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I was listening to a political podcast and David Poltz (one of the presenters) said of an argument that he was unconcerned whether the argument was hypocritical. I found that attitude jarring, counter-intuitive but very interesting. The contention is that if the argument is good then it is good independent of the actions of the person proposing it.

To take a simplistic example I could argue that it would be better for the environment if no-one had a car and we all used public transport. If it later turns out that I own 4 cars that I happily drive around in them all day long this doesn't invalidate my argument. It still might well be the best thing if no-one drove their own cars even if I am ignoring my own advice.

From (my) every day point of view I would say that hypocrisy does affect an argument but obvious this opinion isn't universally held. What about from a more rigorous (philosophical) point of view. Does hypocrisy invalidate an argument? Are there some philosophical traditions that say it would and some that say it wouldn't perhaps.

Many Thanks for your thoughts

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Because you see argumentation as interaction of personalities not as an ideal interaction of ideas ~ forms. Personalities are irrelevant for argumentation unless they are the topic of it. If you judge -- hypocritical arguments are best food. If we want to find truth why should we care? –  Asphir Dom May 10 '14 at 21:49
I would critically evaluate the words, not the tongue uttering them. However I would critically evaluate the tongue later anyway. If an alcoholic told you that drinking is bad would you dismiss the argument as invalid? –  Nicholas Kyriakides May 11 '14 at 1:30
@Nicholas: "Drinking is bad" isn't an argument; it's merely an assertion of fact. We might use the fact that it was spoken by an alcoholic to adjust how much confidence we have in the assertion. –  Hurkyl May 11 '14 at 4:26
@Nicholas: I wasn't trying to be nitpicky; I think it's actually relevant to the topic! The reliability, trustworthiness, possible motives, et cetera of a speaker are quite relevant to how much confidence we put into an assertion of fact! –  Hurkyl May 11 '14 at 7:07

14 Answers 14

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The general rule is that a person’s behavior does not invalidate that person’s arguments. This is because ideally philosophical arguments are based on reason. Thus if the reasoning is valid, it does not matter whether the person offering the argument can successfully do what they believe is the correct course of action. Thus, several of the other answers speak of the hypocrisy fallacy.

This fallacy, like most (with the exceptions being fallacies of formal logic like affirming the consequent and denying the antecedent), are not however absolute nor are they strict. By saying they are not strict, I mean merely being able to point out that something can be called a fallacy does not mean that you are not identifying a valid problem with an argument. By saying they are not absolute, I mean that they involve a human judgment as to whether or not the fallacy fits the argument well.

For moral arguments, I think there are some cases where it does matter that the person or group offering the argument is unable to do what they tell others to do. Here, the material point is below the surface of the argument and hinges on questions of whether "ought implies can" (as Kant famously believed). The point being that some failures to execute on a moral argument may indicate that the reasons and premises used are somehow incompatible with the human condition. Again, whether this matters is a question of what type of moral philosophy one practices -- specifically on whether it believes we can be moral (which is different from being a realist about morality).

To give an example of one area where consistency can matter, Plato condemns homosexual sex in the voice of Socrates, but he also writes that Socrates lusts after some of the male youth and indicates that he had slept with them. Given this sort of dilemma between one's moral rules and one's actual practices, one can choose either to change the rules, change the practices, or admit that one does not achieve morality.

A second type of problem can also make this relevant. If we are looking in terms of moral examplars, then it can matter if they person who tells us we must always behave in a certain way does the opposite herself. Here, the point would be that we take certain figures to be moral authorities by virtue of their virtue or some station. I take it this is one motive in the anger towards the Catholic church about priests abusing children (when in fact statistically, they are not more likely to abuse than the general population).

All of this to say you can call it hypocrisy but that only becomes damning when you combine that with other background questions about the possibility of living morally and the nature of our relationship to our moral experience and about how we see certain parties as moral advisors.

Returning to your specific example about the hypocritical environmentalist, it might matter if the environmentalist wants his listener to feel guilt over polluting yet expresses no remorse himself. It could also matter if he claims this is an absolute good -- but demonstrates in his own life that this is relative good. But it will take more to flesh out why one thinks these claims matter.

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+1 thank you for that. Brilliant. With regard to Socrates. Didn't he have a concept of incontinence of will. Everyone knows something is inadvisable but is unable to stop themselves doing it. Hence Socrates disagrees with homosexuality but has homosexual affairs –  Crab Bucket May 11 '14 at 7:09
@CrabBucket Aristotle has a strong account of incontinence of will. I think Plato mentions such a notion but does not develop how it works. The interesting part is that in both cases the idea of a will is not well-defined or set as distinct from one's thoughts and emotions. –  virmaior May 11 '14 at 14:43

If you are dismissing an argument because its proponent is dismissing their own advice, then you yourself are committing a fallacy. It's a version of the ad hominem called tu quoque (basically: you too!). The fallacy is also known as: The appeal to hypocrisy.

