Social Issues

Who Should Traditionalists Approve of More: Hypocrites or Libertines?

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Economist Bryan Caplan says the traditionalist should prefer the libertine to the hypocrite, despite commonly heard arguments about the benefits of hypocrites in at least upholding the idea of traditional virtue:

Even if traditional moral standards were infallibly correct, ardent social conservatives should still prefer libertines to hypocrites. 

Why?  Because they can and usually do avoid close social relations with libertines!  A conservative Christian needn't worry that she will accidentally disgrace herself by marrying a libertine, because the libertine has the decency to make his intentions known. 

In contrast, it's hard to avoid close social relations with hypocritical traditionalists.  Since they pretend to share socially conservative values, they worm their way into your life and your family.  Then like the hypocrites they are, they shirk, lie, and adulterer, bringing shame to their spouses, children, and extended families…..

Libertines are like the loyal soldiers of enemy nations; you may not like them, but at least you know what you're dealing with.  Hypocrites, in contrast, are like traitors in your midst—and the wise social conservative will hold them in the highest contempt.

Caplan's October 2007 cover story for Reason magazine on "The Four Boneheaded Biases of Stupid Voters (And We're All Stupid Voters)."

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  1. I tend to think that traditionalists see the world in black and white, us or them, it will or it won’t. For them, hypocrisy is something that doesn’t exist until it can no longer be denied. Then they’ll stand around and be shocked. It’s your choice: Call it denial or call it faith.

  2. Ive never understood why hypocrisy in sexual matters is so much a bigger deal than hypocrisy in other matters. Especially amongst those who oppose “traditional” sexual mores.

    Then again, I have weird views on hypocrisy to begin with. For one thing, I think only someone who supports the hypocrites original position should be allowed to point out the hypocrisy. So, only someone who agrees with Sanford on marriage can point out his hypocrisy.

    I think part of my view comes from being a christian who can do logic:

    1. Ministers preach against sin.
    2. Christian doctine states that all men are sinners.
    3. Therefore, ministers sin and are thus hypocrites.

    The Bible makes it pretty clear that God doesnt choose the squeakyist people to be his leaders – look at David – he committed murder to cover up his adultery.

  3. “Hypocrite” is another word that’s been diluted by its connection to politics. It didn’t originally refer to someone who sincerely believed in the moral standards they professed, but who fell short due to weakness or a failure to recognize the significance of what they were doing. It referred to people who had no intention of following their professed moral standards at the very moment they profess them.

    So I don’t think it’s right to say that all Christians are hypocrites just because no Christian lives their life in perfect harmony with Christian morals.

  4. Tulpa,

    Fair enough, if the word still meant that. However, word meanings drift over time, so, unfortunately, the meaning has changed.

    It would be very good if the word was only used as you stated it. But, we would have to pull WAY back on the list of hypocrites om the world.

  5. Well, I suppose the problem is that with the expansive definition, basically anyone who isn’t completely libertine is a hypocrite. So the word is basically useless except as an insult to hurl at someone during an argument.

  6. Tulpa,

    True. With your definition, I think the article makes more sense.

  7. Libertines are definitely better in the sack, but perhaps that’s not among most traditionalists’ top criteria.

  8. A hypocrite is one who says they’re on the team but refuses to tow the lion.

  9. The old saying goes that hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue. Traditionalists should be frightened when hypocrisy fades because it means that no one even feels the need to pretend to be moral.

    Personally, I think it is becoming inevitable. As personal privacy disappears, so does the ability to conceal one’s moral failings. We will be left with two choices: adhere to our stated morals or lower our standards. Any bets on which is more likely?

  10. Imagine a tax cheat who claims that we do not pay enough in taxes.

    It referred to people who had no intention of following their professed moral standards at the very moment they profess them.

    It would be like the mayor of a city who publicly defends a handgun ban and yet has a concealed-carry permit or a detail of armed bodyguards.

  11. Well, I suppose the problem is that with the expansive definition, basically anyone who isn’t completely libertine is a hypocrite

    I don’t think that’s the case. Being a complete libertine is one way to avoid being a hypocrite, but not doing what you claim you don’t want other people to do is also a fine path as well.

