Ethics, Reason


Saturday, 14th January 2017

From Jan. 14, 2017

What’s wrong with hypocrisy? We usually think that it’s a violation of integrity, or that it’s a form of lying. These researchers argue that it’s about virtue signalling. We’re offended by those who signal their own virtue (usually by what they are saying) when they don’t deserve that status (because of what they’re doing).

What’s interesting is how charges of hypocrisy are leveled by everyone against everyone else. In other words, everyone has a lot invested in looking virtuous to others, both within their own tribe and outside of it. (“Tribe” here just refers to a social, religious, political grouping in which borders are policed and which stands in contrast to other tribes, perhaps self-defined or perhaps real). It’s also interesting how these communities of virtue take on a kind of metaphysical underpinning. So, in at least some religious communities, it’s not just about the virtue of the members, it’s about the divine law that underlies it. In some social activist communities, it’s about the proper order of things behind equality, human rights (pretty much as metaphysical as the story about divine law).

Within the tribe, there’s leeway. Except in the most rigid tribes, there are ways of explaining mismatches between what people say and what they do. Virtue signalling remains intact – someone can be virtuous, but “slip”. We can turn it into humor. Between tribes, on the other hand, there’s much less leeway. Each “slip” is really an evidence of true nature, and a confirmation that the virtue that is claimed really doesn’t exist at all.

Behind all the stories that make the facts of the world coherent, there are moral impulses. A democratic society is one which not only allows multiple beliefs and opinions, but multiple ways of telling a story about morals. As soon as a single group’s moral framework becomes determinative for an entire society, there is no more democracy. This does not imply that there can’t be law (of course there can, that’s a different issue). There can be a shared sense of a national project. But morals will always be tribe-based, and trying to generalize them, even with the best of intentions, is an inherently oppressive act.

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