What is valid though, is that you have reason to then doubt the integrity of the person. While the argument does not become invalid, you have no reason to trust that person.

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The distinction is between (a) an argument of which we can independently verify the soundness and (b) a claim that purports to provide us new information that we're going to have to take on trust (or not). For (a) hypocrisy is irrelevant. For (b) it may be vital evidence. e.g. "I assure you this bridge is perfectly safe to cross. But as a gentleman, I insist that ladies go first!" –  Daniel Earwicker May 12 '14 at 14:38
@DanielEarwicker: Very seldom do debates involve rigorous logical proof. It is very common for both parties to stipulate things whose proof would seem a distraction from the issue at hand, but someone who is debating in bad faith may seek to have his opponent stipulate things that are not true, and then use them to support false arguments. Thus, even when evaluating arguments, the integrity of the person has a lot to do with the level of scrutiny that should be given to any stipulations upon which it is based. –  supercat May 16 '14 at 5:50

Formally the validity of an argument has nothing to do with the person who makes it. But I'd like to specifically address the your example

I've heard a different version of the environmental argument you mention, which makes it far from clear that it is a simple matter of hypocrisy. It went something along the lines of...

  1. Society has a reliance on certain environmentally unsound practices. I don't think it should have this reliance.
  2. The problem is a deep societal problem.
  3. To change anything we need to change the structure of society - treat the cause not the symptoms.
  4. Being overly idealistic in every day life endangers my ability to change things (e.g. one might need to fly to get to a environmental conference), and in some cases can alienate me from those people whose attitudes I wish to change (no one listens to hippies).
  5. Therefore, there are limits to what I am obliged to do with regards to adopting an ecological lifestyle, though I am obliged to determine these limits conscientiously.

So, the flip side of what you are saying is that if they don't martyr themselves for their causes they're not making a valid argument.

Whatever moral claim you are making, some people are going to see some of your actions as not conforming to it, people are not perfect. Even if someone were perfect their motivations would surely be misunderstood by some. If we take this point of view all moral arguments are in some sense hypocritical, and if we allow this to detract from an argument political debate descends into an exercise in dirt-digging.

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It does not invalidate the argument, and I would even go so far as to say that citing hypocrisy should be considered a logical fallacy, and one which plays a big role in the misunderstanding between people with different political viewpoints, and in the disempowerment of people who advocate for positive change. In examples like your car example, choosing to act according to your beliefs can be both ineffective and counter-productive:

  1. Individual actions, or even actions by a limited number of people, may not have any significant effect on the overall outcome of a system.

  2. Since everyone is not already choosing to act according to your beliefs, there must be some disadvantage to acting on them, and by acting on them you would put yourself at a disadvantage.

Some similar examples come to mind:

  • A business owner may believe that the minimum wage should be increased, but simply increasing the wages of one's employees while other employers maintain low wages would put them at a competitive disadvantage. In this case it's reasonable for them to push for a law that forces everyone to increase wages (equally disadvantaging themselves and all competitors) instead of just disadvantaging themselves by choice.

  • The owners of a technology company may believe software patents are wrong and should be abolished, but may be obtaining and using them defensively because their competitors will put them out of business if they don't have their own patent portfolio to participate in mutual licensing.

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The only person who never fails to live up to his own standards is one who doesn't have any. The rest of us are hypocrites to some degree.

Words may be true or false, but if they're true, they're true, no matter who says them.

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

They are true as long as those words are not self-referential. "Ich bin ein Berliner". –  k0pernikus May 12 '14 at 14:16
Sorry, I'll go somewhere where getting to the point is valued over repeating everyone else's speeches. Delete away! –  WGroleau May 13 '14 at 22:41

Accusation of hypocrcy, which is essentially a form of ad hominem, does not invalidate an argument. Consider this currently ongoing example:

Russia invades Ukraine. USA imposes sanctions. Russia immediately claims hypocricy, citing US invasions of Iraq and Aphganistan, as well as bombing Libya and Serbia.

IMO Russia is correct regarding the claim of hypocracy, but that hypocricy has no bearing on the fact that in this particular case US position that Russia should be sanctioned is absolutely correct.

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When an issue is debated in good faith, it is possible for both participants in the debate to come away with a better understanding of the issues than they entered with. When one or both participants debates in bad faith, the other participant is far less likely to benefit.