    Hypocrisy is a tool for assessing honesty, especially self-honesty. I ultimately don’t care if, say, Sanford cheats on his wife, but that he wanted to do it and not take all the “moral” and legal avenues to do it in an upfront manner, speaks volumes. That he also spoke out about “defending marriage” when he does care about his, also says something.

  12. Libertines are definitely better in the sack,

    Depends on what rows your boat, I would say. See, e.g., Valmont’s seduction of Madame de Tourvel. Delicious!

  13. From Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age”:

    “You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of a climate, you are not allowed to criticize others-after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism?”

    [?]

    “Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others’ shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behavior-you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.

    “You wouldn’t believe the things they said about the original Victorians. Calling someone a Victorian in those days was almost like calling them a fascist or a Nazi.”

    Both Hackworth and Major Napier were dumbfounded. “Your Grace!” Napier exclaimed. “I was naturally aware that their moral stance was radically different from ours-but I am astonished to be informed that they actually condemned the first Victorians.”

    “Of course they did,” Finkle-McGraw said.

    “Because the first Victorians were hypocrites,” Hackworth said, getting it.

    Finkle-McGraw beamed upon Hackworth like a master upon his favoured pupil. “As you can see, Major Napier, my estimate of Mr. Hackworth’s mental acuity was not ill-founded.”

    “While I would never have supposed otherwise, Your Grace,” Major Napier said, “it is nonetheless gratifying to have seen a demonstration.” Napier raised his glass in Hackworth’s direction.

    “Because they were hypocrites,” Finkle-McGraw said, after igniting his calabash and shooting a few tremendous fountains of smoke into the air, “the Victorians were despised in the late twentieth century. Many of the persons who held such opinions were, of course, guilty of the most nefandous conduct themselves, and yet saw no paradox in holding such views because they were not hypocrites themselves-they took no moral stances and lived by none.”

    “So they were morally superior to the Victorians-” Major Napier said, still a bit snowed under.

    “-even though-in fact, because-they had no morals at all.”

    There was a moment of silent, bewildered head-shaking around the copper table.

    “We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy,” Finkle-McGraw continued. “In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception-he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time, it’s a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing.”

    “That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code,” Major Napier said, working it through, “does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.”

    “Of course not,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It’s perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said that it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct. Really, the difficulties involved-the missteps we make along the way-are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal, struggle, between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power.”

  14. The really objectionable aspect of hypocrisy is that the hypocrite has one set of morals for me and another for thee. Politicians have the the most truly offensive version of hypocrisy: one set of laws for me, another for thee.

  15. Then like the hypocrites they are, they shirk, lie, and adulterer,…

    When did adulterer become a verb?

  16. When did adulterer become a verb?

    The first time someone used it that way.

    That is how language works, if you verb a noun, it becomes a verb too.

  17. wingnutz,

    Thanks for that post. For some reason, it isnt surprising to me that Stephenson has made my point (or at least part of it) better than I could make it.

  18. “‘Hypocrite’ is another word that’s been diluted by its connection to politics. It didn’t originally refer to someone who sincerely believed in the moral standards they professed, but who fell short due to weakness or a failure to recognize the significance of what they were doing. It referred to people who had no intention of following their professed moral standards at the very moment they profess them.”

    Maybe, maybe not. Most of these politicians are having affairs at the same time that they are making moralizing speeches, so they cannot, by definition, have any intention of following their moral standards (i.e., tomorrow’s planned tryst means today’s sermon is hypocritical).

    The reality is that we have come to loathe the moralizing politician who can’t live up to his preaching as much as the people who have no intention of following their professed moral standards. Since “hypocrite” is an insult, we use it to refer to both.

    I wouldn’t get too caught up in the idea that hypocrite meant something different 50 or 100 years ago. A married man who cheats on his wife isn’t necessarily a hypocrite. But if that same man went on every talk show in town talking about the evils of adultery, then commits adultery, he’s going to be called a hypocrite because he went out of his way to push an agenda he couldn’t live up to.

