Hypocrisy: Ethical Investigations

by BTla Szabados and Eldon Soifer
352 pages,
ISBN: 1551115573

Post Your Opinion
Defining Hypocrisy
by Michael P. Nelson

A few years ago students in my advanced environmental ethics seminar, which centred on the topic of the relationship between environmental philosophy and environmental activism, venomously and frighteningly turned on one another. When a pair of students made a presentation focused on putting one's environmental ethics into practice, the class pounced on them in classic cat-on-mouse fashion. While nearly all of the students in the class were "environmentalists", the class began to quiz the presenters about their own environmental behaviour. Even though the presenters were vegetarians, members of on- and off-campus environmental groups, were pursuing careers in conservation, and biked to campus, they confessed to owning-and occasionally driving-cars. That was it. The jig was up, and the class quickly pronounced them "hypocrites" and dismissed them altogether. When green turned on green I had had enough. I decided that this notion of hypocrisy deserved a closer look. What is hypocrisy? What do we label as hypocrisy? Does our labelling match the real thing? How do (and how should) we test for hypocrisy? These were the questions that drove my work. While I found this topic amazingly interesting, fruitful and important, I immediately discovered that there was an unexpected and somewhat disturbing paucity of serious academic work done on the topic by ethicists or philosophers generally. The charge of hypocrisy was so widespread, assumed to be so incredibly powerful and condemning, yet hardly anyone had written anything about it.
That was before BTla Szabados and Eldon Soifer published their book, Hypocrisy: Ethical Investigations with Broadview Press. Broadview has a reputation of putting out timely and engaging books on a number of ethical and philosophical topics, and this book is no exception. At the risk of sounding trite, this is a very good book on a very crucial topic. The charge of hypocrisy has at least three aspects: it is exceptionally prevalent; it is assumed to be powerful enough not only to stop someone in their tracks but to deliver an air of suspicion concerning the moral fibre of the person so charged; it is almost unanalyzed in philosophical literature (note that the book's bibliography is scarcely one page long!). It certainly deserves the attention the authors give it.
The book itself is divided into five parts spanning seventeen nicely digestible chapters. Part I, "Origins, Method, and Cases", contains three chapters. The opening chapter is an engaging sketch of the historical origins and development of the charge of hypocrisy. The next two chapters offer detailed commentary on the methodology employed by the authors. Driven by examples and case studies, it is a methodology persuasively argued for, and one which promises to make the volume accessible to a large audience.
Part II, "Moral Theory", offers a look at the concept of hypocrisy through the eyes of four different, yet dominant, ethical theories: virtue ethics, consequentialism or utilitarianism, Kantian rights theory, and egoism. Each of these chapters is a stand-alone essay that explores the topic in a philosophically nuanced, rich and informed manner.
Part III, "Privacy, Tolerance, and Social Justice", examines the role of the charge of hypocrisy in politics, with regard to the notion of privacy, within the discussion of tolerance, and via the idea of a double standard. This section aptly and meaningfully explores some of the most crucial ethical notions of hypocrisy in contemporary society.
Part IV, "Deception: Aspects and Roles", gets into the nuts and bolts of the matter: the authors identify some of the necessary conditions for hypocrisy; they list human qualities that are often taken for hypocritical conduct (such as being weak-willed or choosing to act on one moral commitment as opposed to another); and they pinpoint the interesting and crucial relationship between hypocrisy and acts of deception. This part of the book, perhaps more than any other, really begins to part the curtains that sometimes screen hypocrisy, confusing our understanding of what constitutes hypocritical behaviour.
Part V, "Irony, Hypocrisy, and Socrates", engages in delightful discussions of distinctions and similarities between irony and hypocrisy. The last two brief chapters come full philosophic circle back to Socrates and use the progress made in the book to reflect on the role of hypocrisy in the work of our ancient Greek forefather.
The book ends with "Concluding Reflections", which invite the reader to take seriously the theoretical pursuit of this notion of hypocrisy, while avoiding a grand conclusion or summary of one overarching argument. Some readers might not like this, and some philosophers might think this is a reflection of weakness. I do not see it that way. Szabados and Soifer make tremendous progress in their book by engaging in a great deal of persuasive and clear argumentation. The reader (at least this one) finishes the book with the sense of having grappled with difficult but important ideas and issues. This is philosophy at its best.
Although over the past eighty years or so, philosophy as a discipline has done little to serve itself or make itself relevant and accessible, this book-and some others written recently by moral theorists-is markedly different. It is a serious piece of philosophical work, but it is written in such a way that an interested and thoughtful reader without any background in philosophy can learn a lot about the topic of hypocrisy in particlar, and a lot about what philosophy is in general. This book is also a first-rate demonstration of good minds working together collaboratively, a process philosophers almost never engage in.
The book took the authors a decade to write and it shows. It's full of wonderful little twists and turns that represent the time required to think about and research various dimensions of the topic at hand. Leaving few stones unturned takes a great deal of time and effort. Nowadays, because of their many other commitments, academics seldom have time to make that kind of effort. This book harkens back to an earlier day in the academy; then a scholar would be afforded the time and space to thoroughly and exhaustively explore a topic over the course of a large part of their careers and produce a couple of really solid contributions; then such dedicated work was seen as a most respectable and worthy occupation. Nothing appears to be "cranked-out" in this project because it is comprised of twenty philosopher-years of effort.
Though this book would make a great textbook for an advanced undergraduate or graduate course in moral theory or meta-ethics, I wish to end my review with a plea to every reader. Topics in ethics, ethical theory, and meta-ethics, are too important to ignore. Hypocrisy is not an arcane subject. Without serious reflection on what hypocrisy is, and what it isn't, we run a tremendous risk as individuals and, collectively, as a society. The label of "hypocrite" is nearly as condemning as that of racist or sexist or homophobe. By making such charges mistakenly, we can ruin the lives and reputations of decent people. Likewise, we can be readily fooled into allowing the real hypocrites to skate free. What is at stake here is our ability to accurately assess moral character. None of us can afford sloppy thinking when it comes to this.
As one of my colleagues sometimes says, with both lament and hope in his voice, "Philosophy has to matter!" This book proves it can.

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