Monday, December 19, 2011

Is hypocrisy a vice?



 Amy Koch, the Minnesota State Senate Majority Leader resigned a couple of days ago, after she was confronted about having an affair with one of her staff members. This is nothing new; it feels like every month there’s a new sex scandal. I myself don’t really care what people do on their off hours and I’m unconvinced that fidelity has much to do with how good of a leader a person is. What bothers me is those who engage in behaviors that they preach or legislate against. You know what I’m talking about: the anti-gay rights politician who ends up getting caught while a male escort “lifts his luggage,” or a family values governor who claims to be hiking the Appalachian Trail while actually flying across the world for extramarital sex. Amy Koch was one of these. As the blog Towleroad sums it up:

Mrs. Koch is married and has a teenage daughter, and has held her office for a little less than a year. During that time, she helped orchestrate a massive Republican takeover of the state senate, which in turn helped get an anti-gay, marriage-defining amendment on the 2012 ballot. The amendment's purpose is to "protect the sanctity of marriage."

In my last post, I asked if consistency is a virtue; in this one, I’m asking a related question, whether hypocrisy is a vice. If people aren’t required to be consistent in their opinions, then why should their attitudes be consistent with their behaviors? In fact, hypocrisy does seem to be an odd thing to get upset about because a person’s actions don’t change the truth of their beliefs.

Philosophers call attacking the arguer rather than the argument the ad hominem fallacy. It is related to the genetic fallacy which I discussed in an earlier post. It tells us that even if a doctor is an obese smoker, he or she may still be correct in telling a patient to go on a diet or quit smoking. Or, more relevant to Koch, if adultery is wrong, the fallacy reminds us that it is wrong even when an adulterer says so. As a result, a closeted gay politician who is anti-gay may be filled with self-hatred, but his or her behavior has no impact on whether the statement “gay behavior is immoral” is true or false. (For the record, I firmly believe this statement to be false.)

On the other hand, there is a component of argument that requires authenticity; we want the arguer to represent real convictions and act on them. If a person isn’t arguing authentically – if he or she is not genuinely invested in a position – the arguing becomes sport rather than a search for knowledge or a negotiation for justice. Or, so it seems.

Perhaps this is what I object to about lawmakers who espouse one idea and secretly act on its opposite; their behavior reveals the tactical nature of politics. Politics is about power more than the betterment of the people. It’s about strategy before it is a search for justice and wisdom. Maybe hypocrisy isn’t the problem, maybe politics is, and maybe hypocrisy is just the window revealing the shallowness of governance. If Amy Koch didn’t have power, her behavior wouldn’t matter to anyone but her family and her god. But because she gets to decide what other people can do, it seems distasteful that she is bound by a different standard than the one she creates for others. By having an affair, Senator Koch has declared herself above the law, a declaration fundamentally at odds with the democracy she purports to cultivate.

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1 comment:

  1. Hypocrisy does not just involve disconnect between word and deed; it involves dissimulation, falsity in how one acts. The hypocrite does not merely make assertions he believes to be true about morality while failing to abide by them.

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