Everyone hates a hypocrite. And apparently they are everywhere.

In the last week alone British Labour leader Keir Starmer has been accused of hypocrisy for having a beer and curry with colleagues in violation of lockdown rules; feminist social commentator and writer (and election candidate) Jane Caro has been labelled a hypocrite for advocating action on climate change, but also flying a lot; teal independents have been called hypocrites for their sources of funding after criticising Australia’s donation rules; the president of the Solomon Islands has accused Australia of hypocrisy for criticising their security pact with China while pursuing its own AUKUS agreement… 

Hypocrisy is a sin regularly and loudly identified in politics and the media. And not without cause. However, this discourse regularly goes too far, to no good end.

We should be less critical of hypocrisy. Our obsession with hypocrisy prevents us from engaging in reasoned debate, it robs us of the tools to identify and express what others are doing wrong, and it risks leading us and others to becoming worse people.

What is the problem with hypocrites?

Though the term ‘hypocrite’ is often used as a catch-all term of moral condemnation, vaguely pointing to people whose actions appear to be inconsistent with their words, it is worth distinguishing between different types of hypocrites.  

First there are insincere hypocrites – people who lie to gain advantage. Their actions, however, reveal that they genuinely do not hold the convictions they espouse. They are intentionally mis-leading and using others. Which is particularly egregious when they hold significant power over others as is in the case of politicians. But note that, here, the lying and manipulation are typically far more serious offences than the inconsistency and hypocrisy.  

There are also exceptionalist hypocrites – those who make or police rules which they have no qualms about violating themselves. At the heart of it, this feels really unfair. However, it is not a universal wrong. Think of parents who make rules for their children that they do not follow – “you are not allowed to drink”, they say, while nursing a glass of wine; “it is always wrong to lie”, they say, while putting out mince pies for Father Christmas. 

Such exceptionalist hypocrisy can sometimes reveal a greater wrong, or potential for wrong. For example, Boris Johnson made laws that kept large parts of his country in lockdown, but was breaking social distancing rules and attending parties. His actions demonstrated a lack of respect for others and, importantly, for those people whose interests he is meant to represent. The hypocrite hater could also point out that Johnson’s actions likely contributed to less adherence to the rules as people looked at his actions and felt “if he gets to do that, why shouldn’t I?”. However, modelling bad behaviour can encourage bad behaviour in others whether or not it is exhibited by a hypocrite. In this respect, the hypocrisy does not worsen the situation.  

And then there is the weak-willed or inadvertent hypocrite. This person fails to live up to their espoused rules or ethical principles, not due to malice or deep insincerity, or because they think the rules don’t apply to them, but because it can be hard to be really good all the time. Think of the Christian who believes in the sanctity of marriage but finds themself desperate to leave a loveless marriage. The animal rights advocate who cares passionately about protecting native wildlife, but can’t bring themself to give up their beloved cat that steadfastly resists being kept indoors.  

Inadvertent hypocrites may do better to reflect on their own experiences of struggle before harshly criticising others for not living up to their principles. But if they are unempathetic or overly aggressive in their attacks on others who violate their ethical rules, isn’t that the greater crime than not fully living up to those rules themselves? Wouldn’t that be problematic whether or not they lived according to those rules? And is it unempathetic of us to demonise the inadvertent hypocrite for an understandable weakness of will? 

We shouldn’t just dismiss hypocrites

As soon as someone is called a hypocrite we feel licence to ignore them. But just because someone is bad, that doesn’t mean what they are saying is incorrect. Rather than shutting hypocrites down it is rational to ask if their hypocrisy is relevant to their argument. 

Consider the smoker suffering from lung cancer who tells young people not to smoke because it can ruin their lives. Is their testimony any less reliable because they did not listen to their own advice? Or an environmental activist who flies to climate action conferences. Does this mean that they are any less right when they say we need to take action on climate change?

Our focus on hypocrisy can distract attention from the real issues or moral problems with a person (or institution) or their actions, such as: Are they lying to or manipulating people? Are they showing that they don’t respect the people they are meant to represent? Are they being aggressive or unsympathetic to others? Are they espousing something false or acting in a way that is morally wrong – whether or not their actions and words match up?  

This should not dissuade people from rationally engaging in discussions with others about whether their moral principles are consistent. Highlighting ethical inconsistencies is the bread and butter of contemporary moral philosophy. If holding one principle should entail another but your friend holds the first while rejecting the second, talking through this can shed light on their values: help them realise the connection between the two. But throwing around the term ‘hypocrisy’ when you do it can turn a potentially neutral observation that they should reflect more on whether their ethical principles are consistent (shouldn’t we all?) to simply telling them that they are bad. 

Being inconsistent is better than being consistently bad

A hypocrite says one thing and does another: so at least they are getting something right. Would we prefer someone who is all bad? 

An obsession with hypocrisy can lead us to expect moral perfection in everyone. But inconsistency is part of moral life. There is nothing wrong with having high moral standards while recognising that we won’t always meet them.

Our desire for consistency can lead to unachievably high expectations that, when unmet, lead us to rejecting an entire principle or endeavour rather than living with our moral imperfections and trying to gradually improve our actions next time. Like the dieter who fasts for a week and then immediately gives up because of one slip with a slice of cake, or the long-time vegetarians or vegans who returned to eating meat after an extended stint in a country where vegetarian options were extremely limited. It is not surprising that they broke with their vegetarian principles while in those countries. It may well have been inconsistent with the view that all else being equal it is wrong to eat meat, but that makes it no less understandable an action to take. Rather, it is surprising that they continued to eat meat once they returned to a country where vegetarians were once again well catered for. Their actions changed first and their values followed. They ended up being more consistent perhaps, but (at least for those who believe that it is wrong to eat meat) things went the wrong way. 

We are all hypocrites sometimes. The desperate desire to avoid hypocrisy can lead us to strive to be all good and, when that fails, to be all bad, rather than trying to be ‘good enough’ – being guided by moral principles we will likely never fully live up to. 

My recommendation is to take it easy on hypocrisy. If you are in a debate, attack arguments not people. Where people are bad the wrongness of their actions or words should speak for themselves, and you should focus on pointing out the actual problem with them, rather than using a catch-all term. When it comes to yourself it may also help to start by aiming for the good, not the perfect. Improving incrementally is still improvement, even if it sometimes means you will be inconstant.  

And if all of that doesn’t convince you, then you better hope that you have never exhibited inconsistency in your own principles and your actions. Because if you have, judging others for being hypocritical would be, well, very hypocritical of you.