On Moral Hypocrisy

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There is a useful, but in some ways disheartening article in today’s New York Times, “Deep Down, We Can’t Fool Even Ourselves” by John Tierney. It’s about how slippery our standards for fairness are. Some key sections:

In voting against the Bush tax cut in 2001, Senator John McCain said he “cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate.” Today he campaigns in favor of extending that same tax cut beyond its expiration date.

Senator Barack Obama last year called himself a “longtime advocate” of public financing of election campaigns. This month, he reiterated his “support” for such financing while becoming the first major party presidential nominee ever to reject it for his own campaign.

Do you think either of these men is a hypocrite?

If so, does this hypocrite really believe, in his heart, what he is saying?….

{C}onsider.. what happened when two psychologists, Piercarlo Valdesolo and David DeSteno, tested people’s reactions to the following situation.

You show up for an experiment and are told that you and a person arriving later will each have to do a different task on a computer. One job involves a fairly easy hunt through photos that will take just 10 minutes. The other task is a more tedious exercise in mental geometry that takes 45 minutes.

You get to decide how to divvy up the chores: either let a computer assign the tasks randomly, or make the assignments yourself. Either way, the other person will not know you had anything to do with the assignments.

Now, what is the fair way to divvy up the chores?

When the researchers posed this question in the abstract to people who were not involved in the tasks, everyone gave the same answer: It would be unfair to give yourself the easy job.

But when the researchers actually put another group of people in this situation, more than three-quarters of them took the easy job. Then, under subsequent questioning, they gave themselves high marks for acting fairly. The researchers call this moral hypocrisy because the people were absolving themselves of violating a widely held standard of fairness (even though they themselves hadn’t explicitly endorsed that standard beforehand)….

A double standard of morality also emerged when other people were arbitrarily divided in two groups and given differently colored wristbands. They watched as one person, either from their group or from the other group, went through the exercise and assigned himself the easy job.

Even though the observers had no personal stake in the outcome — they knew they would not be stuck with the boring job — they were still biased. On average, they judged it to be unfair for someone in the other group to give himself the easy job, but they considered it fair when someone in their own group did the same thing.

“Anyone who is on ‘our team’ is excused for moral transgressions,” said Dr. DeSteno, a psychologist at Northeastern University. “The importance of group cohesion, of any type, simply extends our moral radius for lenience. Basically, it’s a form of one person’s patriot is another’s terrorist.”

Probably as a result of insufficient socialization (my family moved very frequently when I was growing up), I’ve never felt the pull of group loyalty (for instance, I have trouble understanding how critics of America can be called unpatriotic. In my book, a true friend is willing to tell you when you are off base, and that feedback is usually most valuable when you least want to hear it. You need to look beyond the rebuke to see where loyalties lie). But this piece is a useful reminder of how strong those ties are.

The article continues here.

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  1. doc holiday

    It would be nice, to see people become even handed and balanced, versus inconsistent, unpredictable and unfair, but all too often, I see people that are critical and willing to be judgemental — while ignoring the fact that criticism should include compassion and perspective. People tend to blow things out of proportion and then fall into the familiarity of hypocrisy. Instead of offering help, people often just point fingers and cease to offer productive solutions to problems.

    Be that as it may be, I love to bitch and whine and twist things into knots… maybe this is off topic?

  2. Michael McKinlay

    Or the lack of morality altogether …

    The Stanford Prison Experiment … .Prisoners and guards rapidly adapted to their roles, stepping beyond the boundaries of what had been predicted and leading to dangerous and psychologically damaging situations.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment ..

    The Milgram experiment …In Milgram’s first set of experiments, 65 percent (26 of 40)[1] of experiment participants administered the experiment’s final 450-volt shock


    Better metaphors for our social hierarchy I think.


  3. DownSouth

    My favorite historical example of this sort of pharisasim is offered by the 16th-century protestant leader John Calvin.

    As William Manchester relates in A World Lit Only by Fire,

    “One morning he found a poster on his pulpit accusing him of ‘Gross Hypocrisy.’ A suspect was arrested. No evidence was produced, but he was tortured day and night for a month till he confessed. Screaming with pain, he was lashed to a wooden stake. Penultimately, his feet were nailed to wood, ultimately he was decapitated.”

    “Calvin’s justification for this excessive rebuke reveals the mindset of all Reformation inquisitions, Protestant and Catholic alike: ‘When the papists are so harsh and violent in defense of their superstitions,’ he asked, ‘are not Christ’s magistrates shamed to show themselves less ardent in defense of the sure truth?’ “

  4. cougian

    The problem with morality is lack of education. We rely on parents to teach morality, when obviously most parents can’t. I am not advocating teaching what is right or wrong, (think pro-life vs. right of choice) just how to decide (think universal truths vs. ends justify the means) How can we expect moral citizens when we never even introduce moral concepts to them. Basic ethics and basic citizenship should be required high school classes.

  5. Dan Duncan

    Hypocrisy cannot properly be addressed if it is not properly understood. Sticking “moral” in front of it implies there are different kinds of hypocrisy, when there’s not. Degrees, possibly, but not types–as in moral and amoral.

