Stop calling Kim Davis a hypocrite

There is a reason we say that hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue

Kim Davis
(Image credit: Illustration by Lauren Hansen | Image courtesy Ty Wright/Getty Images)

America has a lot of problems in 2015, but apparently few are as bad as our epidemic of hypocrisy. Just look at the headlines:

Kim Davis is a hypocrite for opposing same-sex marriage after having several divorces. Defenders of traditional sexual morals become paragons of hypocrisy when they're caught with accounts at Ashley Madison. Europe is hypocritical for refusing to take in more refugees from Syria while claiming to stand for human rights. Donald Trump's a hypocrite for slamming immigrants when he's been married to women who immigrated to the U.S. And of course, Hillary Clinton's guilty of so many acts of hypocrisy that the media can't even keep them all straight.

In some cases, the judgment is apt. But far more often, the reference to hypocrisy is a sign of our impoverished moral vocabulary and anemic moral reasoning.

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Broadly speaking, morality in our time comes in two forms.

The first is a morality of rights that serves as a shield around individuals, protecting them from harm inflicted by other people or the government. As long as a person's behavior doesn't violate someone else's rights, the morality of rights refrains from evaluation or judgment. Each person is free to do what she wants as long as no one gets hurt, with hurt usually defined exclusively in material terms. ("Trigger warnings" and other speech and behavior restrictions being enacted on some college campuses are so controversial because they aim to expand the morality of rights to protect individuals against more amorphous emotional harms.)

The second form of morality is a morality of ends that presumes a vision of human flourishing, a standard or criterion of human excellence that permits or implies an evaluation of behavior — virtue and vice, better and worse, dignified and degraded, noble and base, admirable and shameful — regardless of how that behavior affects others. The morality of ends derives from numerous sources — religious, humanistic, philosophic, conventional, or traditional — many of which antedate the morality of rights that was first proposed by such 17th century authors as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

Over time, the public scope and vitality of the first morality has expanded while the second has constricted. Today we're increasingly uncomfortable rendering judgments of behavior when it doesn't infringe on the rights of others. (This sometimes leads to confusion among conservatives, who mistake the trend for a plague of relativism. But of course we're not relativistic at all when it comes to rights, only when it comes to ends. The truth is we're becoming relativistic in one sphere but increasingly absolutist in the other, with the list of protected rights growing ever-longer with every passing year.)

This is where the charge of "hypocrisy" comes in.

When we denounce someone for hypocrisy, we judge him harshly, but without having to express a substantive commitment of our own with regard to ends. The hypocrite is judged entirely on his own terms, accused of violating the ideal of human flourishing that he himself professes to uphold, revere, and use as a standard for judging others. The hypocrite is guilty, as we say, of having "double standards" — expecting exacting behavior from others while letting himself off the hook more easily. Simply pointing that out seems to allow us to be judgmental while remaining agnostic about whether we actually affirm any vision of human flourishing ourselves.

But that isn't quite true. When we call someone a hypocrite, we often do so on the basis of two implicit moral assumptions: first, that a person who expresses a moral standard should be expected to live up to it with complete consistency; and second, that if a person fails to live up to it with complete consistency, the moral standard should be abandoned and replaced with one that can be consistently followed.

Those assumptions may not seem like much, but in fact they're far more stringent — and morally corrosive — than the very different assumptions at work behind the scenes of the most widely affirmed moralities of ends.

Whether in religious or philosophical form, moralities of ends tend to presume that we will frequently fall short of the standards they hold out before us. The whole point of the end is to serve as an ideal — a vision of what a human being should do but often won't.

For religiously based moralities of ends, the concept of sin captures our incapacity to live as we should — our failure to live up to the ideals that we ourselves affirm as worthy of pursuit and emulation — with complete consistency. Hence the meaning of the old saying, "hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue": In falling short of our own standards and acknowledging it, we affirm to the reality of the ideal despite ourselves.

Philosophically based moralities of ends also presume that achieving the standard is a relatively rare accomplishment. Not everyone is equally suited to moral excellence, just as not everyone has the combination of natural capacities and contingent opportunities to become a first-rate basketball player or theoretical physicist.

To insist that we only affirm standards that we can achieve with perfect consistency is, in effect, to drastically lower those standards from something that we strive for (while often failing) to something within much easier reach — which probably won't be much different from what we would do in the absence of any standard at all. It's a license for us to go easy on ourselves: to aim low and succeed.

A moral world in which no one was guilty of hypocrisy would be one divested of the entire vertical dimension of morality. In such a world, we might all respect each other's rights, but no one would strive to accomplish great, rare, exacting moral deeds.

I'd much rather live in a world filled with hypocrites.

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Damon Linker

Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at He is also a former contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.