Thoughts on Hypocrisy

“He is a hypocrite who professes what he does not believe; not he who does not practice all he wishes or approves.’’ — William Hazlitt.

“Hypocrisy is the homage which vice pays to virtue.’’ — François de la Rochefoucauld.

During a plenary session at  a large scientific conference I attended last year in Boston, Dr. Berrien Moore, a member of the International Panel on Climate Change, gave a thoughtful presentation on the dire consequences of global climate change. His well-received presentation suggested that unless there were radical reductions in future carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, the world would experience grave environmental consequences. It is not clear how many others were conscious of the irony of the situation. We were all at a conference having flown hundreds or thousands of miles from many parts of the world fretting about the consequences of modern society’s large carbon footprint. If we all took the thesis of the presentation seriously, why were we all flying many miles to attend a conference that might have been held virtually?

Now, I fully appreciate the benefits and importance of face-to-face contact at scientific meetings, but should not those who appreciate and understand the impact of climate change be the first, buy their example, to adjust their lifestyles as a witness to the importance placed onminimizing the impact of man on the environment. The fact that we ignored this implicit hypocrisy does not make the case for concern about global climate change any less or any more valid. Hypocrisy, however, corrodes credibility. If former Vice-President Al Gore can refer to the passage of the cap-and-trade bill as a “moral imperative’’ and Nobel prize-winning economist can describe opposition to the bill as “treason against the planet,’’ it seems little to ask that we save the fuel by conducting a conference virtually.

This distinction between personal behavior and public pronouncements was also conspicuous this week as Governor Mark Sanford admitted ignoring his marital pledges and jetting off to Argentina to spend time with a mistress. Sanford had publicly argued in favor of traditional family values, but clearly has difficulty in meeting these aspirations. It thus afforded an opportunity, for those who prefer a world where traditional family values are given less weight an opportunity, to ridicule Sanford. Given some of Sanford’s peculiar post-scandal behavior, it is hard to imagine a character easier to ridicule.

Pointing out the hypocrisy of advocates represents a convenient way to avoid dealing with very real issues. The high carbon footprint of those who argue for limiting carbon missions does not make the threat to the climate any more or less severe. The inability of those who argue in favor of traditional family values meet their own aspirations does not make the attenuation of these values any less socially destabilizing. Indeed, when people harp excessively on the hypocrisy of others, it is reasonable to suspect that they are motivated less by aversion to hypocrisy than the opportunity to score political points. Perhaps a better measure of consistency would be if those who fundamentally agree with an advocate of a certain position are first to criticize deviations. For example, do environmentalists take to task those of their own who live high carbon footprints, or are traditionalists quick to criticize those of their own who do not live up to their aspirations?

In Mark Sanford’s home state of South Carolina, 13 of 27 Republican Senators are calling for Sanford resignation. However, at a meeting of those who take the possibility of global warming seriously, there was nary a concern for the carbon footprint of the meeting. The latter, at least seems a bit too convenient.

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