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Shane D. Drefcinski

Is Hypocrisy Always a Vice?

The casual observer of American politics could easily infer that

the only trait common to Democrats and Republicans is hypocrisy.
Consider a dated, but bipartisan, example. Democrats accused the
Republican members of Congress who voted to impeach President
Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair of hypocrisy when it
was revealed that some of those same Republicans had adulterous
affairs of their own. Republicans accused those Democrats who crit-
icized Clinton’s questionable last-minute pardons of hypocrisy
when, on their view, the same abuse of power exhibited in the par-
dons was present in, inter alia, the charges of perjury and obstruc-
tion of justice that led to impeachment.
Unfortunately, hypocrisy is not limited to politicians. During the
past several months, the Catholic Church in the United States has
been buffeted by scandals involving a small number of clergy who
sexually abused children and teenagers. This horrific situation is
made worse by revelations that several bishops have tried to conceal
these crimes, not only from the police and the media, but also from
the parishioners who were shepherded by these pedophile/
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ephebophile priests. Andrew Sullivan, the former editor of The New
Republic, speaks for a number of commentators when he claims that
the scandal “exposes the hypocrisy and dysfunction at the heart of the
Qua philosopher, I am uninterested in which political party is
more hypocritical. Nor do I wish to pass judgment on whether a
number of Catholic bishops in America are hypocrites. My question,
rather, is whether hypocrisy is always a vice. To answer this question,
I will employ some of the philosophical distinctions drawn by Aris-
totle and St. Thomas Aquinas, and the examples of hypocrisy offered
by Dante in his Inferno. I will argue that hypocrisy, properly under-
stood, is a vice, but that its scope is narrower than is commonly
thought. Many of the deeds we today mistakenly call ‘hypocritical’
are, strictly speaking, not instances of hypocrisy but examples of
either inconsistency or what Aristotle and Aquinas called ‘inconti-
nence.’2 I also will argue that there are two other serious problems
with our wider use of the term ‘hypocrisy.’ First, it makes acts of
hypocrisy virtually unavoidable. Second, it risks emptying the term
of its significance. Thus, while hypocrisy is a vice, what is called
‘hypocrisy’ is not always a vice.

I. What Is a Vice?
In order to determine whether hypocrisy is always a vice, we must
first determine what a vice is. Clearly vice is the contrary of moral
virtue.3 A moral virtue is a firm character state4 that makes people
and their actions to be good,5 where to be good qua human being is
to be perfect or complete according to our nature as rational beings.6
Correspondingly, a vice is a firm character state that makes people
and their actions to be bad, that is, to be disposed in a way that is not
fitting to our nature as rational beings. So, for example, the virtue of
temperance disposes people to desire in a moderate way, as deter-
mined by right reason, the pleasures of the table, and then to act
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accordingly.7 The vice of gluttony, on the other hand, disposes peo-
ple to desire those same pleasures inordinately, that is, contrary to
right reason, and then to overindulge in those pleasures when given
the opportunity.8
Now states of character are generally acquired by repeatedly act-
ing in a certain way, over time—virtues by repeatedly acting accord-
ing to right reason, and vices by repeatedly acting contrary to right
reason.9 Aristotle remarks, “It is well said, then, that it is by doing
just acts that the just person is produced, and by doing temperate
acts, the temperate person; without doing these no one would have
even the prospect of being good.”10 Once ingrained into a person’s
character, both virtues and vices are difficult to dislodge. It goes
without saying that vicious people cannot overcome their vice by a
few virtuous actions.11 Less recognized is that virtuous people do
not lose their virtue by a few vicious deeds either. Aquinas insists
upon this point. He argues that acquired moral virtue is compatible
with sinful actions because “just as habit is not engendered by one
act, so neither is it destroyed by one act.”12
Two more points about vice must be mentioned. First of all,
vice, like moral virtue, finds expression in the possessor’s choices.
Choice,13 according to Aristotle, is a desire, based on deliberation,
to do something here and now.14 Choice also expresses the agent’s
view of the good.15 So, for example, temperate people may choose
not to overeat at a banquet because they believe that such self-con-
trol is noble and also part of a truly good life. On the other hand,
gluttons may choose to overindulge at a banquet because they mis-
takenly believe that happiness is physical pleasure. Because vice is so
deeply ingrained into its possessors’ characters, and because the
choice of the vicious expresses their distorted view of the good,
Aristotle describes vice as “unconscious of itself ” and incurable.16
Second, vice is distinguished from a less-wicked condition called
“incontinence.” Although the actions of the incontinent and the
vicious are the same, the dispositions behind these actions are quite
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different. Incontinent or weak-willed people recognize what the
appropriate course of action is and even choose to do it. Neverthe-
less, usually because of strong appetites, they act against their better
judgment and do what they think is wrong, only to feel regret after-
wards. So, for example, incontinent people may, like gluttons, overeat
at a banquet. Yet unlike gluttons, the incontinent banqueters act con-
trary to their choice and so later regret what they have done. Their
regret indicates that, unlike vice, incontinence is conscious of itself.17
Moreover, because the incontinent know what they ought to do, and
regret their failure to do it, incontinence is a curable condition.18

