In Defense of Hypocrisy by Jeremy Lott

In today’s world of “gotcha” politics, and the “expose” as news, hypocrisy has become the accusation of choice. If you are looking to undermine someone’s platform or rob them of moral authority, simply dig up some dirt and reveal to the world that they are a hypocrite. “Aha!” you would say. Why should we listen to this person when they don’t even practice what they preach? In a world awash in vulgarity and libertinism the charge of hypocrisy is an easy stick with which to beat up on so called moralists, puritans, and scolds.

But this is a good thing, right? It means we are more in touch with our feelings; less fake more authentic. We don’t allow people to say one thing in public and do another in private. We have moved past the stifling social pressure of the past. Right?

Jeremy Lott isn’t so sure. The author of In Defense of Hypocrisy: Picking Sides in the War on Virtue thinks maybe we “doth protest too much.” The insider cover claims “Though the word has long since reached epithet status, Lott beckons the reader to see the real virtue-impoverished agendas behind the accusations and embrace a sturdier, more realistic understanding of a much-maligned vice.”

It might be hard for me to offer an unbiased judgment about Lott’s success in this endeavor as I was solidly in his camp before reading the book. I have viewed hypocrisy as the least of our problems for quite some time. But I think it is safe to say that even if you don’t agree with Lott’s politics or his arguments about hypocrisy, you will find the book interesting and thought provoking.

I generally hate to quibble with a book’s title or marketing material because those are usually not the author’s doing and aren’t always central to the book’s thesis. But in some cases I feel like the title and/or the cover flap might present an overly-simplified or even slightly deceptive description of the book; might have a substantive impact. In these cases I like to unpack the way the book is described or sold to get at what I think it really accomplishes.

This book is one of those cases; although not an egregious one. The title does seem to over sell the content a little bit. There is a “defense of hypocrisy” thread running throughout, but the book as a whole isn’t so much a defense as an exploration (of the word’s meaning, history, and use; of its effect on political and cultural discourse; etc.). If I had to pick out a serious sounding title for the book I would have gone with “On Hypocrisy” instead, as this captures the discursive nature of the essay better than “In Defense of.”

The book reminded me of an interesting college seminar where the professor leads a discussion by approaching an idea from a variety of perspectives. The point is not to come to a syllogistic conclusion, but to think about the issue in a deeper and more reflective way by talking it out.

Lott uses politics, popular culture, history, theology, and even psychology to think about the role hypocrisy plays in our culture. He discusses figures like William Bennett and Dick Morris and asks us to question whether these figures are so obviously deserving of the public flogging they received. He gets a psychologist’s insights into the motivations and causes of hypocrisy on a personal and societal basis. He discusses hypocrisy with a philosophy professor in order to flush out the moral landscape of the issue. He looks at the odd mixture of hypocrisy and moral grandstanding popular in Hollywood. He even explores the critical role Jesus played in raising the profile of this famous vice and the possible modern day misinterpretation of scripture.

Lott’s conversational tone and his journalistic style – lots of anecdotes and quotes from experts – may undermine his attempts at systematic thought or concise argument but they make the book very readable and entertaining. Unlike a more tightly argued philosophy primer, this book could easily be read in one extended sitting or taken along as reading for spare moments. Each chapter is broken up into smaller sections and the chapters aren’t too long so it doesn’t require long periods of concentration.

I didn’t take notes or anything, but I think Lott basically argues that hypocrisy is necessary for the following reasons:

1) Lott captures the first problem with our current hypocrisy obsession with the pithy “saint or shut up” standard (a term coined by National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru). This is the scenario I mentioned at the start of this review. The idea is that if we elevate hypocrisy to the queen of vices then public morality suffers. If the only people who can call us to virtue are those that have no visible or obvious faults, then calls for virtue will be few and far between.

This is related to the old saw that “hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue.” Just because we don’t always live up to our ideals doesn’t mean we should chuck our ideals. Lott views this as a legitimate concern but feels it is a bit narrow.