    Maybe “hypocrisy” isn’t the right word. But it signals the same amount of outrage and negative judgment. So, fine, make up another word. It won’t change the feeling communicated.

  19. Morality is a once bitten twice shy proposition. You learn not to be a thief and not to destroy property when the other kids on the playground wont play with you and look at you cross eyed for taking the tether ball.

    You learn later on in life not to mess with married women when one purposefully misleads you into thinking her marriage is over and she is ‘out of there’ as soon as she ‘can afford an apartment.’ Having to look over your shoulders in your normal routine of things divorces you from that notion.

    However, along the way, you also learn a few things that go against the entrenched codifications of our long held traditions. Cocaine and sex with some one you barely know are about as good as it gets on this planet.

    Is the concept ‘libertine’ anything more than labeling from those who need to extend categorization into the realm of morality without much underlying or proven support? Doubt it. More power to you on the off chance you happen to be right, though.

  20. Ive never understood why hypocrisy in sexual matters is so much a bigger deal than hypocrisy in other matters. Especially amongst those who oppose “traditional” sexual mores.

    That has puzzled me as well. And I oppose “traditional sexual mores”. I think that it is certainly worthy of note when a politician who goes on about “defending traditional marriage” and thinks that government has a role in doing so cheats on his wife, but there are a lot more important areas of hypocrisy to pay attention to.

  21. I’d have said “adulterate,” but then I’m a traditionalist who would have said “whom” in the headline.

  22. When did adulterer become a verb?

    When the hypocrites began stuttering.

  23. Ive never understood why hypocrisy in sexual matters is so much a bigger deal than hypocrisy in other matters. Especially amongst those who oppose “traditional” sexual mores.

    Somewhere between Conway Twitty hits in the 70’s and right here and now America declined in her sophistication regarding sexual mores. For the liberal with the knee jerk ‘Reagan did it’, I’m inclined for once to say you are on to something rather than on something.

  24. “The Bible makes it pretty clear that God doesnt choose the squeakyist people to be his leaders – look at David – he committed murder to cover up his adultery.”

    Moses was a killer too. Whacked an Egyptian. He became a leader years later.

  25. Speaking of Egyptians, I saw the comic Ahmed Ahmed on TV. He says when girls learn he is from Egypt they ask: can I be your Egyptian princess? His respose to this is: Sure! Just cover yourself with this sheet and stop talking!

  26. “Politicians have the the most truly offensive version of hypocrisy: one set of laws for me, another for thee.”

    I would want my family to get the best healthcare possible.

  27. “Since “hypocrite” is an insult, we use it to refer to both. ”

    I am not a hypocrite!

  28. The first time someone used it that way.

    That is how language works, if you verb a noun, it becomes a verb too.

    Oh, OK. Glorious frumbling my cromulently peach nosehaired palimpsestingness.

  29. Glorious frumbling my cromulently peach nosehaired palimpsestingness.

    No worse than the poetry that they feature at Slate, and better than some of it.

  30. I like honesty in all forms. That being said, I’d execute libertines for being broken.

  31. Oh, OK. Glorious frumbling my cromulently peach nosehaired palimpsestingness.

    The purpose of language is communication. You failed by going too far off normal usage. But using a word as a different part of speech is generally easy to understand. Which is why it works. And how language evolves.

    As my linguistics professor used to say (over and over): Language is descriptive not prescriptive.

  32. I heard Dr. Phil once say that the things we despise in others are the things we hate most about ourselves. So if we hate people who go out of their way to moralize about something then fall short of their standard, it is because this is the trait we hate most about ourselves. Of course, Dr. Phil needs a solid punch in the downstairs department.

  33. Lamar, how’s that workin out for ya?

    Would you rather be right, or be happy?

  34. “Lamar, how’s that workin’ out for ya? Would you rather be right, or be happy?”

    I wish “happy” was the honest answer. But I’m vain.

  35. Would you rather be right, or be happy?

    Why decide between the two? I’m always right, and generally happy. I find they go hand in hand.

  36. R C Dean | July 6, 2009, 5:38pm | #
    Would you rather be right, or be happy?

    Why decide between the two? I’m always right, and generally happy. I find they go hand in hand.

    Nice one.

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