II. What Is Hypocrisy?

In the sixth chasm of the eighth circle of Hell, Dante places the hyp-
ocrites.19 These miserable souls wear cloaks that are dazzling on the
outside, but inside are made of lead. Their heavy burden makes
their pace so slow that Dante remarks, “our company was new at
every movement of the hip.”20 Among the group of hypocrites is
Caiaphas, the high priest who counseled that Christ be handed over
to the Romans for execution. Naked and nailed by three stakes to the
middle of the roadway, he is trampled upon by all of the other hyp-
ocrites, so that he will “feel the weight of every one that passes.”21
Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, was similarly racked in a ditch,
as were the other members of the Council who supported Christ’s
Dante clearly treats hypocrisy as a vice, and his vivid depiction of
the hypocrites and their fate seems based upon Aquinas’s account of
hypocrisy. Aquinas defines “hypocrisy” as “a kind of dissimulation,
whereby a person simulates a character which is not his own,” as
when a sinner simulates the character of a just person.22 Aquinas’s
definition of “hypocrisy” is not esoteric; it is substantially the same
as the Oxford English Dictionary definition, which reads:
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The assuming of a false appearance of virtue or goodness,
with dissimulation of real character or inclinations, esp. in
respect of religious life or beliefs; hence in general sense, dis-
simulation, pretense, sham. Also, an instance of this.

Aquinas’s definition indicates that there are two elements to

hypocrisy: (1) a lack of virtue, and (2) a simulation of that virtue that
is motivated by a desire to appear to be virtuous without actually
being such.23 The motivation of the hypocrite is important. People
who lack a virtue but seek to acquire it will emulate the actions of
the virtuous. But unlike hypocrites, they are not seeking merely to
appear to be virtuous. Aquinas further explains that to dissimulate
is to employ signs of deeds or things to signify the contrary of what
one is in oneself. In other words, to dissimulate is to lie, not by
words, but by the signs of outward deeds.24 Thus, hypocrisy is a vice
that is opposed to truthfulness, which is the virtue whereby people
show themselves in life and speech to be what they are.25 Finally, if
vice is unconscious of itself—as Aristotle declares—then the worst
kinds of hypocrites are unaware of their own hypocrisy. Accustomed
to lying to others about their character, they eventually lose sight of
who they actually are and thus confirm Nietzsche’s observation that
“the most common lie is that which one lies to oneself: lying to
others is relatively an exception.”26
For Aquinas, the paradigm examples of hypocrisy are the Phar-
isees. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus remarks:

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are

like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful
outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all
uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto
men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. (Matt.
23:27-28 [kjv])

These Pharisees are hypocrites because, while inwardly wicked,

they make an outward show of their righteousness simply to impress
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others. Dante singles out the high priests Caiaphas and Annas as
paradigms of hypocrisy presumably because, even as they are plot-
ting to have Christ killed, they are careful not to defile themselves
by entering the palace of the Gentile Pilate on the morning of
Passover.27 All of these individuals, we may surmise, are blind to
their own wickedness, which is just as Aristotle would have pre-
dicted. Hence, Caiaphas, Annas, and the Pharisees all closely follow
Aristotle’s account of vice and Aquinas’s definition of “hypocrisy.”

