Hypocricy in the Church


"The [Christian] Church is full of hypocrites!"

Disclaimer: I have never actually had someone say this to me. I have received several lectures from well-meaning people (actually mostly person) on why it is important to act so people don't say it that included the phrase, but I don't count that.

I will define hypocrisy as telling others that they have a moral duty to do something you don't, even though you would have that duty as well. If I, a random man on the street, tell a policeman to stop a bank robber that I am not chasing myself, that is not hypocrisy because I am not supposed to stop him. That is what we have police for. If I was a policeman currently trying to stop a mad gunman and I called for backup to chase the bank robber, I am also not a hypocrite because it again is not my duty under the circumstances. However, if I am a policeman and I just sit there and call for help, that is hypocritical.

As I see it, there are 3 main ways to avoid hypocrisy:
  1. Be a really good person and fulfill all your obligations (all obligations are inherently moral - that's why they are called obligations) perfectly.
  2. Never tell anyone they have any sort of moral duty.
  3. Only tell people to do things you already do. If you want people to do something differently, change yourself first.
Considering these, I come up with the following:
  1. I fully agree that this is a good thing. However, it is also really hard, and it gets even harder as the moral standards get higher.
  2. This seems a recipe for moral decay. Many moral actions (like keeping promises) are mostly noticed when people don't do them, and immoral ones (like butting into line) are mostly noticed when people do. This means that expecting others to always learn by example will be hard going. Also, people may see others breaking the moral rules, and conclude that it is just a matter of opinion. The tendency of people to notice they evidence that supports what they already believe, or what to believe of conflicting evidence is well known. Since moral rules are generally only an issue when they tell you to do something you don't want to, I see a problem approaching.
  3. I see two problems with this one. The first is that it is often the people with direct experience with something who best understand why it is a bad idea. For example, we get people with lung cancer to talk about why smoking is bad for you, not healthy people who have never touched a cigarette in their life. Secondly, and more importantly, this would seriously reduce the flow of high ideals. If the rare person who actually was willing to help his enemies when they were in trouble didn't live near you, and you had the potential to be the next such person you would have to come up with the idea yourself. You might manage this, but it would be a lot harder than if someone had already told you about the idea.
It seems we have three groups of people here, who we can rank based on their theoretical and practical high-mindedness. In reality, of course, there are any number of spots of the moral continuum, but the basic idea holds. I am dividing them up as follows:
  1. Saints: High in ideals and practice
  2. Hypocrites: High ideals, but low in practice
  3. Scoundrels: Low in ideals and practice
There arguable could be a fourth category of anti-hypocrites who carefully follow high moral standards but tell others to follow low ones. We could call them shy saints. Although the shy saints are very nice to be around, I believe for the reasons mentioned above they are an unsustainable portion of society, socially reproducing themselves as scoundrels.

It seems clear that turning hypocrites into saints is a good idea. However, turning hypocrites into scoundrels does not seem to be so. In that case, we are telling them to stop even trying to reach sainthood. We actually should be going the other way, turning scoundrels into hypocrites as the first step on the way up. I suspect that when it comes to hypocrites, it is the saints that complain about their actions and the scoundrels that complain about their ideals. When you think about it that way, the saints also complain about the scoundrels' actions, and the scoundrels complain about the saints' ideals already: the hypocrites are just caught in the middle.

This becomes especially noticeable in Christianity, which has what I believe to be the strictest moral code ever invented, at least in its pure/strong/whatever form: A single non-good thought, at any point in your life, gets you tossed in the "evil" bin. Sainthood (shy or otherwise) is unachievable, so you have a choice between hypocrite or scoundrel. In that case, a Church full of hypocrites is arguable the best we can do, even in theory.

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