Note that there is a difference between playing devil's advocate versus arguing in bad faith. The former hopes that by arguing a position contrary to his belief, he will cause the other person to better articulate his beliefs (and those of the devil's advocate) than either person would be able to do in the absence of the contrary argument. By contrast, one who argue in bad faith hope to make his victim believe things the bad-faith arguer knows to be false, in the hopes that the victim will engage in some action which is detrimental to the victim but beneficial to the bad-faith arguer.

That fact that a person engages in hypocrisy does not prove that the person's arguments are not valid, however it a sign that the person may be arguing in bad faith. If someone has no interest in good-faith debate, arguing with them will be a waste of time. Although the validity of a good-faith argument will not be affected by the character of the person making it, the extent to which an argument is worth considering is fundamentally dependent upon whether it is made in good faith, and that will often correlate strongly with the character of the person arguing.

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The problem with a hypocritical argument is that the hypocrisy of the arguer may make it less likely that the (sound) proposal gets adopted.

But if it is, "no harm, no foul."

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There are many problems, especially environmental problems, where I can improve things a bit, at some cost to myself, but at a larger gain to my whole community. If everybody acts, then everybody would gain much more than their cost. If only few people act, then these people lose out. In that situation it is entirely reasonable and not at all hypocritical for example to ask for legislation or consensus to make everyone act and not be acting by myself. So often there will be a claim of hypocrisy, but the claim may very well be wrong on a closer look.

Now let's take an extreme example. You go to your doctor and ask him for advice. He says you should lose weight and stop smoking. Your doctor himself is overweight and a chain smoker. Is he a hypocrite? Yes. Should you reject his advice? No.

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It is hard never to be hypocritical. It is hard always to practice what you preach.

If the world is built around principles you are trying to change, then living them requires real sacrifice, and to be really persuasive require sacrifice not just religious fervour.

Logic can take us only so far. Fallacious logic and literary/oratorial tricks can take us further, and are often more compelling to the uninitiated. But sound and unsound logic are alike undermined by actions or lifestyle that don't match, and will encourage people to either dismiss or revisit your arguments. In the latter case they may perhaps see holes they missed, or perhaps see that you are just human after all.

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Here's why what's commonly referred to as "hypocrisy" does not necessarily invalidate an argument:

Consider a baseball manager who does not like the Designated Hitter rule, but he's hired to run a team in the American League (or some other league that uses that rule). It is "hypocritical" for him to put a DH on his score cards, but because the decision to have the DH rule is made by the league as a whole, for him to unilaterally have his pitchers bat while his opponents get to use DHs would be a breach of his duty to the team owner to win the most games under the rules as they exist. In my book, there's nothing a bit hypocritical about wanting to change the rules, but using the existing rules for maximum advantage. He is honest, which can not necessarily be said for his opponents.

His mirror, the manager who likes the DH rule but runs a National League team, is more clearly the analogue of the mass-transit advocate. His failure to use something that does not (yet) exist (for him) is irrelevant. If, however, the mass-transit system he advocates is brought into existence and he keeps driving his cars, then he is a hypocrite.

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It doesn't invalidate the argument if the argument is "should we"; however, it does invalidate the argument (at least to some extent) if the argument is "could we" (or perhaps "would we" might be more apt).

It's related to ethical themes analyzing the value in scenarios of possible/ideal/long-term course of action vs the probable/realistic/short-term.

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In general, we try to make answers so that they are helpful to the question asker or random internet searchers. You could improve this answer by explaining how and why you think "should we" is not invalidated and "could we" is at least to some extent invalidated. –  virmaior May 13 '14 at 0:07

Your example is very interesting, because actually, in your case, your argument is valid only if you're a hypocrite.

You say people should resign from using cars because it's good for environment, but you have 4 and use them heavily.

  1. If using cars is bad for environment, you're a hypocrite. You want other to make things you find necessary, to make use of their sacrifices without making any on your own.

  2. If it's not bad for environment, either you try to convince someone to do something you don't believe makes any sense (to make fun of him, etc.) or you're believing in something that is not true. In both cases hypocrite is not a best word to describe you.

The problem is, if you see someone saying one thing and doing another, you don't know which of those cases happen. So if someone is a hypocrite, it doesn't make his arguments invalid, but neither it makes them valid.

If someone is doing what he is saying he believe in, it's no proof too. It's only a proof someone believes in what he/she says, nothing more.

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You are mixing "apples" and "oranges" ... Hypocrisy is an category of Moral while the validity of an argument depends on whether the argument is logically true or false.

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