    I think the problem with this kind of phrasing is best exemplified with the utterly annoying phrase: “Institutionalized Racism”.

    There is no racism without the involvement of an institution. Sticking “institutionalized” in front of racism implies that it is a different kind of racism, when it’s not.

    “OK, so what? You’re being pedantic.”

    I don’t think so, and here’s why:

    People who use the phrase “institutionalized racism” imply there is a type of racism without the involvement of an institution. Dealing with “non-institutionalized racism” is essentially the same thing as dealing with a racist. Thus, when they want to root out “all kinds of racism” these people tend to conflate racism with being a racist. These are not the same things, and it’s crucial to make the distinction.

    Alone, I cannot engage in racism, any more than I can engage in communism. I must have an institution behind me in order to engage in racism (or communism).

    I can, however, be a racist on my own. If I find other like-minded (ill)souls, we can eventually engage in racism.

    Society cannot effectively fight or legislate against what’s in a single man’s heart. It can, however, isolate the racists by legislating against the racism exemplified by the actions of a group of those racist men.

    Isolate the racist and eventually the meme dies out (or is at least reduced to a pockets of ignorance). Chasing down each individual racist is just not effective.

    Using the phrase “moral hypocrisy”
    leads to the same ineffectiveness which is always the result of an ill-conceived focus. If we want to expose the hypocrisy of our would-be leaders, let’s not muddy the cleansing waters with the “moral” additive.

    Is he a hypocrite or isn’t he?

    Not, “Well, yes, McCain was being a hypocrite, but such is the reality of modern day politics. At least he wasn’t ‘morally’ hypocritcal, though, like that scoundrel Obama.”

    Now, to answer your question as to whether each is a hypocrite:

    Both are Senators. Therefore, they are, of course—- Intitutionalized Hypocrites.

  6. Lune

    Allow me to play the devil’s advocate here…

    There’s some fascinating research being done on the evolutionary basis of our moral and ethical reasoning. There is a marked uniformity in the moral precepts of almost all human societies, regardless of their religion, location, state of technological advancement, etc. For example, the golden rule, the encouragement of forgiveness and reconciliation, the innocence of children and other powerless individuals, etc. We in the West like to think that our moral precepts are based on a foundation of logic and philosophy, or perhaps on Judeo-Christian religious tenets. But these moral rules are shared by many societies who don’t have a strong tradition of a logic- and reason-based philosophy, and/or have religions not based on Judeo-Christian origins.

    In evolutionary terms, that means that these moral “traits” were developed in a common ancestor that predates the development of philosophy or most of today’s religions. Furthermore, these traits must have been evolutionarily useful to be so well conserved throughout much of the world’s population despite the diversity of cultures and societies that later developed. Indeed, one could argue that philosophy and religion developed later as a means to rationalize and justify our innate moral traits, rather than the other way around.

    Now one of the biggest moral traits we’ve developed is the primacy of one’s own group (be it defined as family, local community, nation-state, etc.). And it was conserved because those that had such a moral trait were willing to sacrifice much more to preserve their group (e.g. sharing resources, protecting the powerless, forgiving people within your group, etc.), which gave their group a survival advantage over ones who didn’t possess such loyalty to their group.

    Philosophy and logic, OTOH, place emphasis on the universality of their laws, and makes no distinction between one person or another, or one group or another. What’s good for one person is good for another, regardless of which group each one belongs to.

    I think what we’re seeing isn’t so much hypocrisy as the tension between our innate moral traits and what logic (which is a much more recent addition to our thought processes) tells us to do. And what this experiment is telling us is that while we’re willing to engage in logic as an almost leisurely diversion, when push comes to shove, our innate moral traits — which have been with us for much longer and have contributed much more to our survival success than logic — take over.

    I wouldn’t label such actions hypocrisy though. I guess strictly speaking, it is, but the negative connotations of the word hypocrisy, with its implications that doing one thing in one situation but something different in another situation is bad, automatically imply that you accept the fundamental premise of logic that all rules must apply universally and at all times.

    But our moral traits have guided us quite successfully for millions of years, whereas logic has only been around (in the West, at least), for several thousand years. And logic has led to its own disasters in human history.

    So in the end, should these test subjects’ hypocrisy be condemned or celebrated? Food for thought…

  7. tom a taxpayer

    Cut the baloney. Hypocrisy is hypocrisy. The idea that we need to read about some experiment to understand the hypocrisy of McCain and Obama is ludicrous and insulting.

  8. Peripheral Visionary

    The problem, as I see it, is priorities. The desire to win a political race, ostensibly to advance causes one cares about, is not a bad priority; but there should be higher priorities, like keeping one’s word.

    I’m not sure loyalty to a group factors directly into that, although it’s a consideration. If anything, loyalty to groups has become very thin; we live in a very selfish world, where the individual is consistently prioritized higher than the group. I actually see political flip-flopping as being more consistent with pure selfishness (a desire to be in power for personal reasons) than as part of any bias regarding any particular group.

    I don’t necessarily see any hypocrisy here. Sens. Obama and McCain have never actually come out and said that there are things that are more important to them than winning.

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