Monday, July 26, 2010

Unethical Hypocrisy: Introduction

Welcome to the new update of my site. While I have been writing since my last regular posting, I haven't gotten around to publishing to the blog. I wanted to give the site an updated look, and get back into the swing of regular writing and posting, so I thought I would kick things off with a topic that is a significant irritant to me, hypocrisy.

Last spring, while taking a course in Ethics, I chose to write a paper debating whether or not hypocrisy could be seen as ethical or unethical. I came firmly down on the side that hypocrisy is always unethical in every situation. However, while writing the paper I was constrained by length limitations and was, therefore, unable to elaborate on many areas which I thought would help drive my point forward. It is now my intention to flesh out those arguments in a more complete (though perhaps less formal) fashion over the next few weeks.

To begin the discussion, I am posting the full text of my Ethics paper (with parenthetical citations) from last spring. I hope you will find it interesting, as I plan to go deeper into the nature of hypocrisy as related to politics, religion, and personal relationships. Please feel free to leave comments, and I may try to address any intellectual arguments presented in the future updates.

I hope you enjoy this short series. I will get back to my usual social blogging once school starts back up on August 16th.

The Unethical Nature of Hypocrisy

America has recently seen a considerable decline of trust in government and religion due in large part to behavior which could be deemed hypocritical. Hypocrisy, for the purpose of this discussion, is any behavior, or language, which is incongruous with stated beliefs. Hypocrisy is unethical because it has a deleterious effect on society by corrupting faith in institutions.

In order for the institution of government to function adequately, it is vitally important for the voting public to know what positions are held by those who run for, and are later elected to, public office. Further, it is of great necessity that elected officials behave and vote in a manner consistent with stated positions. Hypocrisy damages the effective functioning of government since voters cannot be certain how elected officials will behave once in power. For example, many conservative voters, and conservative elected officials, take a Libertarian view that government should be as minimal as possible, and that the services provided by government should be few. To that end, many conservative voters were against the economic stimulus programs passed by the federal government during 2009. Publicly, most of the conservative politicians in the Senate and House of Representatives were also against the stimulus programs, and even voted against them when they were put up for a vote. However, once the stimulus passed, over 100, mostly conservative, members of Congress later sent letters in support of the stimulus to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood requesting that funds be allocated to their districts (MSNBC). As a result of this, and similar hypocritical acts, those who support a conservative political view have begun to lose faith in their elected officials to enact the will of their constituents. Consequently, the burgeoning Tea Party Movement is attempting to support more Libertarian candidates against some Republican stalwarts in several districts around the nation.

One may argue that the conservative politicians were not being hypocritical, since they, indeed, spoke out against the stimulus package and supported that view by voting against the programs. However, if those in the Republican Party honestly believe that government is best when it governs least, and that government subsidies are a form of socialist handout, then they should not actively request for any part of the stimulus funds which they were not in support. To later ask for funding which one was initially against is to help make the case that a more socialist government is preferable to one which simply waits for capitalism and corporations to satisfy the needs of the people. This seems to run completely contrary to the will of the conservative voters who placed these politicians into office. Naturally, this hypocrisy makes those who are already inclined to not trust the government less willing to think that the government is serving their best interests.

Another social institution which has been negatively impacted by acts of hypocrisy is religion. During the last decade, the tragic details of the child sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church have consistently made headlines. Partially in response, people have turned away from religion, in general, such that there are now 12% of Americans who express no religious affiliation. This is the highest percentage of non-religious Americans since polling on this topic began (Newport). One of the primary causes for the scandal was the failure of priests to live up to the oath of celibacy which they agreed to upon entering the Catholic priesthood. The correct, non-hypocritical, choices for these priests would, naturally, be either to maintain celibacy and honor their oath, or refuse to take the oath and not join the priesthood. It would seem that many during the last thirty-five years have chosen not to take the oath which they cannot, or will not, support with their actions. The number of Catholic priests in the United States has dropped from almost 59,000 in 1975 to just over 40,500 in 2009 (Charlton). However, there are likely still many priests who choose to take the oath despite the probability that they will not honor it. While there have been debates within the Catholic Church regarding the celibacy of priests, it would seem that a drastic reduction of priests, more drastic than the gradual decline seen over the previous decades, due to men leaving the priesthood rather than become, or continue to be, hypocrites would force the Church to have a more direct discussion regarding the future of the celibacy oath. The subsequent shortage of priests in the nation would give many within the Church cause to reconsider the use of the directive promoting celibacy. Even if Catholicism did not end up rejecting celibacy, a greater good would still be served since there would be no men in the priesthood engaging in hypocritical, and emotionally damaging, sexual behavior.