III.“Hypocrisy” Is Not Always a Vice

Presented with Aquinas’s account, one of the first things to observe
is that we apply the terms “hypocrite” and “hypocrisy” more broad-
ly than he does. For example, after the 2000 presidential election, a
colleague described herself as “the biggest hypocrite” because she had
a “Ralph Nader for President” sign in her front yard and signed an
open letter in the local newspaper that endorsed the Green Party
candidate, but then voted for Al Gore. Admittedly, her actual vote
did not match her political rhetoric. But even if we assume that she
was simulating some virtue by posting a Nader sign in her yard, she
was not aiming solely at the appearance of being a progressive envi-
ronmentalist. Nor was she unconscious of the discrepancy between
her public image and her private vote, as a truly vicious person
would be. Hence, rather than being a genuine hypocrite, she mere-
ly is guilty of being inconsistent.
In fact, we frequently conflate inconsistency with hypocrisy. For
example, some pundits—not all of them conservatives—charged
that the feminists who defended Anita Hill when she accused
Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment
were hypocritical when they did not raise a similar defense of Paula
Jones in her sexual harassment suit against President Clinton.28
However, even if we assume that the two cases are similar, the pro-
Clinton feminists are not necessarily guilty of hypocrisy. For they
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arguably are not simulating, for the sake of appearances, a virtue that
they do not have. Rather, it seems that they are inconsistent in their
application of the principle that those who are accused of sexual
harassment should be disqualified from public office. If this incon-
sistency is a moral failing, it would seem to fall under the scope of the
vice of injustice because they are arguably failing to treat equal cases
Another frequent occurrence conflates the vice of hypocrisy and
the condition of incontinence. For instance, one Web-site pundit
defines “hypocrite” as “a person whose actions contradict their stat-
ed or internal beliefs. (Or visa versa.)”29 Of course, recent history
offers a legion of people who meet this definition. To start a very
incomplete list: President George W. Bush; former President Bill
Clinton; Congressional representatives Bob Barr, Dan Burton, Helen
Chenoweth, Henry Hyde, and Bob Livingston; televangelists Jimmy
Swaggart and Jim Baker; Rev. Jesse Jackson; and professional foot-
ball player Mark Chmura all have publicly advocated particular moral
principles that their private lives belied.30 Perhaps many of these
people deserve the epithet “hypocrite.” No doubt politicians and
preachers have a strong incentive to simulate virtues such as tem-
perance merely for the sake of appearing to be good. But this pro-
posed definition is too broad. It includes not only genuine hypocrites
but also people who are simply incontinent. For on this proposed
definition, everyone who has sound moral principles but is too weak-
willed to act on them is therefore a hypocrite, even if they are not
simulating virtue merely for the sake of appearances, and even if they
are aware of and sorry for the discrepancy between their moral
principles and their behavior.
As an aside, there is a further, serious problem with the proposed
definition—it fails to distinguish between good and bad moral prin-
ciples that are contradicted by one’s actions. Terrorists who, out of
sudden sympathy for their potential victims, do not follow through
with their plan to blow up a school are not hypocrites. Rather, their
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failure to live up to their bad moral principles is a positive indication
that they have not completely embraced a distorted view of the good.
Now it may be tempting to argue that, pace Aristotle, Aquinas,
and Dante, the Web-based pundit’s definition of “hypocrite” is cor-
rect and all of my above examples are illustrations of hypocrisy. If the
meaning of a term lies in its use, as Wittgenstein maintained,31 and
“hypocrisy” presently is used to describe any contradiction between
stated beliefs and actual behavior, then that is what the term means,
St. Thomas be damned.
However, I think that we should resist this move for at least two
reasons. First of all, the overly broad understanding of “hypocrisy”
makes the condition virtually unavoidable. Both Aquinas and Aris-
totle recognize that virtuous people are not perfect—they can act
wrongfully without losing their virtue. So on the proposed under-
standing of “hypocrisy,” even the virtuous are hypocrites. Further-
more, it may be only a slight exaggeration to say that any moral code
worthy of respect should be so difficult to follow that its adherents
occasionally will fail to live up to its lofty standards. So, to make mat-
ters worse, it would seem that the only way to realistically avoid
hypocrisy is to adopt moral standards that are so low that one is
never in any danger of violating them.
Second, I think that by making hypocrisy so ubiquitous, we risk
emptying it of its significance. Part of the reason why the charge of
hypocrisy has such bite is because it has historically been viewed as
a particularly odious kind of turpitude. After all, there is something
especially noxious when the vicious feign virtue for the sake of
appearances. If hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, as La
Rouchefoucauld famously declared, it is a payment that defrauds
the recipient, for it eventually raises doubts about the authenticity of
the virtuous themselves. And when any contradiction between high
principle and low deed is deemed “hypocritical,” we seem headed
toward a flaccid moral skepticism that denies that there is any virtue
left for vice to pay tribute to.
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Therefore, I think we should stick to something like the account
of hypocrisy offered by Aquinas and illustrated in the poetry of
Dante. Granted, it means that there are fewer hypocrites around us
than we may have previously thought, which will thereby diminish
the amount of smug satisfaction we might otherwise get from see-
ing our enemies stumble. But that loss is more than adequately com-
pensated for by a better understanding of what a base state of
character hypocrisy actually is, and (since the study of ethics should
aim at action)32 an increased resolve to avoid becoming hypocrites

