Cod Philosophy with Otto Fisch

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No 2: Rubbish arguments that people use: The Hypocrisy Fallacy

Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.

~ Francois De La Rochefoucauld ~

As a philosopher, I get very frustrated with the constant use of rubbish arguments in the media. I have to force myself not to listen to radio phone-ins, but there's something about them that I can't resist – I suppose it's a bit like the desire to stare at car crashes. I'm even thinking about starting to collect spectacularly bad arguments, and establishing a shrine to gibberish, obfuscation, confusion, and stupidity, but my worry is that no-one would be able to tell it apart from the real thing.

One argument in particular is getting on my nerves at the moment, and I'm calling it the hypocrisy fallacy. I must acknowledge a debt in this to a university tutor - an excellent philosopher and a frighteningly clever man - who once pointed out this error in a throwaway comment during a tutorial, which I'm still thinking about and developing years later

What is hypocrisy?

I'm not going to go on at length about what hypocrisy is, or define it on a case-by-case basis, or to detail the many different types of hypocrisy. But for now, we can say that hypocrisy is generally understood to mean a failure to 'practice what you preach'.

There are two things about hypocrisy that people don't like. Firstly, people don't want to be told what to do by anyone else for any reason at any time, but particularly not by people who don't follow their own advice. In this age of the freedom and the individual, the preacher is regarded (possibly rightly) with suspicion, regardless of the message.

Secondly, arguments containing inconsistency are rarely any good, and inconsistencies are one of the two things (along with errors in assumptions or 'premises' implicit in the argument) that we look for in opposing arguments. Of course, hypocrisy is an inconsistency between the argument (what we are being told to do) and the behaviour of the proponent (the arguer – the person trying to convince us to do it).

The hypocrisy fallacy

This, essentially, is what the hypocrisy fallacy is. It's confusing inconsistency between the proponent of a view (the arguer) and the argument with an inconsistency in the argument itself. Put more comprehensibly, it's assuming that an argument is wrong just because one or more people who put forward that argument do not themselves abide by it. For example, there is clearly something wrong with Chad's reasoning in the example below.

Harry the Hypocrite: Don't cross the road without looking, kids!
Harry crosses the road without looking.

Chad the Child: Harry's a hypocrite! Let's not look either!
Chad crosses the road without looking1.

Now, as my old philosophy tutor said, hypocrisy is clearly a personality flaw, but it's not automatically the case that the advice is bad. Clearly, it would be absurd to suggest that Harry's advice is in any way wrong or bad advice, just because he doesn't follow it himself.

The hypocrisy fallacy is often used against vegetarians and environmentalists, though it appears in all kinds of debates. Consider the following:

Graeme the Green:  Killing animals is morally wrong for reasons x, y, and z.

Chris the Carnivore:  But you wear leather shoes. That makes you a hypocrite, because they are made from dead animals.

Baying Mob:  Hypocrite! Hypocrite!
Chris is carried from the debating chamber in triumph. Graeme is left alone with his thoughts and his lentils.

Now, this is an attack on Graeme, and there are a number of ways in which he can respond to the charge of hypocrisy – there are degrees of blame and culpability - but that's not important here. What is important is to note that the argument that 'it is morally wrong to kill animals' remains undefeated (so far). No reasons have been put forward to think that Graeme's initial argument is wrong, though some reasons have been given to question Graeme's personal consistency, and therefore his right to preach to others. It might make us feel better to point out the splinter in the eye of the person pointing out a log in our own eyes, but it won't make the log (or the splinter) go away.

Argument and Proponent.

What kind of claim is Graeme making when he says that killing animals is morally wrong? Surely he's doing more than expressing an opinion. He's making a claim about the nature of the moral landscape – about the way things ought to be2.

It's a claim that is independent of how Graeme behaves and what he thinks. If he later changes his mind, it might still be the case that it's wrong to kill animals. The argument is independent from the proponent. The argument may be true or false, valid or invalid. The proponent can be genuine, unknowingly hypocritical, or knowingly hypocritical (regretfully or not) and this will make absolutely no difference to the argument's truth or falsity. The argument is Graeme's in the sense that he is the person putting it forward on this occasion, but their fates are not intertwined. Even if Graeme invented the argument!.

Canberra is still the capital of Australia, regardless of whether or not I think it is. Everton's chances of reaching the FA Cup Final3 are likewise unaffected by what I think they are. So, as long as we think that moral claims amount to more than just opinion, removing the proponent of an argument (or attacking his or her credibility) will not remove the argument. Of course, if you do think that ethical arguments are all just expressions of opinion, then you could defeat the argument by preventing anyone from having that kind of view, either by persuasion or elimination!

What all this boils down to is one of the first lessons that philosophers learn. Go for the argument, not the proponent, and avoid personalising discussions. And best of all, is that if you ever catch me not doing this in discussions on this site, it doesn't mean that what I've argued here is in any way wrong! It would just make me a hypocrite, which, in spite of everything I've said, is a deeply unattractive character trait and best avoided.

Otto Fisch

08.08.02 Front Page

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1No children or animals were harmed in the formulation of this example.2Of course, some people claim to believe that ethical questions are just a matter of opinion, although most of them discover on closer examination that they don't really believe this. People seem to think that it's a choice between being a relativist or being intolerant of others. That ain't so, but it's an argument for another time.3English soccer competition.

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