On Hypocrisy

I've been watching the whole Al-Gore-uses-tons-of-electricity mini-controversy with some amusement. Amusement because all the responses are pretty much a complete 180 from the whole Ted-Haggard-likes-gay-hookers mini-controversy of a few months ago. Back then you had lots of folks on the left playing gotcha, calling out Haggard for his blatant hypocrisy. Meanwhile various folks on the right offered lame defenses of Haggard's behavior. Now, many of those same folks on the left are busy defending Gore's energy use while conservatives gleefully mock the former VP.

For the record, I don't particularly care about the controversies themselves. Let's just go ahead and assume (for the sake of argument) that Haggard and Gore in fact did what they are accused of having done (though Haggard denied it, and the initial report on Gore's electric usage may be, well, made up). I'm more interested in the charge of hypocrisy itself. Specifically, I'm interested in what actually counts as hypocrisy. A quick trip to my old, trusty college dictionary (online version here) reveals that "hypocrisy" means

the practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess; insincerity

Now it's possible to quibble about whether this is really what we mean (or what we ought to mean) by hypocrisy, but let's just take this as our working definition. On this standard, is it really the case that Haggard and Gore are hypocrites? Let's take Haggard's case first.

Whether Haggard will count as a hypocrite is going to depend a great deal on what it is that Haggard actually endorses. Take this set of beliefs plus actions:

    1. I believe that gays and lesbians ought not have the right to marry, nor should their relationships receive any sort of legal protections.
    2. I am a closeted gay man.

Let's call this set of actions and beliefs A. Personally, I see no reason to think that (1) and (2) are inconsistent with one another, and that one could therefore hold non-hypocritically adopt A. On the other hand, let's suppose that Haggard holds something like set B:

    1. I believe that gays and lesbians are not good Christians and thus ought not hold any sort of leadership positions within the Christian community.
    2. I am the pastor of a gigantic church and leader of a coalition of evangelicals.
    3. I am a closeted gay man.

Here it seems clear to me that (1) and (2) are inconsistent with (3). So if Haggard does indeed hold B, then in that case, he really is guilty of professing "virtues" (since, of course, heterosexuality is not a virtue any more than blond is a virtue) that he does not in fact possess. It's fair, then, to accuse Haggard of hypocrisy whenever he says things that belong in set B. For things in set A, not so much.

Just for fun, let's do the same thing with Gore. Suppose that Gore holds C:

    1. Individuals ought to work to follow my 10 simple tips to reduce their carbon usage.
    2. I have huge electric bills.

So are (1) and (2) inconsistent? Not obviously, provided of course that Gore really has replaced his light bulbs, that he walks sometimes rather than drive, that he keeps his tires inflated, and so on. After all, Gore isn't claiming that one ought to reduce one's carbon emissions to a particular level; rather, C holds that one ought to do certain things to reduce one's carbon emissions. Having an electric bill that is large in absolute terms is pretty much irrelevant; more relevant would be whether Gore's electric bill has gotten smaller.

But what about a different set of beliefs and actions, D?

    1. One should reduce one's carbon emissions as close to zero as is possible.
    2. I have really big electric bills.

This set may very well be inconsistent. It is presumably possible for Gore to lower his electric bills further (by, say, selling his very big house and buying a much smaller one). For that matter, he could sell his Tennessee home and move to, say, South Dakota, where wind farming is reasonably economical. Or he could move to Seattle, with its reasonably uniform temperatures, and leave both the heat and the air conditioning off. For that matter, he could stop traveling all together, never straying more than walking distance from home. Clearly Gore isn't doing everything that he can to reduce his carbon emissions to zero. So, to the extent that he endorses doing that, he's a hypocrite.

Now it seems to me that most of the wailing about Haggard involved the fact that he said A-like things. It might be fair to charge him with self-loathing or to point out the irony, but hypocrisy is not the proper charge there. Similarly, it seems to me that Gore has mostly been saying C-like things, in which case the hypocrisy charges against him are likewise misplaced. It's still perfectly reasonable to criticize Haggard and Gore for their various positions. It's not at all clear to me, though, that it's reasonable to charge either one with hypocrisy.

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