2) The second, more subtle, component is the way hypocrisy actually allows for moral progress. Lott argues that if we insist on a strict consistency between people’s views and their actions then we will retard moral progress by castigating figures who often provide a bridge between morally compromised but widely held beliefs and those that more closely follow our moral ideals.

To illustrate this Lott uses the example of Strom Thurmond. Thurmond, who was at one point a full throated defender of segregation, slowly began to try and work with the emerging political realities of the civil rights movement. Despite his racist good ol’ boy past, he played a role in moving toward integration. He insisted on a vigorous prosecution of mob violence and called for increased spending on educational opportunities for blacks.

Given his background and prior beliefs these actions could rightly be called hypocritical, but Lott notes that they accomplished many good things:

Thurmond was guilty of these things and more, but let it be noted that his hypocrisy allowed him to accomplish a genuine moral good. He was one of several hypocritical Southern segregationists politicians who helped cajole white Southerners to give up Jim Crow, to convince them to accept blacks as people worthy of some considerable respect and then, finally, as equals.

The civil rights movement played the larger role in achieving full legal equality, and protesters facing down fire hoses and attack dogs make for great and good heroes. But by slowly accepting the change and selling it to white Southerners as better than the alternative, something that “we” would just have to go along with, Thurmond and company helped a worthy cause to succeed by being dignified losers.

3) A third component of necessary hypocrisy comes under the heading of “hidden law.” Jonathan Rauch, the journalist and Brookings Institute Scholar that Lott focuses on in the relevant chapter, has described hidden law as: “[T]he norms, conventions, implicit bargains, and folk wisdoms that organize social expectations, regulate everyday behavior, and manage interpersonal conflicts.” As is clear from the term itself, hidden law is hard to define once it is unpacked and brought out into the open. But the basic concept involves a lot of hypocrisy. In a sense, hidden law helps us deal with the gray areas in life without giving up on our bright line rules. Hidden law allows us to make exceptions and shade things without devolving into anarchy or what Rauch calls “Bureaucratic Legalism;” a system that requires that each and every possible outcome be ruled on and adjudicated.

Lott uses assisted suicide as an example of the dangers of Bureaucratic Legalism and the advantages of hidden law. In the past, assisted suicide was illegal but there were de facto exceptions that we accepted but didn’t talk about. In certain situations and circumstances doctors, patients and their families made decisions that didn’t fit squarely within the letter of the law. These localized and private decisions were allowed to go on as long as they didn’t get out of control; for the most part we looked the other way.

But when advocates of assisted suicide decided to push the issue in the courts and through ballot initiatives, what had been handled by hidden law was thrust into the open for public debate. A decision had to be made and in a black and white way. The result, so far, has been that assisted suicide is legal in Oregon and illegal everywhere else. In one sense we have taken a step backward in terms of public morality, but we have also caused a great deal of suffering as the discussion of the issue has moved from the privacy of a conversation with the family doctor to the publicity and political tug-of-war that is the courts. The issue has been bureaucratized and federalized in a way that helps no one. It seems that a certain amount of tolerated hypocrisy would have been the better option.

4) The last example of a necessary hypocrisy that Lott raises might be called the hypocrisy of good intentions. In this scenario, the actions are clearly hypocritical but the motivations are commendable. Lott uses an example from popular film in which a politician known for his strong prosecution of the war on drugs finds out that his daughter has been caught with enough illegal drugs to put her behind bars for a significant period of time. The politician hires some high powered attorneys and “twists a few arms” and gets his daughter a reduced sentence.

As he was writing the book Lott often posed this scenario in discussions with friends and family in order to get a feel for people’s reactions. He reports that a great many felt the hypothetical hypocrisy outlined above was outrageous and should be denounced. Not surprisingly Lott is not so sure:

Push the political issue to the side, if you can, and focus on the people. A father was trying to keep his own out of jail and get help for her, and he was willing to put his own credibility on the line to make this happen. The action was hypocritical, sure, but it was also normal and sane and even noble.

Lott’s argument here is that our focus on the hypocrisy causes us to miss the larger point: that the father was trying to help his daughter. The undercurrent is that an obsession with hypocrisy focuses on appearances rather than motives and intentions. The point is that we want to people to act out of concern for others not just in a perfectly consistent manner. If someone is doing everything in their power to help the ones they love should we really be attacking them for hypocrisy?

