Friday, July 27, 2012

Why Hypocrisy Should be a "Sin"

In my last post I dealt with my suspicion that "conservative", especially people of religious bent, do not see hypocrisy as being nearly as bad a thing as "liberals" do.  Since I posted it, I've done a bit more looking around and it seems like a lot of people blogging from the conservative point of view agree with my analysis.  For example, take a look at this blog post, entitled "Hypocrisy, the Seven Deadly Sins, and the Left" .   The author pretty much makes my case, but from the point of view of a conservative Christian.  Take a look at the following quotes.

I am suggesting, then, that hatred of religion is at the root of the Left's excessive and unbalanced animus against hypocrisy. 
 ---in our culture, dominated as it is by liberals and leftists, most of the Seven Deadly Sins are not reckoned sins at all.  Given that sin is a religious concept, there cannot be sins for those who deem religion buncombe from start to finish.  But one can believe in vice without believing in sin.  I think it is safe to say that most Americans today do not consider any of the Seven Deadly Sins to be vices, with the possible exception of sloth interpreted as laziness rather than as acedia.  Take gluttony.  Americans are by and large gluttons as one can observe by going into any public place.  And yet how many speak of gluttony as a vice as opposed to an 'eating disorder' to be treated by stomach stapling, etc?  This is a fit topic for a separate post.
This is an interesting question, "Do liberals no longer believe in 'sin'?   Or 'vice'?"

First, it's important to try and understand the difference.  It would appear, from a quick Google search, that the core concept of "sin" has to do with the relationship between a person and a commandment of God.  A "sin" occurs when someone does something God has told her not to do.

Two interesting points.

First of all, what happens when someone's sense of "right and wrong" conflicts with what God has told him to do? In the Bible the best example comes from the story of Abraham and Isaac. For those of you who don't know the story, God asked Abraham to murder his only son as a sacrifice. Abraham sets out to do the deed and God stops just before the deed is done and says "Just fool'n".

 What would have happened if Abraham had told God the following "I don't care if you are Jehovah.  I don't care if you will torture me for all eternity for saying this.  But I will not kill my own son.  Such a deed would be perverse and evil."   In saying so, Abraham would at the same time be committing a sin, and, acting in a moral manner.

Lest this seem a weird, hypothetical example, consider the bind that religion puts many parents of gays into.   They may very well genuinely love their children, but at the same time, God's commandment tells them to treat them as if they are pariahs who's instincts are the result of demonic influences.  Again, the moral thing to do (e.g. try to understand your child and love them as you would have others love you) conflicts with the dutiful thing to do (e.g. cast them from your home and disown them.)

The second issue that arises comes from the question of how someone actually decides what is and is not a commandment of God.  As I see it, there are four avenues for learning God's will.  Each of them, IMHO, has significant "deal breakers".

First of all, people say that the will of God is revealed in holy scripture, like the Bible.  The problem with that is that if you make the effort to look at scriptures in a disciplined manner, it becomes obvious that they are the result of human activity----with all the contradictions and confusion that that entails. Once you start saying that you read the books in some sort of metaphorical manner and allow for the frailties of the human authors, the authority that says that this is "the word of God" quickly dissipates.

Even if you are the most adamant Biblical literalist, the fact remains that the book is filled with stuff that no one actually believes is the word of God and needs to be followed to the letter. Check out the following image.

It's not totally obvious, but this is a screenshot of a fellow who went to the trouble of tattooing the following quote on his arm:  Leviticus 18:22  “‘Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable."   What makes the picture funny is the fact that this fellow probably didn't read further in the book and come across this text:  Leviticus 19:28  "'Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD."  

If all religious believers don't follow ALL of the commandments of God, but instead pick and choose due to some other criteria, then how is it that they are following the commandments of God instead of that other criteria?  

If we aren't following the revealed scripture as the voice of God, what are we following?  Is it the tradition of whatever denomination we find ourselves in?   If so, why your tradition instead of another's?  And, if you look at the history and internal politics of any religious body you will invariably find that the tradition mutates and changes over time.  Does this mean that the law of God changes over time?   If it was a sin to eat meat on Fridays in 1912, why isn't it still a sin in 2012?  

If the rules change, then what is the status of someone who works within the church to change the rules? Is an activist who is pushing for the ordination of women a sinner up until he convinces the synod to make the change and then after that a righteous believer?  Is the only criterion for sin whether or not you are successful in convincing the church hierarchy to adopt your point of view?  