I wish to thank John Van Ingen and an audience at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, for
their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

1. Andrew Sullivan, “Daily Dish,”

2002_04_14_dish_archive.html, 15 April 2002. A recent Internet search found
approximately 150 Web sites that accuse Bernard Cardinal Law and some other
Catholic bishops of hypocrisy.
2. In Greek, ajkrasiva; in Latin, incontinens.
3. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (hereafter S.T.) I-II, q. 71, a. 1. Aquinas dis-
tinguishes different kinds of virtues, for example, moral, intellectual, and theolog-
ical. While there may be vices that are contrary to the intellectual and theological
virtues, in this paper my concern is with those vices that are contrary to the moral
4. In Greek, evxiı; in Latin, habitus.
5. See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (hereafter EN), 2.6.1106 a 23–24.
6. Aquinas is fond of citing pseudo-Dionysius’s principle, which states that good results
from a whole and complete cause, whereas evil results from a single defect (see, e.g.,
S.T. I-II, q. 71, a. 5, ad. 1).
7. EN 3.10; S.T. II-II, q. 141, aa. 4–5.
8. S.T. II-II, q. 148, a. 1.
9. The exception, in Aquinas’s account, is infused moral virtue. But since vices are not
infused, that exception, for our purposes, is irrelevant.
10. EN 2.4.1105 b 10–12.
11. EN 2.5.1114 a 15–22.
12. S.T. I-II, q. 71, a. 4; q. 63, a. 2, ad. 2. I argue elsewhere that Aristotle also recognized
this; see my “Aristotle’s Fallible Phronimos,” Ancient Philosophy, vol. XVI, no. 1 (1996):
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13. In Greek, proaivresiı; in Latin, electio.
14. EN 3.2.1112 a 14–17; 6.2.1139 b 5–6.
15. EN 3.3.1113 a 3–14.
16. EN 3.5.1114 a 11–13, 15–22; 7.8.1150 b 30–35.
17. EN 7.3.1147 a 25–b 3; 7.8.1150 b 31.
18. EN 7.8.1150 b 33.
19. Inferno, canto xxiii, trans. John Aitken Carlyle (New York: Random House, 1932),
20. Ibid.
21. Ibid., 126.
22. S.T. II-II, q. 111, aa. 2–3.
23. S.T. II-II, q. 111, a. 4.
24. S.T. II-II, q. 11, a. 1.
25. S.T. II-II, q. 111, a. 3; cf. EN 4.7.1127 a 24–b 9; S.T. II-II, q. 109.
26. The Anti-Christ, aphorism 55, trans. Walter Kaufmann, The Portable Nietzsche (New
York: Penguin Books, 1982), 640.
27. John 18:28.
28. See, for example, Linda Clements, “Clinton Established the One Grope Rule,”
http://www.linda. net/1-grope.html, 21 October 1998; Franklin Foer, “Feminism,
Clinton, and Harassment,” Slate,, 18
April 1998; Andrew Ross, “What if it were President Packwood?,” Salon,, 22 December 1998; Cathy
Young, “Harassment Hypocrites,” National Review, 9 November 1998.
29. Lonnie Lee Best, “Is Bill Clinton a Hypocrite Or Not?” http://www.
30. President George W. Bush has been accused of hypocrisy for being a staunch sup-
porter of the war on drugs even though he likely used cocaine during the 1970s. For-
mer President Clinton belongs on the list because, inter alia, he signed the Defense
of Marriage Act while breaking his own marriage vows. Representatives Barr, Bur-
ton, Chenoweth, Hyde, and Livingston are all conservative Republicans who have
committed adultery. Swaggart and Baker are preachers who had to publicly repent
of their adultery. Jackson made a public display of his counseling the Clintons when
the Lewinsky affair became public, even as he simultaneously was engaged in an
extramarital affair. Finally, Chmura refused to attend a post-Super Bowl ceremony
at the White House because he believed that Bill Clinton was not morally fit to be
president, yet later was tried (and acquitted) for raping his 17-year-old baby-sitter.
31. Philosophical Investigations, I, § 43.
32. EN 1.3.1095 a 5.