Hypocrisy: The Psychological Equivalent of Cancer

From time to time I am asked to address or write about hypocrisy. Recently a DrHurd.com reader asked if hypocrisy is the chasm between our professed ideals and our actions. He went on to suggest that a person without hypocrisy is just a person without standards. So are most politicians hypocrites, or do they simply have no standards?

An interesting question. Hypocrisy results from intellectual dishonesty. Like most forms of dishonesty, the deceitful person is lying first to himself, and, as a consequence, to others.

There are different reasons for dishonesty. A financial crook lies in order to gain money or property for nothing. A phony, fawning type lies in order to avoid conflict or make you think that they like you, when they really don’t.

A hypocrite is someone who claims to uphold a particular idea or principle, while failing to embody or animate that principle in practice.

You generally find hypocrisy associated with two main fields: religion and politics. Other than lots of hypocrites, what do these two arenas have in common? The field of ideas – specifically, the field of ethics. Religious ideologies and practices vary widely. However, they all espouse, in some form or another, an idea of (allegedly) ethical behavior. Ethics refers to the way a man ought to live his life according a particular philosophical view. And according to the ethical view, it’s the standard to which we should all subscribe.

For example, religion states that service to others is the epitome of ethical behavior. They point to Jesus Christ, who gave up his life for others, or Mother Teresa, who gave up all material comforts for the sake of waiting on the poor of Calcutta.

Within religions, you will find people who, in varying degrees, attempt to practice what they consider the ideal. You’ll find other people who don’t attempt to practice it at all, but will happily deceive others into thinking that they do. Those are the hypocrites.

Politics is different from religion in important ways, but it does actually adhere – or at least it claims to adhere – to some form of ethics. Consider the actions of any politician in office, and it will always be justified (usually quite loudly) in the name of some ethical code.

The religious totalitarians who run nations like Iran justify their brutality and violent policies on “the will of Allah” and the commands of the Koran. Equally brutal dictators in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia (and all their counterparts, including today) justified their actions on the ethical standard of the proletariat or the racially superior German Volk.

It’s the same in countries that aren’t dictatorships but are not fully free, either. Europe, Canada and the United States serve as examples. Laws implementing welfare, social insurance, socialized medicine and everything else that burdens some in favor of others are all deemed virtuous and necessary by the standard that “Service and sacrifice to others is the most important standard of ethics.”

Even free nations such as the United States at its outset, are based, at least implicitly, on a standard of morality. In that case the moral standard was individualism, specified politically as the individual right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Fading remnants of the individualist approach to morality remain in the United States, although legislation and moralistic controls, intensified in the Obama years, are steadily washing those away.

My central point here is to prove that all systems of government and politics are based on some standard of ethics, regardless of what you think of that standard.

Politicians really have no choice. Political systems arise inevitably from what the dominant views and attitudes about ethics are in a given culture. In philosophy, politics is a derivative branch of the more fundamental area of philosophy known as ethics.

The problem in the United States is the people, more than the politicians themselves. The United States is a democracy. It has moved from a democratic republic grounded in the protection of individual rights to more of a democratic state, in which majority rule (increasingly on the side of socialism) decides most matters. From the perspective of individual rights, that’s a very unfortunate development. However, the majority view now carries more weight than any other factor in the determination of political policy. For the most part, politicians are simply doing what their constituents tell them to do. The largely rotten, morally slimy kind of people attracted to politics (or who become that way after spending years in conventional politics) are a reflection of the hypocrisy, contradictions or evasions within the majority of people who elect them and keep them there.

Are the politicians hypocrites? Clearly most of them are. But that’s only because most of the people are. Most of the people who elect these hypocrites hold two contradictory positions. First, as stated before, “the purpose of life is to serve others.” Second, “I want my demands met by my representative in office or the White House.” They use their hollow adherence to the first to get what they want in the second. “Gimme, gimme, gimme…because service to others is the standard.” In a cultural climate where such an attitude has become dominant, what other politicians, aside from the slimy ones, can we expect to see elected to office?

Now clearly, if the central purpose of life is selfless sacrifice and service to others, as nearly all politicians claim and the great majority of mindless voters continue to applaud, you have no business demanding things like welfare, subsidies, and economic benefits paid for by others – that’s as far from “service” to them as you can get. Yet this is precisely what goes on in Washington DC every single day. It has reached epic and almost inconceivably bankrupt levels – but the principle has been in place for many decades now. In the last few years, it has simply gone wild, without restraint, as inevitably it had to, sooner or later.

Of course our elected officials are hypocrites. How could they not be? The majority of people who continue to vote for them attend churches and public schools which (in some form) usually teach them: that self-interest is evil and responsibility to the community is paramount. You must always strive for something higher than yourself. Fundamentalist Baptists in the woods of Louisiana, or Ivy League- educated Obama leftists in L.A. or Manhattan—they all agree, or at least claim to agree, on this basic point of ethics.

Yet, in complete and brazen contradiction, they send representatives to office in order to ensure that “my rights” – which mean their claim to the wealth or earnings of others, in the form of various government wealth transfers – are upheld. If you doubt this, then watch what would happen if serious cuts in the trillions of dollars were proposed for the federal government programs currently in place. And note the fact that nobody even claiming to want those cuts will get anywhere near public office, because the voters simply will never allow it. The Tea Party expressed elements of this willingness, and look how they were vilified.

By the standard and ideal of selflessness, people should be electing representatives to distribute whatever money or wealth they have to others – mostly outside of the comparatively wealthy United States. Yet that’s the precise opposite of what happens.

The amazing and glaring irony – and yes, hypocrisy – is that people send their representatives to government in order to rationalize the redistribution of wealth and property for their own sake, all in the name of “selflessness and service”! For the best and most complete example to date, simply look at all the words and deeds of the Obama Administration. The people who want the loot – subsidies, welfare, free cellphones, you name it — willingly returned him to power. And they are the same people who applaud him (or like to see themselves applauding him) when he says, “The purpose of life is to be your brother’s keeper, to sacrifice yourself for others.” Again: If selflessness is the ideal and the reason Obama is in office, then why do so many people get the loot he so gleefully redistributes on their behalf?

Hypocrisy seems too kind and timid a word for what goes on. It’s not so much a chasm between ideology and action as it is an attempt to perpetrate something unjustified or dishonest: First by fooling oneself, and then others in the process.

Hypocrisy not only happens in government and politics, but also in ordinary everyday life. Many people can think of examples from their parents or alleged authorities who can best be filed under, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

The most innocent roots of hypocrisy begin as a well-meaning attempt to live up to a standard that is neither possible nor necessary. This is the case with some people who fall for the line that man’s purpose is to serve and sacrifice for others; not to live for himself. The people who develop or promote these ideologies as a matter of principle are neither innocent nor well-meaning, although some of their less enlightened victims might be, at least at first.

When confronted with a clash between (1) an untenable or unsustainable principle and (2) the facts of reality, a person reaches a turning point. He either concludes, “This idea is a bunch of nonsense. Delete it!” Or, he tries to engage in the pretense of adhering to an idea he has already concluded cannot work. That’s the beginning of hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is usually fostered by an irrational and unjustified need to look “right” in the eyes of others. Instead of thinking for yourself and discarding any idea that doesn’t make sense, a hypocrite feels, “What will others think of me if I reject this idea that everyone seems to think is right?” A monumental example of this in politics is the failure of the Supreme Court to do the right thing and end Obamacare. The tiebreaking voter on the panel even admitted it.

And so the game begins. In the absence of a morality and the psychology of individualism, people are more subject to the tyranny of hypocrisy, including the election of hypocrites that they they allow to rule them.

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