In Praise of Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy definitely isn’t the best option available for a person, but I believe it might be the second-best. And sometimes we have to settle for second-best while we’re striving for what is actually best.

You’ve probably heard the saying: hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue. This means that a perfectly good person will not only praise virtue but also act virtuously, whereas a hypocrite will only praise it, and will not always do it.

Good personHypocriteBad person
Acts virtuously?YNN
Praises virtue?YYN

My greatest goal is to be a perfectly good person, but in the meantime, I settle for being a hypocrite.

There was a time when I hesitated to praise virtue, because I was not yet virtuous myself, and I didn’t want to be hypocritical. What I didn’t realize was that the problem with hypocrites isn’t that they encourage people to do and love what is good.

I thought at that time that it was better not to speak well of virtue, rather than to be a hypocrite. In my mind, it was best to be a good person, second best to be a plainly bad person, and worst of all to be a hypocrite.

My thinking has shifted.

I’m more virtuous now than I was then, but of course I am still not perfectly good. At this time, though, I see my shortcomings and vices as something for me to conquer, rather than as something that has the power, or the right, to silence my love of virtue.

I do love virtue, and I praise it, and I love the praise of it.

That’s the best thing about us hypocrites. Even though we haven’t attained to virtue, we do know that it deserves to be praised, and praised far more highly than the other things that are normally objects of desire, things like reputation or wealth or pleasant feelings.

There’s a reason this is my first post. I wish to reflect on, and to honour, virtue, in future posts. I accept it as true when Socrates proclaims that “The greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue.”

But that doesn’t mean I’m perfectly virtuous myself. I am not, although I am working on it. Until then, this is the blog of a self-aware and self-professed hypocrite. I hope you’ll join me.

PS: I imagine some readers will think that I have been imprecise in my classifications above, and this may be true. See below for a somewhat more exact scheme; on this grid, I think that what is possible for all of us, wherever we might be on our journey, is to be a good hypocrite, and that what is blameworthy is to fit in the bad hypocrite column, although even then I think it might be preferable to be a bad hypocrite than a straightforwardly bad person.

Good personGood hypocriteBad hypocriteBad person
Acts virtuously?YNNN
Tries to act virtuously?YYNN
Praises virtue?YYYN

6 Replies to “In Praise of Hypocrisy”

    1. Thanks James! That’s a lovely blog post you linked to. It didn’t go the direction I was expecting — I actually have a lot of respect for the original Cynics of ancient Greece — but the point you were making about our contemporary world is well said.

    1. Thanks Aaron! Good question — when I speak of the person who praises virtue, I mean the person who can only speak positively of moral goodness, who could never denigrate virtue or justify vice. I think it is possible for a person to praise virtue and not do it (as in Aristotle’s discussion of moral incontinence), but I can’t imagine a virtuous person who denigrates virtue or justifies vice. To me, that category just doesn’t exist. This is true even if the person in a given moment is not speaking, or not speaking about morality, just as a person can be a virtuous or vicious person even while asleep or in a coma, at least with respect to potency if not to activity.

  1. Those are some really good distinctions !

    One reason hypocrites are often seen as the « worst option » may be because a virtuous person looking at a hypocrite will see the lack of virtue, while the bad person will sees a hypocrite as being very judgemental in the way they speak for the truth.

    1. Merci beaucoup monsieur! Your observation is insightful. I think you are right. The virtuous person longs to see others arrive at virtue. The unvirtuous non-hypocrite wants to be confirmed in vice — “Let’s be honest, everyone does this, right? It’s not that big a deal, and maybe there’s even something noble about being unapologetically, self-destructively vicious like I am, unlike those hypocrites.” The worst trap to fall into. As long as we hypocrites continue to have our hearts broken for our flaws, there’s still hope of moral progress, which is the most important thing of all!

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