As I think the above make clear, hypocrisy = bad isn’t as easy to sustain once you begin to dig into the subject beyond the hyperbole and name calling.

Whether you agree with the arguments or not, I think our obsession with hypocrisy in public life is a fascinating sociological topic and Jeremy Lott offers a thoughtful and entertaining exploration of many of the relevant issues and ideas. If you too find this subject an interesting one, check out In Defense of Hypocrisy. You may not agree with him, but I bet you will find it thought provoking.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. I’ve often thought about this, though not as exhaustively as Lott apparently has. What particularly interests me is the current elevation of the brazen malefactor to a position of (perceived) moral superiority. “Sure, I offend people,” says Howard Stern, “but you’re all thinking the same things. I’m just not a hypocrite like you.” Hence, Stern believes himself the most moral man in America.

    By that logic, of course, a serial killer who was open about his murders would be an even greater moral examplar.

  2. Maybe I’m missing the whole argument, but I’m gonna rant anyway.

    Cliché’s = truth. Glass houses, two wrongs, actions speak louder, etc….

    You can spin anything, if you’re good enough with words and have an audience (key here) that wants or needs to believe you.

    Actions do speak louder, which is why anyone who wants to lecture should be held to example.

    Maybe a lot of people want to talk about “hypocrisy” — very few want to talk about “sin nature”, which is really where it all starts.

    Is it hypocrisy to hold your Pastor or your President (or your favorite talking head) to higher standards? If you don’t apply those standards to your own life, definitely. Is it hypocrisy on their part to dare to occupy positions where they expound or direct or lead in word but possibly not in practice? You betcha.

    Is “tolerated hypocrisy” just the same as endorsing the back room, good ol’ boy, business as usual, need to know practices that mark practically every single end justifying use of “necessary evil” and human rights violation in the history of man?

    Seems to me that it’s a vote for “white lies”.

    Do I care whether Rush is tumescent instead or “right’? Not really. But do I care to know that Enron execs were the largest group of contributors to our President over his political life, or that the guy who owns Clear Channel (where a lot of the sheep get their talking head fix) and runs a successful deregulation PAC (to which all his employees must donate), gives huge amounts of money to elected officials who effectively decide how many sources of news you get? Again, you betcha.

    When a man who preaches morals on a radio show to the rest of the nation loses hundreds of thousands of dollars gambling, should that not be public? Are you kidding?

    If pedophile priests are put on trial by a blowhard news reader who turns out to be an office predator, shouldn’t you know about both?

    Is hypocrisy a problem? Should you care? Is there a right way and a wrong way and not just expediency? Of course there is. But it’s too hard.

  3. The problem, as I see it, is that we’ve got ourselves into a situation where no one is allowed to promote high ethics, because (axiomatically) no one is able to live perfectly by those noble rules. So imperfect people with high principles are effectively silenced.

    Meanwhile open perverts with low standards are admired and allowed to lecture everyone. Lott rightly addresses the problem of this uneven playing field.

  4. Jack,

    Feel free to rant as the mood strikes.

    As to the issue of hypocrisy. Lott’s argument isn’t that people shouldn’t be held to a higher standard or that their failures should be made public. As Lars has tried to articulate, the issue is whether hypocrisy is the worst possible sin in public life.

    The issue is one of priorities and focus rather than on wrong or right. If you think Bill Bennett’s gambling was wrong that is fine. But his accusers really don’t think gambling was wrong, they wanted to get Bennett and so used the accusation of hypocrisy to try and bring him down. Lott tries to show that what Bennett did wasn’t really hypocritical and that quite a few of his critics were hypocritical in the way they abandoned their principles on privacy in order to publicly flog one of their enemies.

    In the end, Lott argues that our obsession with hypocrisy hinders our moral progress; that it is a comforting but largely empty accusation in its current usage. This in no way means he is in favor of letting leaders and public figures escape legitimate public judgement. He just prefers it be more thoughtful

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