Thursday, 29 July 2010

For secular modernity, hypocrisy is the worst moral transgression

For secular modern societies hypocrisy is the worst sin.

Traditional Christian morality is that to sin is bad, but everyone sins since we are naturally worldly and self-loving (prideful) - what is important is to repent the sin.

And, traditionally, denying sin or defending sin or advocating sin in others are all very bad sins indeed.

In other words, although we cannot ever wholly stop ourselves from 'transgressing', we should never encourage others to transgress; people should aim at the highest standards; should publicly defend the highest standards - although they will not be able themselves to attain the highest standards.

Therefore, in the modern loose usage of the word, 'hypocrisy' is inevitable.

***

In secular modern societies, morality is regarded as being something invented and chosen; and Christianity in particular is vehemently rejected.

Yet there is a natural morality, natural law - or what C.S Lewis called the Tao in perhaps his greatest lecture series The Abolition of Man - http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/lewis/abolition3.htm

Natural morality is spontaneous in all humans at all points in history (quite possibly it is an evolutionary legacy, related to humans being social animals), and everyone (who is not a conscienceless psychopath) knows when he is transgressing it.

But secular modernity does not recognize the validity of natural morality, and the morality of secular modernity contradicts natural morality in many respects (usually with a utilitarian rationale) - this is what can be termed 'moral inversion' - where bad (according to natural morality) is re-labelled good and vice versa; bad people and good people are reversed in public esteem.

This is a normal aspect of political correctness, where monogamous heterosexual marriage among family orientated, law-abiding and hard-working people is loathed on the grounds of its hypocrisy and judgmental-ness; while open advocacy and practice of transgressive behaviours (i.e. transgressive according to natural morality) is morally aggrandized as being 'honest' and tolerant.

***

The moral inversion of PC seems to spring from its generally 'rebellious adolescent' mind set. Adolescents are (naturally) the worst behaved group in society - in terms of the psychology of personality across lifespan, it is during adolescence that a person will (on average) reach their highest levels of neuroticism, impulsiveness and extraversion, their lowest levels of empathizing/ agreeableness; and aggression levels peak around the mid teens.

The youth culture - driven by pride - has therefore evolved a new morality which makes adolescents the best people instead of the worst: the teenager as moral exemplar - the sensitive adolescent - impatient, full of angst, with multiple sensitivities, with easily bruised ego, lonely yet yearning for love - as the moral hero and compass for the rest of society...

Secular modernity (with its psychological neoteny - its essential adolescence, its suspended immaturity) therefore performs a moral inversion which relabels its own faultsas virtues, and reframes morality as primarily a matter of 'honesty'. Honesty means living by chosen standards. The square adult world is accused of hypocrisy - of failing to live up to the high standards it advocates - and this sin is seen as invalidating all else.

Adolescent 'honesty' is not, therefore, about telling the truth - but about advocating very low standards of behaviour, then exceeding them!

Only adolescents, so the story goes, are really moral - because only they adopt an 'honestly' low standard of behaviour which they - and everyone else - can truly live-up-to, can even exceed (and exceed gratuitously! - as a pure act of surplus goodness - not underpinned by religious or otherworldly rewards or sanctions).

This is perhaps the essence of moral inversion in modernity.

***

For example; for secular modernity; the open, explicit advocacy of impulsive sexual promiscuity is regarded as in itself morally admirable - since it is a standard that anyone can live up to (and gratifies at least the person doing it - the main problem being to convince the victims of assembly-line seduction that they too are being made happy and morally-enhanced by their exploitation).

Indeed, anyone who exceeds the very low moral standard, and behaves somewhat in the direction of natural morality, may be regarded as a genuine moral exemplar - e.g. a ruthless, manipulative, serially promiscuous individual who nonetheless maintains a long-term and affectionate relationship. 

***

In sum, the morality of secular modernity 'solves' the ancient problem of the inevitability of human sin by denying the sinfulness of most attitude or acts - the inevitable gap in behaviour between spontaneous morality and actual human behaviour is dealt with by down-grading the definition of moral behaviour until it is low enough that anyone can attain it.

But because humans cannot stop making moral evaluations, sin is not actually eliminated, rather the location of sin is displaced.

Evaluative neutrality is impossible for humans (we cannot be 'non-judgmental'; we are judging or evaluating animals), and because societal manipulations of natural morality are pushing against human nature, the displacement of sin is only possible with a high level of social coercion. The freedom to live a hedonic, gratification-oriented life becomes *moral advocacy* of a life of self-gratification.

The displaced sin then becomes the advocacy of high standards. High standards are regarded as aggressive because high standards will not be met, which will make people feel guilty, which makes them intractably miserable (because in secular modernity there is no forgiveness for guilt - only an attempted denial of the basis for guilt).

In a utilitarian society, to behave in a way that makes other people intractably miserable is regarded as the worst of sins...

***

In secular modern societies, people that advocate a high level of morality, especially natural morality, are seen as aggressors against the happiness of the majority - even or especially when such people actually achieve significantly higher standards of behaviour than the rest of society. The point is that their behaviour is not perfect, therefore they are hypocrites; which is the worst thing to be.

And of course such people really are 'hypocrites' in the sense that with high standards some level of degree of failure is inevitable.

***

So we get the profound moral inversions of secular modernity, in which exemplary citizens who advocate high moral standards - like Mormons and devout Evangelicals - are the primary hate figures.

While people who both advocate and practice lives of aggressive, exploitative, manipulative self-gratification are regarded as moral heroes.