One final point of view would be to say that our conscience is the "voice of God".  But if that is so, then what about when different people say that their conscience tells them different things?   And what exactly is a "conscience"?  If I change my mind about something, does that mean that God has changed his mind about something?   Or does it simply mean that I now look at the problem in a different light?

After working through the above, it seems clear to me that I certainly do not "believe" in "sin".  First of all, because the term refers to the will of God---and I don't see any valid evidence for the existence of said God.  Secondly, even if I did believe in the existence of God, I don't see any valid way of divining exactly what his will really is.  Finally, I don't really believe that moral issues should be settled by appeals to authority anyway.   They don't work in math or physics, so I don't see why they should work in ethics either.  If we do accept this point-of-view, isn't uncomfortably like the Nazi "I was just following orders" defense?

But does that mean that I no longer believe in "vice"?   

This is an equally subtle thing to think about.  The author quoted above writes that Americans no longer consider gluttony a vice but instead see it as an "eating disorder".   He even suggests that the remedy is not longer an appeal to morality but rather "stomach stapling".  

I think that this is a significant over-simplification.  First of all, liberals do not lightly dismiss the concept of personal responsibility.  Instead, there has been a great deal of thought aimed at who is responsible for social issues like the current wave of over-eating.  But instead of simply placing all the blame on the individual, which is the attitude involved in the Church teaching about the Seven Deadly Sins, commentators have raised a whole host of complexities.  For example, how much of this epidemic is as a result of marketing strategies aimed at encouraging people to eat too much?


It's all very well to complain about poor people's greed when it comes to eating.  But this is the first society in human history where anyone but the wealthy has had the option to become overweight.  It seems simply mentally lazy (e.g. slothful) to just put the blame on the individual instead of trying to understand the entirety of the issue.  

I think the dividing line comes over free will.   Paradoxically, the theist wants to believe that all people have a radical form of free will that doesn't allow for any significant social or biological influence over people's ability to choose one course of action over another.  But they take away all of this freedom by introducing the idea of "sin" that reduces the entirety of this choice to whether or not one will freely submit to the absurd (in the sense of without rhyme or reason) direction of an unauthenticated authority.  As I've pointed out above, there really isn't any reason why one particular definition of "God" should be followed versus any other, so you end up having to believe whatever religious authority you happen to come across in your life.  

In contrast, the liberal has very little belief in free will.  He knows from scientific study that for all of our sense of freedom, we are tightly constrained by our biological instincts and social conditioning.  But in the midst of that knowledge, he is still willing to allow people to use their intellect to steal as much freedom as they can from the authorities around them by using the tools of inductive and deductive logic.   

And what exactly is happening when someone indulges in hypocrisy?  

I would suggest that what they are doing is experiencing some cognitive dissonance.  In the examples from my previous posts, the anti-abortion crusaders were coming up against some personal experience that should have undermined their previous assumptions about life.  But instead of taking this as a "learning moment" where they could seriously rethink the underpinnings of their moral code, they chose to simply do the mental equivalent of shoving their fingers in their ears while humming loudly.  

From the conservative point of view this is a simple "the mind is willing, but the flesh is weak" moment with very little ultimate consequence.  For the liberal, though, this is the fleeting opportunity for the person in question to exert real free will.  Until reality smacked them in the face, they probably couldn't be expected to understand how reality diverges from what they have been told.  But because they refused to take the opportunity to think things through and change their minds, they threw away their opportunity to be free.  

The reason liberals believe hypocrisy is the ultimate "sin" is because it is the throwing away of the few opportunities we have to grow as human beings.  It is also the process of denying that aspect of ourselves that makes ourselves so unique----the ability to learn and grow.  

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Is Hypocrisy a Sin?

I recently read a blog post that reignited something that I've been thinking about for quite a while.

In a nutshell, Frank Bruni, writes about meeting someone from his college days who has gone through a tremendous transformation from rampaging Roman Catholic to agnostic.  The interesting "kicker" for the piece is that this fellow is a medical doctor who has performed abortions for years because of his experience dealing with women.

The part that is of particular relevance to me is a passage where this fellow told Bruni about his experience performing an abortion for an extremely vocal anti-abortion crusader.

He shared a story about one of the loudest abortion foes he ever encountered, a woman who stood year in and year out on a ladder, so that her head would be above other protesters’ as she shouted “murderer” at him and other doctors and “whore” at every woman who walked into the clinic.

One day she was missing. “I thought, ‘I hope she’s O.K.,’ ” he recalled. He walked into an examining room to find her there. She needed an abortion and had come to him because, she explained, he was a familiar face. After the procedure, she assured him she wasn’t like all those other women: loose, unprincipled.

