Misconception Monday – What is Hypocrisy?

I’m restarting a project I had begun years ago: to have themed posts on certain days of the week. Monday, beginning as it does with the same letter as “misconception”, will be dedicated frequently to dealing with instances the same. This week’s target is the modern erroneous perception of hypocrisy.

For a modern post-Christian who believes in moral relativity, there are still two moral absolutes (however contradictory this is): consent and hypocrisy. Anything consented to is moral, and anyone who is a hypocrite is immoral. While I’ll save an analysis of the utter weakness of basing a moral framework on consent, this post is concerned with the definition of hypocrisy that is used in this context.

Hypocrisy is often described as the act of failing to live up to your own standard, or failing at a standard you think applies to others. Neither of these is correct.

In fact, hypocrisy might be the most misused word in the English language. It doesn’t mean having a moral standard which you fail to meet. It doesn’t mean believing something differently now than you believed in the past. It doesn’t mean believing people should be held accountable for something even if you have been guilty of it, too.

Hypocrisy means pretending to be one thing when you are really something else (from Greek hupokrisis, which has to do with acting a theatrical part)*. That’s it. This is the meaning used in the Christian Bible as well.

People are quick to call anyone with a moral standard a “hypocrite” and then express all sorts of moral outrage, not realizing that in doing so, they are actually the ones guilty of hypocrisy (by pretending to be moral superiors while denying morality). The people they are outraged by are guilty only of failing to live up to a standard. But any standard worth having is beyond our grasp. If it was better to live up to any standard than to fail at living up to a good one, we all ought to adopt standards that are impossible to fail. Doing so would do no good, but would tempt all kinds of evil.


* I’ve heard it argued that the origin of a word has no influence over the meaning of a word. This is nonsense and is like saying the origin of an automobile has no influence over its current use. The original meaning of a word and its context does not tell us everything about the word as it is used today, but it tells us a great deal. It also tells us what the word meant to the people who established our cultural traditions regarding its meaning. “Person”, for instance, was originally used to refer to the masks worn by actors (“persona”), and was adopted as an aid in explaining the Trinity. “Personhood”, then, gets its moral power from the relation to God that humans have, being made in His image. This causes bizarre contradictions for modern people who don’t believe in God.

Something similar happens for “rights”, which only have moral weight when the term is used in a way foreign to the demands of activists today.

But both of these are topics for two more misconception Mondays.