Hypocrisy and progress in human relations


The word hypocrisy originates from Greek compounds hypokrites, hypokrisis, which relate to an actor playing a part on the stage1(actor, pretender, dissembler) . The word we’ve received is a metaphor intermingled with a religious-moralistic hue.

The Hippocratic oath also emerges form these roots. Presumably Hippocrates’ had an ancestral connection with drama.



Even Jesus, patron saint of turning-the-other-cheek, had nothing nice to say about the Pharisees. For their entrenched cultural or racial predilection toward hypocrisy he tarred the whole group with invective. In contemporary times this would be considered scandalous. But there are no records of cries of “not all Pharisees!”.

Thus hypocrisy is considered one of the worst of human failings.

Below is a short thesis, written as a counterpoint to the view of hypocrisy, which Jesus, Mohammed, and so many more of us seem to hold (if less rigidly): the view that hypocrisy prevents moral progress in human affairs. Hypocrisy enables vice at the expense of virtue.

In its purest form this attitude is based on the lofty ideal, that acting virtuously in all our activities, even in private doing what was right, would make the world a better place.

But what about the possibility that hypocrisy serves a positive function for civilisation?


Hypocrisy and normativity in culture

This thesis reslies on an assumption that concepts exert a form of ‘normative’ power which directs the actions of individuals/cultures. The claim is that hypocrisy, by separating the “virtue” of the individual or culture from their “vice”, allows virtue to maintain greater power.

In philosophy ‘normative’ is commonly used to refer to ethical statements which imply a demand “you shouldn’t do that! (it’s wrong)”, whereas in sociology, the normative can refer to the actual process whereby individuals or cultures adhere to rules – rules which may be explicitly stated (as in the law), or which are followed from some deeper source as if ‘by nature’: for example, the way in which birds swerve to the right when they are at risk of colliding.

The concept of gender with civilisation is a topical example from which to begin.


All Societies have been structured around the dichotomous category male/female. Labour was divided according to them, and cultural institutions, traditions and ceremonies built up around them. But the distinction is not merely ‘arbitrary’, humanity has unfolded through history in accordance with this conceptualisation.

The division of reality by dichotomous concepts is convenient to human cognition and thus very common (right/wrong, hot/cold etc.). Already, in this sense, the dichotomy exerts a power over civilisation: dichotomies, and not some more complicated conception, appear to have systematically been preferred as a method of distinguishing among phenomena. They are supple enough to capture differences, without being clogged up by endless specificity.

Once these categories are formed, and the world is understood through them, however, another layer is added to reality: they become a part of that reality.

The ‘essential principle’ of Male or Female is: difference from one another. This is easily (and logically) extrapolated further so that it reifies that difference. By determination of the concept, and the power of rationality, either this or that is extended through all areas of life.

This exertion of normative power depends on the ability of the concept to meet certain requirements. It must appear legitimate, real and realisable.

Two points: 1) the concept should have ‘clarity’; and 2) there should be a close correspondence between the concept and perceptions of reality.

There is a clarity and flexibility to concepts, like the gender binary, in the same way there is clarity for the scientist in a ‘perfect circle’: it makes sense of the world and is functional. This conceptual understanding of men and woman as distinct (M vs F) rather than ‘kinda distinct’ (as may be the case today as gender ascriptions have proliferated), along with the observation that many men and women actually do utterly different work, means that the social norm that they ought to do different work is easier to maintain, it seems a law of nature.

In the present times, criticism of the binary (m/f) formulation of gender is so very common. And while this is sustained by an ideological agenda, it is also evident in practice –  empirical research suggests that gender practices are less differentiated: men identify less with masculinity.  Society itself is also more economically differentiated, with less strict roles (and a diminishing supply of ‘masculine’ work, in manufacture for example)1This may be the result of a tension between the dichotomous concept (female/male), and strengthened and competing concept (the universality of man). Not man/woman: human individual. This is another instance of a concept, in this case a universal, which also has a certain normative power. In short,  the concept of gender as a clear dichotomy corresponds less with reality.