She told him: “I don’t have the money for a baby right now. And my relationship isn’t where it should be.”

“Nothing like life,” he responded, “to teach you a little more.”

A week later, she was back on her ladder.

This isn't the only time that I've heard about anti-abortion crusaders going in for an abortion.   Here's a page about a study about anti-choice women who have come for abortions offering similar anecdotes.  And here are some of the quotes:

"In 1990, in the Boston area, Operation Rescue and other groups were regularly blockading the clinics, and many of us went every Saturday morning for months to help women and staff get in. As a result, we knew many of the 'antis' by face. One morning, a woman who had been a regular 'sidewalk counselor' went into the clinic with a young woman who looked like she was 16-17, and obviously her daughter. When the mother came out about an hour later, I had to go up and ask her if her daughter's situation had caused her to change her mind. 'I don't expect you to understand my daughter's situation!' she angrily replied. The following Saturday, she was back, pleading with women entering the clinic not to 'murder their babies.'" (Clinic escort, Massachusetts)

"We saw a woman recently who after four attempts and many hours of counseling both at the hospital and our clinic, finally, calmly and uneventfully, had her abortion. Four months later, she called me on Christmas Eve to tell me that she was not and never was pro-choice and that we failed to recognize that she was clinically depressed at the time of her abortion. The purpose of her call was to chastise me for not sending her off to the psych unit instead of the procedure room." (Clinic Administrator, Alberta)
 "My first encounter with this phenomenon came when I was doing a 2-week follow-up at a family planning clinic. The woman's anti-choice values spoke indirectly through her expression and body language. She told me that she had been offended by the other women in the abortion clinic waiting room because they were using abortion as a form of birth control, but her condom had broken so she had no choice! I had real difficulty not pointing out that she did have a choice, and she had made it! Just like the other women in the waiting room." (Physician, Ontario)
 "The sister of a Dutch bishop in Limburg once visited the abortion clinic in Beek where I used to work in the seventies. After entering the full waiting room she said to me, 'My dear Lord, what are all those young girls doing here?' 'Same as you', I replied. 'Dirty little dames,' she said." (Physician, The Netherlands)

 Usually I find that people who hear about this sort of thing have some sort of negative emotional reaction towards hypocrisy and leave it there.  But I have the sneaking suspicion that something very important is happening here.  I wonder if people who fall on the "conservative" line of thinking might simply not consider hypocrisy an actual sin.

I have wondered for quite a while if the divide between people often comes from people holding different sets of moral values.  I first noticed this with regard to a controversy in my home town involving the mayor. This woman, who was a neo-conservative absolutely loathed the small and large "g" greens who dominated city council before and after her term of office.  She got caught absolutely red-handed plagiarizing a speech that she delivered at some municipal function.  I remember that many of my friends were absolutely furious about it, but I noticed that most of her supporters seemed to be genuinely surprised that anyone cared one way or the other.

I live in a university town and most of my friends are intellectuals of one stripe or another.  In contrast, most of the people who supported this past mayor were involved in business.  I came to the conclusion that for writers, teachers and scientists, there probably is no greater crime than that of stealing the ideas of someone else, because this is the capital by which they make a living and define their standing in the community.  In contrast, for business people words and ideas are just tools for encouraging people to purchase their products.  In contrast, business people often think that levying any sort of taxation at all is a tremendous sin---perhaps this is because money (or capital) is their stock-in-trade.  Many intellectuals similarly cannot fathom this view that taxation is inherently sinful---since as long as they get value for the money, they consider it just the price of civilization.

Thinking about this example has got me thinking about the abortion one.

People who are pro-choice usually look at the examples I quoted above and see them as examples of complete moral bankruptcy.  But, I would suggest that is because people who are "liberal" in the original sense of the word put an enormous value on the concept of intellectual courage and curiosity.  Conservatives in general, and religious conservatives in particular, do not greatly value either of these qualities.  Instead, they value submission to authority and conformity.

I know that Christianity makes a great pretence about helping the poor, etc.  But if you look at the actual behaviour of the hierarchy of most denominations---especially conservative ones---it becomes obvious that over-riding teaching of the church is "Shut up and do what you are told!"   And the theology of the most rabidly anti-abortion denominations often seems to boil down to some sort of cosmic fascist state.  You must do as the great Fuhrer in the sky demands or else you will be sent to the eternal Auschwitz after your death.

Please note that when an institution is all about submission to authority, actual behaviour is of less importance than the attitude.  Rebels who reject the idea that they should be submitting to authority are far, far more dangerous to the status quo than criminals who, for one reason or another, end up breaking the rules.  (This is why political crimes are punished more severely than all others in totalitarian societies.)

