What do we mean when we denounce someone as a hypocrite? That is to say – when and how does such a denunciation properly have force?

Damon Linker implicitly answers “not often” in his most recent column, arguing that the charge of hypocrisy is itself morally corrosive:

When we denounce someone for hypocrisy, we judge him harshly, but without having to express a substantive commitment of our own with regard to ends. The hypocrite is judged entirely on his own terms, accused of violating the ideal of human flourishing that he himself professes to uphold, revere, and use as a standard for judging others. The hypocrite is guilty, as we say, of having “double standards” — expecting exacting behavior from others while letting himself off the hook more easily. Simply pointing that out seems to allow us to be judgmental while remaining agnostic about whether we actually affirm any vision of human flourishing ourselves.

But that isn’t quite true. When we call someone a hypocrite, we often do so on the basis of two implicit moral assumptions: first, that a person who expresses a moral standard should be expected to live up to it with complete consistency; and second, that if a person fails to live up to it with complete consistency, the moral standard should be abandoned and replaced with one that can be consistently followed.

Those assumptions may not seem like much, but in fact they’re far more stringent — and morally corrosive — than the very different assumptions at work behind the scenes of the most widely affirmed moralities of ends.

Whether in religious or philosophical form, moralities of ends tend to presume that we will frequently fall short of the standards they hold out before us. The whole point of the end is to serve as an ideal — a vision of what a human being should do but often won’t.

He concludes:

To insist that we only affirm standards that we can achieve with perfect consistency is, in effect, to drastically lower those standards from something that we strive for (while often failing) to something within much easier reach — which probably won’t be much different from what we would do in the absence of any standard at all. It’s a license for us to go easy on ourselves: to aim low and succeed.

A moral world in which no one was guilty of hypocrisy would be one divested of the entire vertical dimension of morality. In such a world, we might all respect each other’s rights, but no one would strive to accomplish great, rare, exacting moral deeds.

I’d much rather live in a world filled with hypocrites.

I understand his point – and I think that, in general, our culture could benefit from vastly less denunciation, shaming and witch-hunting on the part of would-be puritans of all political stripes. But I think his conclusion is considerably over-broad – and mis-states the rationale behind many denunciations of hypocrisy.

Many charges of hypocrisy are attacks not on the message but on the messenger. For example: if a candidate uses dodgy loopholes to avoid paying taxes while promising to get tough on tax cheats, someone who agrees with the candidate’s position might attack the candidate as a hypocrite because she wants a better tribune – someone who will be more convincing to voters inclined to be cynical about politicians and their promises. Or, the candidate might be attacked as a hypocrite because her behavior suggests she considers herself to be above the kinds of moral rules that bind us lesser mortals – and that kind of double-standard really is corrosive to democracy whether you agree with the moral rule in question or not.

Other times, the charge of hypocrisy is pretty clearly tied to a real disagreement about what the morality of ends should be, as opposed to an objection to ends as such. Let’s say you have a married, male, Christian minister, a firm opponent of gay marriage, who is revealed to be having an affair with another man. Clearly, this fellow is going to be zinged for hypocrisy. But those doing the zinging are not neutral on the matter of “ends” – far from it. It’s likely that, in their view, it is a positive good to be honest, privately and publicly, about one’s sexuality, and that repressing it does actual harm, both to oneself and to others. The minister is denounced not so much for failing to live up to his own morality of ends, but because he is a walking proof-text for an alternative morality of ends.

Now let’s change the example – say that the minister is revealed to be having an affair not with a man, but with a woman. He’ll still be zinged for hypocrisy, but the charge would read somewhat differently – because it is unlikely (though not impossible) that those doing the denouncing believe in an alternative morality of ends in which cheating as such is fine. And yet, the force still comes from a real disagreement within a morality of ends, and not a dispute about the legitimacy of a morality of ends. The force comes from an implicit argument that public profession of Christianity is a lousy means to the end of sexual fidelity – and that attacking gay marriage for being a threat to faithful heterosexual marriages is particularly obnoxious because it burdens an uninvolved minority with the sins of the majority.

The charge of hypocrisy, in other words, is usually embedded within a larger framework of argument, one which may affirm or reject the specific morality of ends that the accused hypocrite claims to uphold. Rather than deny the legitimacy of the charge of hypocrisy, wouldn’t bringing that context out into the open advance the cause of honest argument more effectively?

After all, without the charge of hypocrisy, how would you make some of the arguments above? If I believe that repressing one’s sexuality is harmful, and I can’t point to the hypocritical minister as a piece of evidence, then my argument is badly weakened – and for no obvious reason. Why am I obliged to say, in effect, that his actions have no bearing on the validity of the principle he stands for, when his actions are, to my mind, evidence that his principle has pernicious consequences? Isn’t the question of how principles play out in practice an extremely important question in debating said principles?

Finally: it’s worth pointing out that Christians have a particular problem with charges of hypocrisy, for two reasons.

Here’s the first one:

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.

Jesus’s denunciation of hypocrisy is hard to square with the wisdom of “the tribute vice pays to virtue.” Close to the core of Jesus’s ethical message is the claim that the Pharisaical approach – articulating laws for every aspect of life such that, if you stay within their bounds, you are righteous – far from being the path to righteousness is a path to sin. The law is still the law, and we’re supposed to follow it, to the best of our ability. But we should not follow people who declare themselves masters of the law, and we should not be impressed by people who make a show of their righteousness – we should not be hypocrites ourselves and we should not follow hypocrites.

So, when Christians act like Jesus’s Pharisees, they have a harder time relying on defenses that are explicitly rejected by Jesus.

But the deeper reason for the difficulty is that Christianity’s alternative answer to the problem of sin is, well, hard to swallow. Grace, justification – these are very weird, mysterious ideas that I suspect most Christians don’t really understand. They can sound, to someone who hasn’t swallowed them, an awful lot like a get-out-of-jail-free card, like a claim that once you say you’ve been saved, then you have no further obligation related to your past sins, and even future sins will be readily forgiven. It can sound an awful lot like, well, hypocrisy.

It isn’t – or needn’t be. Whether it’s true or not, and whether it “works” or not (which – for a pragmatist like me – amount to the same thing), Christianity is a powerful and sophisticated system. But as I understand it, the way you’re supposed to comport yourself within a Christian framework is rather like the way a member of AA is supposed to comport herself: as someone permanently addicted to sin, powerless to fight that addiction, seeking always to confess and make amends for past sins, and aware that only by the grace of a higher power has she made it through this day, and that tomorrow is yet another day in need of that same grace.

The standard of sinlessness cannot be met – that’s part of the Christian system’s point. And the standard of saintly humility can’t be met either. But there’s limited evidence that the kinds of people who are typically charged with hypocrisy were even trying to live up to it.

That may be the biggest reason why the charges so often stick.