PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Sunday, March 05, 2006



Intentions and beliefs are at the heart of hypocrisy. With hypocrisy, someone professes to have certain beliefs, but still acts contrary to what we would expect from them. They give us one impression, but when it matters they do something that is not normally expected. In fact, they do more than just let the side down, they actually intend to deceive us.

What is the difference between hypocrisy, lying, dishonesty and cheating? These actions certainly have one thing in common: the intention to act in a way that will disadvantage others. But if we take lying, this might be due to circumstances and we do not assume that someone who lies is going to lie all the time. It is reasonable to assume that sometimes even the most of habitual liars can tell the truth. Dishonesty and cheating are usually aimed at gaining some material advantage over others; usually something which the other person has. Of course, in real life all these terms overlap, with, maybe the difference being in seriousness and not the nature of the offence.

However, hypocrisy tends to be slightly different. What is unacceptable about hypocrisy is not so much that someone wants to take something away from us, but that they want to change our beliefs; especially our beliefs about them or their cause. In a way, there is nothing more personal than our beliefs. Hypocrisy attacks the very nature of what it is to be a person, an individual and a human being.

Of course, our property, our money and our chattels are also personal and we are very much attached to them. But we are attached to our chattels as long as they serve a purpose. However, we are always prepared to exchange our chattels for other things and not necessarily for a monitory value. For example, many people have given up their property for freedom or good health. We can also protect our chattels by building defences, safes or taking out an insurance.

Changing our beliefs, and if you wish, robbing us of our beliefs, goes to the heart of what makes us a person. Furthermore, beliefs are one of the most fundamental components of consciousness. For example, when we're asleep, it can be said that we're still alive, and even possess the same beliefs as the time before we went to sleep, but when we're asleep we are not actively involved with our beliefs. Sure, the brain might be working away in the background improving things, but it is not the same as consciously interacting with our beliefs. It is as if we wanted to buy a kilo of cheese, but the shops were closed. Sure the cheese is in the shops, but it's as good as naught (pronounced: nawt).

Our beliefs are also the power-house of what we do as individual human beings. And although our physical bodies function more or less the same, our mental capacity to originate and nurture our beliefs is not universal. My way of thinking and my beliefs are unique to me. This does not mean that we might not agree on the same thing or believe the same thing, but that I choose what to believe.

The curious thing, of course, is that we have the same brain structure, but at the same time its effects are completely different and unique to us individually. We cannot say the same about our lungs, for example. Our lungs have the same effect in all of us, and if someone’s lungs do not cause the determined effects they probably have a serious problem. Not the same with our beliefs; my beliefs about the beauty of a painting are not incompatible with your beliefs if they are different from mine. Nevertheless, we both have the same brain structure.

Beliefs are closely linked with motivation and why we do certain things. For example, believing that my friend’s party is going to be fun is a good motivation to go to the party. Usually, we believe that when we act we have a reason to do so. And although such reasons need not be rational or wise, they are nevertheless reasons. Beliefs, in other words, give us motivation to do things.

Although it is true that beliefs are always present when we act as persons, it is a different matter whether those beliefs are justified, objectively valid or the best of all possible world. This is important for us, because intention is important for hypocrisy. Having the wrong information or having false beliefs could lead to serious misunderstandings, misrepresentations or even behaviour that at face value looks like hypocrisy, but maybe it’s not. False beliefs can easily lead to the wrong actions and we also ascribe actions as intentional unless we can point out to some uncontrolled cause. Of course, there is always some moral duty to check and verify our information, but it is equally a moral question where we should place the cut off point. What is reasonable and what is moral when it comes to validating our beliefs and information? How far should we go to verify our beliefs or information?

The first thing to consider is how practical it is to confirm our information and beliefs? For example, if I believe that freedom of speech is the best political belief we can pursue, what duty do I have to confirm the veracity of this belief? In my case, armed with a good ADSL internet connection, access to most sites on the internet, a network of close friends who are very clever in these matters and connected with enough TV and radio channels to keep me up to date with world events, I would say that my moral duty to check my belief is quite high. But what about some unfortunate person in sub Sahara Africa who probably never saw a clean glass for water, never mind an ADSL connection. Under these situations what are their responsibilities if they believe that Western ideology is oppressive?

But then again, even with all the information available to us, there is always the little matter of actually understanding it. For example, it is one thing to have access to the latest news and another to understand it in the context of what the real agenda of a government is. But this is a complex example, how about understand the cultural conventions of a peoples we have little or no contact with. When we see people demonstrating in the streets of their capital city, how can we understand this in the context of their lives if we don’t know what their lives are like. Even still, our duty to check out beliefs is nevertheless hampered with the practicality of having access to the information and the intellectual challenge of understanding it in the first place.

Although hypocrisy attacks our beliefs, beliefs themselves are not exactly above concern. In other words, we might think that someone might be a hypocrite, but there is always the possibility we might be wrong or the other party might equally be an innocent victim of reality.

When we discover that someone is a hypocrite we also discover that they intended to deceive us. That hurts and is damn annoying! Probably because we immediately recognise in the intention the act of a person and not some automaton. But if we discover that we were victims of a hypocrite, we might consider ourselves luck. We know about it and can do something about it. However, the damage is done when we don’t know that someone is a hypocrite.

Another important factor to take into consideration is time. Hypocrisy usually takes place over a period of time. Hypocrisy is not a case of something happening at the spur of the moment, it is contemplated and is part of a scheme or plan. However, time can work both ways. It can help the hypocrite weave a better plot and of course time can help the victim discover the true worth of the hypocrite. Moreover, from experience we know that the longer the deception the bigger the disappointment.

The time factor is very relevant to the moral aspect of hypocrisy because it gives more credence to the idea that hypocrisy is intentional and not an accident. The principle could easily be that the more we do something the more it seems that we want to do it. Hence, someone who is a hypocrite over a long period of time really wants to deceive us in a very serious way.

Other factors to take into account are of course cultural and personal considerations. Some culture based practices conflict with those from other cultures. Marital practices in different countries are a good example of culture based hypocrisy. In some cultures divorce is basically the right of the male partner only, however the same cultures also believe that they are a morally upright peoples.

At an individual level we might look at the death penalty. The views of some people on this matter does seem to be a prima facie case of hypocrisy. Some individuals in Christian communities are also ardent supporters of the death penalty. At the very least, there seems to be a direct challenge to the principle of Christian forgiveness. Forgiveness, does not mean, in this context, release from prison, but not to perform judicial execution.

However, some serious issues that arise from hypocrisy arise from holding beliefs in good faith. One of the most challenging cases is the conscientious objector. A conscientious objector honestly believes that fighting is morally unacceptable. However, the same person also realises that the enemy is literally at the borders with its full military might. The issue that concerns us is that the conscientious objector still wants to enjoy the freedom that accrues from fighting. Is a conscientious objector a hypocrite, a naïve person or a principled moral person?

An other of today’s topical issues on the internet is the acquiescence by some internet related companies to censorship by the Chinese government. By Western standards, this sort of censorship is not only unacceptable but a direct challenge to constitutions. Should these companies continue operating under these conditions? If we had to look at this from the typical Chinese user some might argue that they are well experienced in dealing with censorship and on balance it is better to have a censored service than no service at all.

These top tier examples of hypocrisy show that it is not enough to look at the face value of a situation. Looking at the background and context of hypocrisy might well present us with situations that we did not expect. And given that even we are subject to beliefs and intentions it might also be worth our while to look at things closer to home.

Take care


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