Another Try At Understanding Definitions: "Hypocrite"

Inspired by various exchanges, of which the following is a good example.

My response in that thread:

My further comment for this thread:

This is an issue that’s been batted around here before. And for whatever reason, there seem to be a significant number of people that feel the definition of “hypocrite” should be vastly expanded.

A hypocrite is a person that acts contrary to his expressed beliefs.

That’s it.

That does not mean that you get to impute a set of beliefs to someone and then claim that he’s a hypocrite for violating them.

If a person says, “I believe in responsibility and traditional values,” he’s not a hypocrite for being a gambler. There’s nothing about gambling that is per se irresponsible, and while some people’s “traditional values” may forbid gambling, others don’t… and unless your gambler has previously said that his do, then he’s not a hypocrite.

It’s a very simple process. Start with the person’s expressed beliefs. Not your restatement of them – his expressed beliefs. Then compare his actions. If they are in conflict, haul out the hypocrite stick. If they aren’t, don’t.


My position is flexible and subject to reason, your position is vague and ill-defined, he is a bald-faced hypocrite.

While hypocracy is a fine reason to dislike someone, it has no bearing whatsoever on the substance of any argument.

I can tell you that smoking is bad while I have 20 Marlboro Reds in my mouth at the same time, it doesn’t make me wrong.

But even when calling someone a hypocrite just to call them names, it helps if the person doing the name-calling actually takes the effort to understand the other person’s position, as with the gambling example.

Well… it might.

If the basis of my argument is, “Adopt my position because it will benefit you, and I know this because it has benefited me” and I fail to conform my own behavior to it, listeners might reasonably question whether I believe my own argument, or whether I’m truthful in claiming the benefits I spoke of.

“Being gay is wrong, and prayer can make you turn away from homosexuality and be straight!” If that speaker is then caught with cock in his mouth, we might reasonably infer that prayer was not, as claimed, effective in inducing heterosexuality.

And 4. the other other guy’s batshit crazy :smiley:

I am firm, you are stubborn, he is a pig-headed fool. And Ms Bachmann is batshit crazy.

Yeah, that works.

That or the guy does not pray or pray to the right god. :wink:

Psst … it’s spelled “hypocrisy”. “Hypocracy”, if it were a word, would mean “government by the lowest”. That should be a word, actually, it would have its uses.

ROFL. next time we have a debate over democracy vs republic, vs whatever, I can chime in with “it’s a hypocracy” :smiley:

Thank you for the complement on my spelling. The affect will be to make me pay closer attention to my typing.

I think it’s fairly easy to escape claims of hypocrisy in various ways. This does not necessarily imply disingenuousness on the part of the hypocritee, though the rabid mob is often looking for more reasons to tar and feather. This does not imply that hypocrisy doesn’t exist, just that it’s possible to have an ostensibly hypocritical situation that someone truly believes he is innocent of hypocrisy yet struggles to convey the distinction to his listener.

There is a problem for the listener because it can be difficult to tell the distinction between someone who is making a nuanced distinction between his practice and his words. Which one is the weasel?

Be that as it may, I was surprised to hear what seemed like situational ethics in your first example in the other thread. The gist, if I recall, is that it’s one thing to gripe about social policy pre-enactment, but once passed it’s not hypocritical to avail oneself of the income stream that is now available. You can cast it as a mechanical social policy argument and rely on economics to argue against the policy in the first place, but that leaves the realm of ethical/moral arguments behind.

It also leads to somewhat absurd results. Recasting, consider an abolitionist railing against the evils of slavery. However, his state enters into the Union as a slave state. Is it not hypocritical for this person to avail himself of the now institutionalized practice?

Here’s a hypocisy scenario that can stand some clarification:

Let’s say you do something questionable and I criticize you for it, but you do it anyway and get away with it, then later I do the same thing. You have no business criticizing me or calling me a hypocite. If you do, then you’re the hypocrite.

The fact that you did it first and got away with it means that my criticism was moot and I was forced to accept your principles, but your criticism is a blatant contradiction of your earlier actions.

What in your scenario prevents both of them from being hypocrites?

To which our theoretical apologist for hypocrisy might respond no, it remains true that slavery is wrong and should be abolished; nonetheless to feed my family I must make a living in the society in which I live, and this cotton isn’t gonna pick itself.


Not in the least. That actually looks like extremely tortured logic, the source of which I can’t even divine. Why are you forced to accept my principles if I ‘get away with’ X? Why is the criticism a blatant contradiction? If you believe smoking is a disgusting habit that harms others, how exactly are you forced to change your mind if I ‘get away with’ smoking because it’s legal? How am I wrong if I point out you’re violating your own principles if you then smoke?

You advocate not-X. You do X. You are therefore a hypocrite. There is no need to compare against anyone else.


Completely bass-ackwards. A hypocrite is not a person who acts in a manner inconsistent or opposite to his beliefs; he is a person who expresses beliefs which he does not hold, or exhibits a fervor which he does not feel. Most people, I think, have done things in moments of weakness, desperation, or passion, that they regret because of their sincere belief that these things are wrong. Some people transgress repeatedly, and hide it because they are ashamed. They chastise themselves privately while publicly denouncing the same transgressions by others. As long as the beliefs are sincerely held, these people are not hypocrites.

Seems like a distinction without a difference to me. You advocate not-X. You do X. Regardless of which belief you truly hold, the result is still the same.

No, I don’t buy it, you protest too much, methinks. Sounds like you’ve been called a hypocrite and are trying to weasel your way out of it.

Look at your gambling example. The guy (admit it, we picture a Republican) used the term “traditional values” to mean something very specific. So then he gets caught doing what ever it is, be it gambling, sex in airport bathrooms, trips to Aruba with a mistress. And AFTER being caught says, “no no, that’s not what I meant by traditional values. You’re not comparing my actions to my expressed beliefs, which were that traditional values doesn’t include [thing he was caught doing].”

I get that you’re a lawyer, and this is exactly why legal documents have to go through and explicitly state what “traditional values” means so that there isn’t confusion afterwords, and this probably seems normal to you.

In all your examples you are very lawyerly defending your client by twisting his original, and stated belief to match the act he was caught performing. You are the one restating the expressed beliefs to make sure they fit the actions. You did it with the vegetarian example too, you went back and added what YOU felt we should all have known. *well obviously he means it’s okay to eat meat if there are a variety of extenuating circumstances. *

Would it make you feel better if instead of saying the person is a hypocrite, we instead said that the person is a giant douche and doesn’t mean what he says? We would then have:

A hypocrite is a person that acts contrary to his expressed beliefs.

A person is a giant douche if his expressed beliefs are contrary to what he gets caught doing.

So now Eliot Spitzer isn’t a hypocrite for banging a prostitute with public funds while at the same time being a champion of anti-corruption and anti-prostitution. He is a giant douche for having stated beliefs that didn’t match what he got caught doing.

Another word that ought to exist. :stuck_out_tongue:

But I do have a real question. If a man says “I do not care at all about other people, but only about my own interests,” and then, say, risks his life to save save a stranger’s child from a burning building, is he a hypocrite? Is someone who donates secretly and anonymously to charity a hypocrite? It seems to me that we call someone a hypocrite if their actions show them to be worse than they purport to be, not vice-versa.