Hypocrisy, relativism and the Diamond Age

Hypocrisy is a poorly regarded activity as Ted Haggard, a US pastor who has admitted to having gay sex could tell you. Criticism and focus of most stories about this case has concentrated mostly on his anti-gay views and the inherent hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is defined as “a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not; especially : the false assumption of an appearance of virtue or religion”. While it’s clear that Haggard hasn’t met the virtuous standards he has espoused it’s also not clear that he is feigning his belief in those standards. People following their instincts rather than doing what they believe is right is not uncommon.

A passage in Neal Stephenson’s SF book The Diamond Age, has an interesting take on hypocrisy espoused by one of characters, one of the leaders of a group known as “Neo-Victorians”.

You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of a climate, you are not allowed to criticise others-after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism? … Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others’ shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour-you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.

We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy,” Finkle-McGraw continued. “In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception-he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it’s a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing.”

“That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code,” Major Napier said, working it through, “does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.”

“Of course not,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It’s perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said that it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct. Really, the difficulties involved-the missteps we make along the way-are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal, struggle, between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power.”

It seems that Haggard’s situation is very much described in the quote above. Is it the case though that he was really being deceptive, espousing views he didn’t believe in or was it merely the case that he did sincerely believe what he preaches but rather it is a “spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing”?

With the belief that gay sex is a perfectly acceptable activity it is impossible to criticise him for this, so we elevate the importance of hypocrisy. The greater failing was his betrayal of wife and family and this is surely a common point of moral opprobrium but one that little seems to be made of compared with the idea of hypocrisy.

Ultimately though shouldn’t such cases be condemned for their views in the first place, rather than the breach of their own code of morality which we don’t support? Do we elevate hypocrisy beyond its real importance because of moral relativism, feeling we can’t actually criticize the moral core of someone else’s position. Instead, do we revile them for the contradictions between their behaviour and their views?

I think there is a portion of truth in this but for a liberal society to function we must reserve a portion of moral relativism. Hypocrisy is one way of detecting the deceivers and crooks in such a society above and beyond moral disagreements.


One Response to Hypocrisy, relativism and the Diamond Age

  1. A large percentage of of what you point out is supprisingly accurate and it makes me ponder the reason why I had not looked at this in this light previously. This piece truly did turn the light on for me personally as far as this specific topic goes. Nonetheless there is actually one issue I am not really too comfortable with so while I attempt to reconcile that with the central theme of your position, allow me observe what the rest of the readers have to say.Very well done.

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