While the decline in faith toward our social institutions of government and religion point to the negative, and unethical, nature of hypocrisy, it may be important to consider if hypocrisy may have any positive results. It has been suggested by Peter Singer that there may be times when it is acceptable to act in a hypocritical manner. Singer states that, if one were to believe that it is wrong to lie, it may be necessary to lie if one does so to save the lives of innocent Jews being hidden in one’s attic from the Nazis during World War II (Singer 2). This is problematic in two ways. The first, and easiest to dispel, problem is that if one truly believes it is wrong to lie, one should not enter into a situation which would require them to lie and become a hypocrite. As such, a person who thinks it is wrong to lie should not choose to hide Jews from the Nazis if one believes that they will be forced to lie about the Jews’ existence at some later point in order to save their own life and the lives of the Jews.

Secondly, Singer seems to believe that lying, in this case, is morally correct because, from a utilitarian standpoint, lying only hurts one person’s integrity while saving the lives of several Jews, thereby serving the greater good. However, if one actually believes that it is wrong for the Nazis to kill Jews, and that it is right for non-Jews to protect the Jews from the Nazis, one should be willing to not only hide Jews from the Nazis, but also to take a moral stand against the Nazis even if it costs them their own life and the lives of the Jews being hidden. Since it can reasonably be assumed that one will be killed anyway, along with the Jews, if the Nazis discover that they have been lied to, it would serve a greater good to be honest and stand up for the Jews not only in action but in word.

Compare this analogy to the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. As a controversial leader of the Civil Rights Movement, King knew that he was a target for assassination and could be killed at any moment. If King had simply participated in marches, but never made himself known publicly with his words, he may have largely escaped notice from those opposed to civil rights and been able to support the movement without placing himself in danger, much like the Germans who hid Jews from the Nazis but refused to tell the truth in order to save themselves and their stowaway Jews. Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case, the movement for civil rights needed a figurehead who could be rallied around, and who was also willing to become a martyr for the cause. By choosing to speak out, King became that figurehead and martyr. If King had chosen to be a hypocrite, and not let his words coincide with his actions, it is likely that the civil rights movement would have taken much longer to change society, and, therefore, more suffering would have been endured.

Likewise, by standing up for the cause of protecting the Jews, it is possible that German citizens could have made themselves martyrs to the cause of justice, and that their martyrdom would have led to a social uprising against the Nazi regime, altering the course of global history, and potentially preventing a great deal of suffering from the war that followed. Alternatively, if all of those who believed in defending the safety of Jews as the morally right choice had acted on that belief, rather than become hypocrites who believed in a principle without acting, history would again have been affected positively, since more Jews would have been hidden from the Nazis, thereby reducing the amount of suffering in the world.

Hypocrisy, as discussed, seems to stem from a desire to save one’s own face even at the expense of one’s own individual integrity. Unfortunately, hypocrisy can also potentially damage the safety and security of others. While hypocritical behaviors have no redeeming positive outcome, they do offer us an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and work harder to make our actions equivalent with our stated beliefs and values. Only by rejecting hypocrisy as a culture can we return to having faith in the positive impact of our most significant social institutions.

Works Cited

Charlton, Angela, and Victor L. Simpson. “Priests With Love Lives Speak Out Against Celibacy.” 17 Mar. 2010. Huffington Post. Web.

MSNBC. “The Stimulus Votes.” Oct. 2009. MSNBC. Web.

Newport, Frank. “This Easter, Smaller Percentage of Americans Are Christian.” 10 Apr. 2010. Gallup. Web.

Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge UP, 2009. 2. Print.

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