So to return to hypocrisy (and morality), the case is similar. Virtue and vice have, in their conceptually pure form, been conceived of as dichotomous. A non-mixable substance like oil and water. Though not many believe the world is ‘so simple as this’, the distinction, through culture, still exerts a power.

Unlike gender, however, virtue/vice are not both considered necessary in ‘good society’. One is a good to be coveted, the other an evil to be abhorred. Hence, there may be a special niche for hypocrisy to fulfill.

Society is awash with both ‘virtue’ and ‘vice, civilisation being built upon blood, as Nietzsche (I was told) is supposed to have written somewhere. One stark example of this is in the use of torture exists alongside its fierce rejection.

Hypocrisy in torture

I have a friend who is strongly opposed to torture, but has nonetheless spoken of a preference for British government’s rhetoric ‘We don’t torture. Torture is wrong’ over the USA’s  ‘we don’t torture! We do ‘advanced interrogation techniques’ (i.e. the justification used for ‘water-boarding’). The rhetoric of both nations serve a similar goal (to practice torture, but deny doing so?) but the USA may be less successful because ‘advanced interrogation technique’ is explicitly recognised as a euphemism for ‘acceptable torture’.

To admit that something is necessary or acceptable, though still bad, is, in a sense, to endorse it. As soon as any ‘wrong’ is perceived as necessary, the power of ‘the moral law’ is undermined. But to deny that something is necessary (while doing the very thing that is denied) – i.e. to be hypocritical – is at least to maintain that ‘the moral law’ can be achieved. In fact, is being achieved.

There is only a difference of relative quality between “a little” and “a lot” of torture; whereas the difference between 0 (none) and .001 (a ‘tiny’ amount) is infinite. By maintaining an absolute distinction torture retains the connotation of a depraved brutality it so rightly deserves, fulfilling a condition of conceptual clarity – (1) torture is absolutely unvirtuous. Likewise, by denying the existence of torture, the concept of non-torture retains its realisability – (2) it is possible (to maintain a secure state without torture).

From this perspective, it is not just that ‘hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue’, it is that hypocrisy may be one of the means by which civilisations are able to maintain virtue as their guiding light, and actually proceed closer to the ideals projected by these virtues (always uttering ‘but we don’t do that, no’).

As Tolstoy has written “If Christianity had been presented to men in its true, uncorrupted form, it would not have been accepted by the majority”  i.e. if Christianity had been presented as pacifistic and anti-state it would not have been adopted by the Roman emperor Constantine.1The problem for Tolstoy, then, is how can Christianity be uncorrupted. How can it be returned to its ‘true’ (pacifist) form. But he runs aground on hypocrisy, for Tolstoy is one of the anti-hypocrisy idealists: “Except for hypocrisy men could not have failed, if not to put the law [i.e. Christian morals] in practice, at least to recognise it, and admit that it is wrong not to put it in practice”

In a similar sense, perhaps hypocrisy enables virtue.


2 thoughts on “Hypocrisy and progress in human relations

  1. Very interesting and subtle line of thinking. I thought this second last paragraph was very clear and precise as your overall conclusion:
    ‘From this perspective, it is not just that ‘hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue’, it is that hypocrisy may be one of the means by which civilisations are able to maintain virtue as their guiding light, and actually proceed closer to the ideals projected by these virtues (always uttering ‘but we don’t do that, no’).’
    So going back to the distinction of normativity between fields of Philosophy and Sociology… does your contention on hypocrisy relate more to the Sociological understanding of normativity rather than the philosophical?

    Cheers and thanks for thoughts. Julian

    • Yes, I am referring to normativity as a social phenomenon. It is a norm because it happens as if according to a rule and not necessarily because someone says it /should/ happen (as is the case with the common usage of normative in ethics).

      Still, a philosopher may well ask “what is this normativity?”, “how does it work?”.

      Thanks for the comment.

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