Hypocricy and the Marketplace of Ideas

 Posted by on 26 October 2002 at 12:57 pm  Uncategorized
Oct 262002

The ever-insightful Arthur Silber has an interesting post on hypocrisy and public intellectuals. His basic argument is that the question of whether an idea is true or not is wholly and entirely separate from the question of whether the advocates of the idea consistently practice it. From a purely logical reasoning perspective, I agree with Arthur. Simply put, tu quoque is a fallacy. Critics of hypocritical intellectuals should focus on the failures of their ideas, not on upon the failures of their personal lives.

That being said, we should be aware that a more complicated picture emerges when we consider the process by which people rationally investigate ideas. There are countless intellectuals in the world all vying for our attention. But there simply isn’t enough time in the day to consider all of these ideas equally. So we use various heuristics to weed out the likely bad ideas.

For example, we generally don’t bother listening to people who are unfamiliar with the major research in a given field. Of course, it is possible for someone to do brilliant work without being familiar with all of the relevant research. But it far more likely that such a person will make elementary mistakes. All else being equal, we’re far better off attending to the ideas of those knowledgeable of their field than ignorant. (Advanced degrees are at least a sign of being well-versed in a given field, which is why they are taken fairly seriously.) Of course, none of this reasoning constitutes proof by any stretch of the imagination. But it is a useful heuristic that allows us to more effectively manage the flow of ideas in our life.

Similarly, we tend to pay less attention to ideas advocated by people who fail to live up to them. Why would that be?

First, intellectuals commonly advocate all sorts of loopy ideas that could never consistently be practiced, such as genuine altruism. So by looking at whether the adherents of an idea actually practice that ideal may serve as a rough estimate of whether the idea is at all consonant with the facts of reality. After all, doesn’t the whole priest-pedophelia scandal in the Catholic Church tell us something about the ideal of chastity and the Church’s actual concern for children? At least that information should raise doubts. So hypocrisy in public intellectuals is a sign (but again, not proof) that something is amiss with their ideas.

Second, intellectuals sometimes advocate ideas as a means of controlling others rather than because they believe the ideas themselves. For example, some people argue that religion is false — but necessary for the stupid unwashed masses. Without the fear of God, such pragmatic elitists argue, the filthy hordes would run amok with no moral constraints at all! But of course, educated and refined people have no need for such delusions. So the fact that such intellectuals do not practice what they preach is a consequence of some rather nasty underlying views about humanity.

Third, intellectuals will sometimes advocate ideas because they fulfill some pathological psychological need, rather than for their relation to reality. For example, someone might argue that its morally acceptable to steal from corporations because to condemn the theft would be to condemn their father, who routinely stole from work. Or a woman might stridently argue against pre-marital sex due to her own guilt about lying to her fiancee about her virginity. Here hypocrisy alerts us to the possibility of non-rational motives for advocating an idea.

So to ignore certain intellectuals due to their hypocrisy is not irrational. We have limited time to spend investigating ideas, so we ought to use that time wisely.

That being said, I agree with Arthur that critics of ideas ought to focus their attention on the ideas themselves rather than the personal conduct of its advocates. But once the ideas have been demolished, the hypocrisy may well be noteworthy, as something of icing on the cake.

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