If we understand this point, then it becomes obvious what is going on when someone who is a loud and vocal opponent of abortion has one.  The actual abortion itself is not nearly as bad as the fact that some people refuse to accept that the process is evil or immoral.  Abortion activists are ultimately protesting that women and doctors are putting themselves ahead of the revealed teachings of the church and making their own decisions about what is or is not a "sin".  After all, according to church teaching all people sin and the only route for salvation is through the intercession of grace.  Having an abortion might be worse than stealing a candy bar, but ultimately the Hitler in the Sky considers them both to be worth a ticket to the eternal concentration camp.

Hypocrisy is an homage that vice renders to virtue.  ~Fran├žois, Duc De La Rochefoucauld, Maximes, 1678

 The quotation above makes the same point.  If we simply understand that the word "virtue" means not some sort of universal or commonly understood truth, but rather the dogma of the institution you support (either the Roman Catholic church or the Republican party, for example), then "Hypocrisy is the homage that people pay to authority."   If you will not be a hypocrite, then you will invariably be a rebel.  And rebels are far more dangerous to authoritarian institutions than people who merely transgress the rules.

Looked at from this way, a lot of conservative behaviour makes a great deal of sense.  When anti-homosexual pastors and politicians get caught hiring gay prostitutes, their willingness to be furtive instead of rebellious means that they still support the hierarchy.  Similarly, when conservatives rail against government spending but wallow in the pork barrel for their constituency, the hypocrisy means that they are "team players" instead of dangerous "socialists" who want to throttle business.

I don't know where this insight leads me, but I have the feeling that it could be harnessed to improve the way people promote a better way of looking at the world.

For one thing.  A lot of people think that it is just enough to point out the hypocrisy and expect people to change.  But that doesn't happen because hypocrisy simply isn't a sin for conservatives.  That woman who got the abortion and then went back up on the stepladder to protest was a dutiful daughter of the church who suffers from original sin.  The real sinners are the "rebel angels" who think that they know better than the church about what is, and is not a sin.  Rubbing this woman or her fellow believers noses in their hypocrisy will not change their minds.

If we want to change people's attitudes about things like abortion, on the other hand, I think we need to go deeper than the issue itself.   Instead, we have to try to do two things.

Ideally, we should be teaching people to be "liberal" in the original sense of the word.  That is, we should be teaching everyone who will listen that they should be intellectually courageous and curious.  They should follow ideas where they go instead of being afraid of the implications.  The social consequence of this is that we need to develop institutions in society that encourage this sort of behaviour.  It isn't just the church that discourages critical thinking, our schools, the workplace, the bureaucracy, etc, all thrive on the model of "shut up and do what you are told".  Of course, none of this can change overnight, but until we understand the problem, it is impossible come up with a solution.

It is impractical to expect all citizens to become Socrates, though.  I would suggest, therefore, that we should also be developing role models and authorities who can counter-balance the authorities that conservatives lean upon.  People of good will often have the mistaken belief if we reject the authority of the Pope to pronounce on moral issues that no one should be able to do so.  But this misses the point that we appeal to authority all the time in life---doctors, mechanics, engineers, plumbers, accountants, etc.  Why should moral issues be any different?

The difference is that a plausible moral authority should be willing to defend her position using logical argument instead of an appeal to force.  The problem isn't that the Pope sets himself up as a moral authority, but rather that he is a bogus authority who's ultimate argument is "if you don't knuckle under, I'm going to kick you out of the church", and "God is going to torture you forever after you die".   In contrast, it might be practically impossible to work through all the complex reasoning that a philosopher goes through to justify a position (after all, how many people do you know who would make the effort to read a monstrous blog post like this one?), but if someone wanted to, the option is open.  We trust our mechanic to do the right thing, but if we wanted to, we know we could do enough research to understand why it is he says he has to do the things he says he needs to do in order to get the engine on your car working.

When I was a child my mother used to tell me to do things and when I asked "why", her response was to whack me and say "because".  The difference in attitude could be as simple as her saying instead, "there's a good reason, but I simply do not have the time to explain it to you right now", or even, "I don't really know how to explain it, but I do believe that this is the best course of action and I have a responsibility to give you direction until you get old enough and have enough experience and knowledge to be able to make choices for yourself."   You don't have to be Einstein to make this substitution.  In fact, it could just be a rote sentence that everyone in our society ends of saying without really understanding.  But the distinction is one that discourages empty submission to authority and hypocrisy, as such I think that we should try it.