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Recent news of South Carolina governor Mark Sanford’s affair provides an appropriate occasion to discuss a topic that’s been on my mind lately: hypocrisy. When social conservatives like Sanford or Bill Bennett get caught in vice, the charge immediately hurled at them is hypocrisy; this is said to make their crimes far worse than those of, say, Eliot Spitzer, who wasn’t that kind of moralizer in the first place. But I want to make the case here that hypocrisy is really not so bad.

A defence of hypocrisy is not original to me. There are plenty of right-wingers who’ve defended hypocrisy in these sorts of situations: William Vallicella blogged about it a while ago, Jeremy Lott wrote a whole book about it, and most recently James Matthew Wilson‘s defence of hypocrisy at Front Porch Republic was where I heard about Sanford’s adultery in the first place. But these men do not share the ideals of those who usually attack hypocrisy, and I think the point might be more persuasive coming from a left-leaner like me. I oppose Sanford’s and Bennett’s sexual politics, and I think their behaviours were unjustifiable; but I want to claim that these two criticisms are and should be mostly separate.

Put it this way. Suppose a man preaches anti-racism, tells all his friends they must avoid racism, donates to anti-racist causes; but himself refuses to hire black people or associate with them professionally. Now imagine a man who acted the same way toward black people but advocated doing so — a man who said that black people are unreliable and should not be hired or associated with. The first man is a hypocrite, the second man is absolutely not; the second man is sincere, and true to himself. But is the second man then better than the first? I don’t think so. In both cases the serious wrongdoing is the racism, not the hypocrisy. I might say, actually, that the hypocrite who preaches anti-racism is at least a bit better than the consistent man who doesn’t; the first is doing some good. Moreover, one can point out the inconsistency between his behaviour and his ideals, in a way that helps his behaviour change for the better. It’s much harder to change the man whose bad ideals match his bad behaviour.