Hypocrisy and inconsistency

I agree with Eugene Volokh that the charge of “hypocrisy” – literally, playing a role – is way overused in political debate. Whether someone else sincerely believes what he says is not, generally, relevant to the question. Often enough, what seem like inconsistencies in an opponent’s position reflect no more than one’s own reluctance or inability to enter into the other’s thought and find the principle or interpretation that reconciles two apparently inconsistent views.

Still, consistency remains a bedrock logical principle, and pointing out genuine inconsistencies remains a legitimate form of criticism. For example, people who defend the “religious freedom” of employers to deny their employees insurance coverage for reproductive health, but not the freedom of Muslim congregations to build houses of worship, may reasonably be charged with twisting the idea of “religious freedom” all out of shape. If what they mean is that they want the freedom both to practice their own religion and to prevent other people from practicing theirs, then (despite the precedent set by the Puritans) their views may properly be called “un-American,” and their pretense to be defending “religious freedom” in the generally accepted (and Constitutional) sense of the term stands unmasked as dishonest.



Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

14 thoughts on “Hypocrisy and inconsistency”

  1. I'd say that internal consistency is a bedrock principle, but it's a principle that's pretty difficult to comply with outside the artificial universe of formal logic. And if you do pursue it, you're not going to make many friends.

    Normally people are operating on under-specified rule sets filled with lurking contradictions. And get pretty testy when the contradictions are pointed out to them. Like liberals with their positive rights, which it's almost trivially easy to demonstrate leads to contradiction in a world of limited resources people already have valid claims on. (See Nozick on this point.) Two hungry people, one sandwich. Which of them has the right to eat it? A liberal says both of them, contradiction. A libertarian says, "The owner of the sandwich, and never mind whether he's hungry.", and gets beat up for it.

    Do liberals accept that consistency demands a rejection of positive rights, and being satisfied with only negative rights? No, of course not. They hold their positive rights more precious than consistency.

    But I think you had a solid point in your first paragraph. Most public accusations of inconsistency are just a failure to properly characterize the principles someone you disagree with is applying. Like somebody you think favors "freedom of religion", when they actually favor something like "freedom of civilized religions", defined in some manner, and don't think they really have to tolerate a revival of Thugee, or the worship of Baal. Or Islam, because they don't regard it as a civilized religion. And the conversation gets shut down by shouts of "Racist!" or whatever, instead of actually getting down to whether they're right about that.

    We'd probably be better off exploring these more detailed principles, rather than calling out people for being inconsistent in applying shorthand descriptions of them.

    And, maybe a comment system that let people know that they'd been replied to, and the comment just killed in moderation, rather than thinking they'd left you without a response. But, that's off topic, I suppose.

    1. "People who disagree with me are stupid. Muslims are subhuman animals. Racism gets a bad rap. Also, people should pay more attention to me."

      1. You know, attributing fake quotes to people is not an especially effective rhetorical gambit.

    2. What most people who believe in positive rights recognize is that, even though rights are fundamental and inalienable, you will run into situations where different people's rights are incompatible with each other. That isn't just a feature of positive rights; even with a strict view of negative rights, you can run into the same problem. Your right to use your property in whatever way you choose can interfere with my right to use my property as I wish. That is especially true when the causes of a specific harm are diffuse; who, for example, should Bangladeshis hold responsible for global warming and sea level rise eating away their property?

      Anyone who insists that acknowledging only negative rights is a way to produce logical consistency not only overvalues strict logical consistency, they're also operating under a delusion that the universe is much simpler than it really is.

      1. Isn't property a positive right too? A property right implies a guarantee of the coercive power of the state to protect it. Otherwise it's just a pious hope. And the coercive power of the state is a limited resource. The Kochs can't expect the solitary half-dozen policemen outside their mansion to sacrifice their lives to protect the silverware against a howling mob of a thousand sans-culottes.

        1. Not as positive rights are normally defined, no. A right to have the police protect your property would be a positive right, as you properly identify it. In a world of limited resources, the police could lack the capacity to protect your property right, and somebody else's property right, which leads to contradiction: You both have the right to what only one of you can actually get.

          The negative right IS just that pious hope. But, so is your 'right' to the coercive power of the state; What higher state enforces that? No, you just have the pious hope the state will employ it's coercive powers on your behalf. Why even start down that infinite regress? All moral entitlements are pious hopes.

