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Can Hypocrisy Be Justified?
There is such a thing as being "too good."
First, if you missed it last week, I highly recommend Michael D. Purzycki’s important essay for us on the case for honesty and anti-hypocrisy in U.S. foreign policy. What I love about the piece is that it smartly contradicts my own (qualified) defense of hypocrisy. Michael argues instead that honesty beats insult. Read the whole thing here.
As it happens, I’m still thinking a lot about hypocrisy, since it relates to the new book I’m working on, tentatively titled On Power: The Case for American Dominance. (Yes, I know what you’re thinking, that title isn’t really going to work if Trump wins in 2024). My note this week revolves around some of the difficulties of addressing the question of hypocrisy in a liberal democracy like ours that prizes honesty even as politicians seemingly become more dishonest. I hope you enjoy it and would love to hear any comments and criticisms below.
At their core, liberal democracies run on a certain kind of faith that the common good can be found through discussion and deliberation. In the real world, however, politics is marked by tragedies and tradeoffs. These tradeoffs require prioritizing some people’s interests over others. It would be a cruel and cynical world if we simply accepted this as the cost of doing business. Hypocrisy allows us to maintain pretenses. The pretense reminds us that we’re capable of being better—and, more to the point, that we should be better. “Ironically,” the philosopher Ruth Grant writes in Hypocrisy and Integrity, “the frequency of hypocrisy in politics testifies to the strength of the moral impulse in public life.”
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American hypocrisy is worse abroad than it is at home. In the chaotic realm of international relations, there are fewer rules and norms. There are more conflicting interests. There are enemies who want to destroy you. Survival is paramount. For a self-interested politician, the only citizens that matter are the ones in your own country. After all, they are the only ones who can vote you out of office. All of this means that the gap between words and actions will be greater in the conduct of foreign policy.
Of course, there is such a thing as being too bad—and too hypocritical. But there is also such a thing as being too good, where one’s own moral purity takes precedence over all else, leading to inflexibility and inaction. If you’re so afraid of undermining your own moral superiority, it may lead you to withdraw from politics altogether. But, as Grant notes, this withdrawal is self-centered because it is primarily concerned with preserving one’s own sense of righteousness at the expense of helping the people who actually need it.
There is no way to be entirely consistent, and it is unclear what such consistency would look like in practice. And, in any case, consistency isn’t always a virtue. The United States is not a human rights organization. It will at times treat allies differently than adversaries. I often wish it were otherwise, but there’s no real way to escape this, at least not in the real world.
For some, the disconnect between ideals and interests is reason enough for doing away with the pretense. If American policy is in thrall to autocrats, we might as well be more forthright about our lack of virtue. We could then announce to the world that we are “normal,” pursuing our narrow national interests like any other country. Such an approach would reduce the hypocrisy gap. But would this necessarily be good? Fortunately (at least for the purposes of analysis) the presidency of Donald Trump provided a natural experiment to help answer this question. There was something almost refreshing, for instance, about Trump’s complete disinterest in American support for human rights and democracy abroad. It was not so much that he couldn’t be bothered, but more that it didn’t seem to occur to him to be bothered in the first place.
For perhaps the first time in decades, the gap between words and deeds had been closed considerably. The United States, under Donald Trump, was less hypocritical than it was under previous administrations. On the one hand, dissidents and human rights activists no longer had to wonder if the United States would come to their aid. It probably wouldn’t. Under no illusions about America’s interest in their plight, they could adapt accordingly and focus exclusively on their own local, domestic context. They wouldn’t have to worry about being betrayed. In his honest and frank disregard, Trump was true to his words.
If Donald Trump couldn’t raise expectations, it also meant he couldn’t shatter them.
On one level, this might cast Trumpian “anti-hypocrisy” in a more favorable light. On another level, anti-hypocrisy in foreign policy, if applied as consistently as the Trump administration (inadvertently) attempted, does not necessarily produce better outcomes. Under the Trump administration, authoritarian regimes became more authoritarian, while pro-democracy activists had less success in promoting democracy. In foreign affairs, to oppose hypocrisy to an extreme, then, is to give up hope that the United States can become better. Extreme anti-hypocrisy invites American officials to indulge their worst instincts. As the philosopher Judith Shklar once put it, this is the danger of being not just good, but too good: “The more [conscience] rails against hypocrisy, the more it encourages the vice.” Or as David Runciman notes in Political Hypocrisy: “Anti-hypocrisy is difficult: there is no way of breaking out from the hypocrisy of political life, and all attempts to find such an escape route are a delusion.”
On the other hand, to accept hypocrisy as an inevitable fact of living imperfectly is to hold on to our sense of morality in the breach. If we are speaking of power and how it is used or abused—and whether it is possible to wield it better and more justly—it is good that the charge of hypocrisy can be leveled against the United States.
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