Hypocrisy And The Unequal Weighing Of Political Preferences

‘We’ are shocked time and again by the hypocrisy and political incoherence on display: Trump voters help elect a man who seems to act against their economic interests; they prop up a serial sexual harasser and abuser even as they claim to be fine, upstanding, family types dedicated to stamping out immoral behavior of all stripes; Republicans speak up for Roy Moore, a man accused of the sexual abuse of a minor, even as they claim to be the defender of religious family values; every new evidence of political scandal and misbehavior on the part of this administration is met with a shrug of the shoulders from the Republican faithful; and so on. (I have listed merely a selection of those examples that occur to me as an occupant of ‘this’ side of the political spectrum; the ‘other side’ will be able to supply some of its own.)

Such seeming incoherence is anything but; accusations that those who hold such views are hypocrites or inconsistent rest on a widely mistaken view about how political subjects rank their political preferences and value their political goods: it is assumed that citizens assign a ‘flat’ ranking to their political preferences, that they assign the same value to all perceived political goods, so that  a failure to provide one political good is as damaging as a failure to deliver another political good. A moment’s reflection will show that this is not the case. None of us rank our desired political goods as equally valuable–this is precisely why our political parties of choice send us survey questionnaires in election season, asking  us to rank our political priorities so that they may better focus their limited resources on pursuing those agendas of most interest to their constituents.

Viewed in this light, the seeming ‘incoherence’ or ‘hypocrisy’ of our political opponents becomes more understandable; they are not any more unprincipled or inconsistent than we are; failure to sever a political alliance is not evidence of political dishonesty; rather, the seeming offender has not committed any truly ‘deadly sin’ just yet by failing to deliver a truly valuable political good, one ranked much higher than the less-worthy ones that have not been delivered. If Donald Trump ‘grabs pussies’ and stuffs his family’s coffers while ensconced in the White House, this is of little import to a constituency that simply does not rank respect for women or financial propriety as important as the rhetorical or material protection of an established social order of say, ‘whiteness’ or ‘Judeo-Christian nationalism’ or anything else. If Donald Trump and the Republican Party can be perceived as continuing to supply those political goods, ones granted a weight orders of magnitude greater than that granted to say, the protection of women’s rights to live their lives free of harassment, then all is good. Politicians are not perfect; they cannot ‘do it all’; but if they do what we most want, we are willing to overlook their ‘minor’ failings. Especially if paying attention to those ‘minor’ failings will compromise the delivery of the truly important political goods.

There is a method to the madness.

On The Alleged Undesirability of Inconsistency

Inconsistency in our beliefs–and thus actions–is often held to be not just a cognitive failure, a breakdown of rationality, but also a moral failure of sorts. Sometimes the inconsistent are accused of hypocrisy, of disingenuousness. We are urged to forensically examine their utterances and actions, sifting through the traces they leave, all the better to indict them of a catalog of epistemic and ethical sins. The expression of an inconsistency is also often taken to be a cover-up for a truly held belief, a masking of a sordid reality; there are the things we ‘really believe’ and then there are the things we only pretend to believe.

Perhaps we should be more tolerant of the inconsistent–especially as most of us, if not all, are guilty of it.

There is a simple apologia we can offer for this widespread inconsistency; we are creatures of limited reasoning power; we may find it too cognitively expensive to check our enterprise for consistency. We often satisfice, rather than optimize, the sanitation and hygiene we impose on our beliefs.

But there might be something even more fundamental at play. The accusations leveled against the inconsistent often presume there is a genuine, authentic self, one covered up and disguised by incompetency, for nefarious purposes. They suggest we are whole and are fractured by this tolerance of rupture within our corpus of belief. But perhaps–as many have suggested before me–we are a shifting conglomerate of sorts. We play host to many selves, many drives, many desires, all at once; if these drives and desires and instincts may conflict with each other, then why not our beliefs? Beliefs are revealed by actions, by visible exertion and the spoken word; these issue from our inner being, each bearing the impress of the turbulence that gave rise to it. Unsurprisingly, the agent who has been assigned their ownership appears singed by incoherence at the edges. But this incoherence may instead be a pleasurable medley of a kind.

I do not think there is much, if any, novelty in what I have noted above. But consistency continues to hold sway as an epistemic and moral ideal. It is still put down as a signpost, as a marker, for our aspirations. We are urged–when we have the time and the energy–to look closely and carefully under and around ourselves, and to conduct search-and-destroy missions for all and any inconsistencies.

We are too harsh on the inconsistent. In a fit of self-righteous rectitude, we indict them of too much. To be sure, some inconsistencies are harmful; for ourselves, for those impacted by our actions. The inconsistency of the powerful hypocrite is a particularly damaging one. But all too many variants of this supposedly deadly sin are not. At worst, they may only puzzle and perplex us, impatient as we are to categorize, all too neatly, our friends and family and acquaintances. But we should be more tolerant, and treat these visible faults in action and belief as spurs to a more sympathetic investigation of the human condition and the complexity of the inner life.