          The negative right to property is just the pious hope that nobody will take it away from you. It implies no obligation on anybody else's part to enforce that hope. It implies only inaction on the part of other people. No contradiction, because the capacity for inaction is unlimited by it's very nature: I can refrain from a virtual infinity of things, all at the same time.

          1. I'm glad you recognize that without government there are no enforceable rights. A violated fundamental right is a failure by government to do its job. And once you have government, above a quite low level of GDP it can perfectly well enforce rights to education, public health and minimum subsistence as well as protecting private property. In fact these things started to happen more or less at the same time; Peel's Metropolitan Police in London = 1829, first effective British Factories Act = 1833.

          2. Wow. You actually think that nobody but government can enforce rights? Or is this a definition thing, where any entity that's enforcing rights gets to that extent declared a government? So, a burglar breaks into my house, and I shoot him, suddenly I'm government?

            "And once you have government, above a quite low level of GDP it can perfectly well enforce rights to education, public health and minimum subsistence as well as protecting private property."

            Or attack private property, march children into propaganda centers, destroy public heath by enforcing crazy biological theories, and even commit genocide.

            Government, a class of organization composed of human beings, has no particular competence beyond other organizations composed of human beings, and history certainly shows it has no particular tendency to be benign, either. Really, it's just an evolved protection racket, with a terrifying tendency to devolve at the worst times unless you watch it like a hawk.

    3. "Or Islam, because they don't regard it as a civilized religion." You neatly confirm Gandhi's jibe: when asked by a journalist what he thought of Western civilisation, he replied. "it would be a good idea." Imagine Akbar, Ibn Khaldun or Rumi faced with Wayne LaPierre or Donald Trump. Would they have any reason to include them in the circle of the civilised?

    4. Going right into your third-to-last paragraph, which is pretty flabbergasting. I understand that it doesn't seem like you're personally endorsing this view, but wow.

      I have to hope that the people who are against Islam have a view more nuanced than it being uncivilized.

      If someone thinks that "freedom of religion" means "freedom of civilized religions", they should honestly say it. That's such a strong distinction that it should be immediately articulated. Don't you think?

      Holding a negative right to such a subjective and nebulous idea as 'civilized' seems problematic.

      There can be a debate about whether Islam is 'civilized', and it happens often. I have seen these debates, with anti-Muslim voices represented, even on 'liberal' media outlets (i.e. NPR's On Point). The debate usually moves past ideas like 'Islam is uncivilized' pretty quickly.

      And while I value free discourse as much as you seem to, I can understand why an American Muslim would shout 'racist' if they were called uncivilized. It's tough to deal with regular harassment and criticism of even your most basic beliefs, on top of everyday hardships. Especially when much of the criticism comes from people who don't seem to care to learn about Islam before criticizing it. It's definitely a good thing for Muslims to discourse about their religion, but sometimes they're tired and not able to discourse with full energy.

      On another note, do you have friends who are Muslim? I do, they're hard-working, wonderful people, I've never seen anything remotely "uncivilized" about their beliefs (even when talking about edgy and controversial issues), and it breaks my heart that they deal with the harassment that they do.

      I probably forgot something, whoops

  2. "…pointing out genuine inconsistencies remains a legitimate form of criticism…."

    Legitimate, but usually just as far off the mark as the cheaper accusation of "hypocrisy". Both reflect category errors, misidentifying the kind of discourse that is going on. Where we are tempted to make either accusation, that temptation is the signal that what we are dealing with is not rational discourse, but storytelling or mythmaking, probably mostly framed in allegory.

    Stories do not have to be consistent, any more than they have to be true. They may happen to be consistent, or they may happen to be true, but where they are, it is not because consistency or truth is a criterion of the discourse.

  3. Ah, nothing quite like being downvoted without comment or explanation, to convince somebody they're wrong. I wonder if it's just a script? Wouldn't surprise me.

  4. Mark, you know I love ya, but I think hypocrisy in politics isn't called out enough, and not thinking it through is no excuse.

    Very specifically, I'll point to all the politicians who claim to be Christians and then proceed to engage in anti-Christian actions: of late, there have been a lot of "Christians" who are against Deuteronomy 10:19 and Leviticus 19:34, never mind Matthew 25 or 7:1. If a politician thinks a line in Leviticus justifies hatred against gays, but that the words of Christ are subject to interpretive nuance, then they need to be called on their hypocrisy.

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