing a person of hypocrisy in order to rebut their argument is a logical fallacy, because by doing so you are not attacking their argument, but rather their belief in their position.

B: Oh wait, but actually, if a person behaves hypocritically, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t believe in their position, since they could just be suffering from akrasia, or lack of willpower.

C: Pointing out hypocrisy can lead an accused person to rationalize away their moral standards, while not accusing them of hypocrisy allows them to continue acting against their moral standards.  This poses a dilemma on the individual level, the interpersonal level, and the group level.


1There are other reasons, of course (i.e. cognitive biases, lack of introspection), but I won’t get into them here.

2Well really, more broadly speaking, this is something I struggle with as a utilitarian, which underlies my veganism.  I might talk about utilitarianism in a future post.

3The scenarios I point out are two extremes on opposite ends of a spectrum, between which I think you could put many real life social groups.  On the stricter end you might find the Society of No-Meat-Eaters (vegetarians/vegans), and on the laxer end you might find many religions.


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