Because so long as their explicitly advocated standards of behaviour are set even-lower than their actual behaviours; arrogant, selfish pleasure-seekers are immune against being regarded as that worst of modern villains: the hypocrite.

7 comments:

Ken Downin said...

"And, traditionally, denying sin or defending sin or advocating sin in others are all very bad sins indeed." I have to remember that one!

Jaz said...

Here's an interesting take on hypocrisy from Neal Stephenson's _The Diamond Age_ (never read it, it's sci-fi).


“Mr. Hackworth,” Finkle-McGraw said after the pleasantries had petered out, speaking in a new tone of voice, a the-meeting-will- come-to-order sort of voice, “please favour me with your opinion of hypocrisy.

“Excuse me. Hypocrisy, Your Grace?”

“Yes. You know.”

“It’s a vice, I suppose.”

“A little one or a big one? Think carefully-much hinges upon the answer.”

“I suppose that depends upon the particular circumstances.”

“That will never fail to be a safe answer, Mr. Hackworth,” the Equity Lord said reproachfully. Major Napier laughed, somewhat artificially, not knowing what to make of this line of inquiry.

“Recent events in my life have renewed my appreciation for the virtues of doing things safely,” Hackworth said. Both of the others chuckled knowingly.

“You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of a climate, you are not allowed to criticise others-after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism?”

Finkle-McGraw paused, knowing that he had the full attention of his audience, and began to withdraw a calabash pipe and various related supplies and implements from his pockets. As he continued, he charged the calabash with a blend of leather-brown tobacco so redolent that it made Hackworth’s mouth water. He was tempted to spoon some of it into his mouth.

“Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others’ shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour-you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.

“You wouldn’t believe the things they said about the original Victorians. Calling someone a Victorian in those days was almost like calling them a fascist or a Nazi.”

Both Hackworth and Major Napier were dumbfounded. “Your Grace!” Napier exdaimed. “I was naturally aware that their moral stance was radically different from ours- but I am astonished to be informed that they actually condemned the first Victorians.”

“Of course they did,” Finkle-McGraw said.

“Because the first Victorians were hypocrites,” Hackworth said, getting it.

continued...

Jaz said...

Part II

“You wouldn’t believe the things they said about the original Victorians. Calling someone a Victorian in those days was almost like calling them a fascist or a Nazi.”

Both Hackworth and Major Napier were dumbfounded. “Your Grace!” Napier exdaimed. “I was naturally aware that their moral stance was radically different from ours- but I am astonished to be informed that they actually condemned the first Victorians.”

“Of course they did,” Finkle-McGraw said.

“Because the first Victorians were hypocrites,” Hackworth said, getting it.

Finkle-McGraw beamed upon Hackworth like a master upon his favored pupil. “As you can see, Major Napier, my estimate of Mr. Hackworth’s mental acuity was not ill-founded.”

“While I would never have supposed otherwise, Your Grace,” Major Napier said, “it is nonetheless gratifying to have seen a demonstration.”

Napier raised his glass in Hackworth’s direction.

“Because they were hypocrites,” Finkle-McGraw said, after igniting his calabash and shooting a few tremendous fountains of smoke into the air, “the Victorians were despised in the late twentieth century. Many of the persons who held such opinions were, of course, guilty of the most nefandous conduct themselves, and yet saw no paradox in holding such views because they were not hypocrites themselves-they took no moral stances and lived by none.”

“So they were morally superior to the Victorians-” Major Napier said, still a bit snowed under.

“-even though-in fact, because-they had no morals at all.” There was a moment of silent, bewildered head-shaking around the copper table.

“We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy,” Finkle-McGraw continued. “In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception-he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it’s a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing.”

“That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code,” Major Napier said, working it through, “does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.”

“Of course not,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It’s perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said that it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct.

Really, the difficulties involved-the missteps we make along the way-are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal, struggle, between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power.” All three men were quiet for a few moments, chewing mouthfuls of beer or smoke, pondering the matter.

“I cannot help but infer,” Hackworth finally said, “that the present lesson in comparative ethics-which I thought was nicely articulated and for which I am grateful-must be thought to pertain, in some way, to my situation.”

Jaz said...

Part III

“We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy,” Finkle-McGraw continued. “In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception-he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it’s a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing.”

“That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code,” Major Napier said, working it through, “does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.”

“Of course not,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It’s perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said that it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct.

Really, the difficulties involved-the missteps we make along the way-are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal, struggle, between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power.” All three men were quiet for a few moments, chewing mouthfuls of beer or smoke, pondering the matter.

“I cannot help but infer,” Hackworth finally said, “that the present lesson in comparative ethics-which I thought was nicely articulated and for which I am grateful-must be thought to pertain, in some way, to my situation.”

Colin said...

So true, that hypocrisy is the only argument left to critique other people. I get your point.

BTW: "The Diamond Age" is one of the great novels of the last 20 years. It is both an explanation of computer programming and a discussion of cultural values in conflict and more.

bgc said...

Thanks for these comments.

@ Colin - the striking thing is that once hypocrisy is established as the ultimate sin, it actually makes people behave worse rather than better - and encourages people to encourage others to do likewise. The message is: behave how you like, and make this your standard of behaviour.

(And if your standard of behaviour comes-out higher than the prevailing standard - then be sensitively apologetic about ever mentioning the fact, lest you make other people feel guilty or inferior; emphasizing that yours is merely an arbitrary and subjective choice among many choices - all equally 'valid'.)

Wayne said...

Hypocrisy is a charge of inconsistency. Schindler is a hypocrite - a Nazi who saves Jews - but it's moral not immoral.