Hypocrisy, Change of Mind, and Weakness of Will (Béla Szabados and Eldon Soifer, 2004)

NOTE: This article is the last of three on the aspects and roles of deception. It is taken from the 14th chapter of Hypocrisy: Ethical Investigations.

Hypocrisy - Ethical Investigations cover

“There comes a time … when intelligent argument over rival doctrines must be postponed and critical attention directed instead to the crucial moral concepts themselves.”1 Joel Feinberg

“Give me chastity and continence, but not just now.”2 Augustine


So far we have argued that philosophers who claim that there can be hypocrisy without deception have failed to provide any compelling cases to support their claim. Many cases of hypocrisy that at first appear not to involve deception turn out to do so when considered more carefully. Furthermore, by including self-deception as an important form of deception, one is able to understand more fully an array of types of hypocrisy that might otherwise seem problematic.

It is methodologically impossible, however, to consider every possible case of hypocrisy and demonstrate how deception enters into it. Therefore, no matter how convincing the arguments so far have been, they cannot remove a slight possibility that somebody will someday uncover a case of hypocrisy that does not involve deception, even in the ways we have outlined. This chapter seeks to make even that slight possibility fade, by presenting a more positive argument. The argument unfolds by considering examples that all involve a gap between word and deed. We argue that such a gap is not sufficient for hypocrisy, since it is also characteristic of what appear to be distinct phenomena, such as “change of mind,” or “weakness of will.” We also argue that those philosophers who take a gap between word and deed to constitute the essence of hypocrisy are left unable to distinguish hypocrisy from these other phenomena. It is possible, of course, that these are not really distinct phenomena, despite commonly being thought of as separate. Perhaps people simply use different descriptions depending on their moral evaluation of the situation: for example using “hypocrisy” as an epithet to hurl at one’s political opponents. Although it proves surprisingly complex to understand the conceptual links and differences between hypocrisy, change of mind, and weakness of will, we believe distinguishing characteristics can be found. By presenting a number of variations on several examples, we demonstrate that subtle differences in the background scenarios can make the difference in regard to the category each belongs to. What is more, it turns out that an element of deception does indeed turn out to be crucial for distinguishing hypocrisy from these other concepts.


The “Disparity Pairs” Account of Hypocrisy

We will take out main opponent here the comprehensive and methodologically attractive account of hypocrisy offered by Dan Turner, which takes disparity or conflict to be the essential core of the concept. On this model, disparity pairs, such as words versus deeds, pretended beliefs versus genuine beliefs, or beliefs versus desires, are our resources for generating hypocrisy.3 But not just any disparity pair will do. For one thing, the disparity must be attributable to a single individual, since a disparity between the words of one person and the deeds of another cannot constitute hypocrisy.4 Furthermore, the disparity pair involved must express values. Presumably a person who merely forgets to do what s/he had said s/he would do is not a hypocrite.5 The claim is that this model of properly restricted disparity pairs capture shared basic intuitions without legislating away conflicting ones, and “is enough to generate most, if not all, of the central structure of the notion of hypocrisy.”6 Furthermore, it is thought to be a virtue of this account that it “does not presuppose that hypocrisy is always a morally bad thing or that it always involves insincerity.”7

Turner goes on to acknowledge one weakness in his account as it stands. This is that his definition is a bit too broad, since it would capture changes of mind, whereas Turner maintains that “cases of changing one’s mind do not properly count as cases of hypocrisy.”8 Turner thinks that some suitable further condition, which he does not even attempt to provide, would help us rule out cases of changing one’s mind, and that with this we would possess a general account.

We shall argue that this matter of providing a further condition to distinguish hypocrisy from changes of mind is more difficult than Turner suggests. This is so not only because it may be difficult to identify the further condition, but also because some cases of changing one’s mind may in fact amount to hypocrisy. This suggests that hypocrisy and changes of mind are not merely different species of the genus “disparity,” but rather distinct and overlapping concepts which need to be understood in terms of independent distinguishing features. We propose to explore some examples as a way of identifying these features.


Hypocrisy and Changes of Mind

A literary example will serve well to introduce the complexities of the relationship between changes of mind and hypocrisy. Consider the case of Mme. Cambremer and Poussin’s paintings in the Louvrem a rich and interesting example from Proust’s Cities of the Plain. She has an unfavourable opinion of Poussin’s at Chantilly. This gives her pause:

“Indeed? I don’t know about the ones at Chantilly,” said Mme. Cambremer, “…but I can speak about the ones in the Louvre, which are appalling.”

“He admires them immensely too.”

“I must look at them again. My impressions are rather distant,” she replied after a moment’s silence, as though the favourable opinion which she was certain before long to form of Poussin would depend, not upon the information that I had just communicated to her, but upon the supplementary, and this time final, examination that she intended to make of the Poussins in the Louvre in order to be in a position to change her mind.”9

This passage lends itself to a number of interesting interpretations. What is clear is that Mme de Cambremer has expressed one opinion at one time, and will express a different one at a later time, and that the information that Degas likes the paintings will play a crucial role in bringing about this change. There is still considerable room to speculate, however, about what that change signifies in terms of Mme de Crambremer’s moral psychology, and exactly what role the information about Degas plays in bringing about the change.

Consider first the possibilities most charitable to Mme de Crambremer. Perhaps she is moved by a respect for Degas’ critical eye. In this case she could have said, “Degas’ taste in these matters is impeccable. His eye is unerring. I must have missed something when I looked at the Poussins. I defer to his judgment.” This would have been forthright enough, and morally unproblematic. Her change of mind could have been explained simply by an unwillingness to set herself up as an expert. But she does not do this. In stating that she must look at them again herself, she refuses to relinquish her image as an independent critic who will rely ultimately only on her own judgment. This feature is crucial to understanding the situation described, and to the intimation that there seems to be some hypocrisy involved here, as will be explored below.

The insistence on accepting only her own judgment is not by itself morally problematic. Suppose that after this conversation, she goes to the Louvre to see the Poussins, perhaps looking more carefully this time. Suppose she is struck and moved by the; she sees how innovative and fresh they are, how they complete and break away from a line of thinking. Then, on this basis, she changes her mind. There is nothing amiss here. Degas’ opinion would indeed have been the spur that led to her change of mind, but this seems to be a clear case of a change of mind without any taint of hypocrisy.

Again, suppose she asks for Degas’ reasons for liking the Poussins. She admits that they seem like good reasons for approval. But she says “I have to see them myself.” She goes to the Louvre, sees what Degas meant and she is taken and moved by the paintings. No one could ask more of an honest change of mind. Again the change of mind can be traced to Degas’ remark, but not in a way which leaves any hint of hypocrisy hovering over Mme. De Cambremer.

But of course Proust’s description of her saying she will have to look at the paintings again suggests a course of events much less flattering to Mme de Cambremer. There are still several possibilities to explore, however. These all hinge on the fact that her remarks give rise to expectations about her as a person who has standards for aesthetic appreciation, who does not arrive at her appraisals on the basis of the most recent critical fashion, or on anyone else’s likes or dislikes. First of all, it could be that Mme de Crembremer genuinely has this image of herself, and values the traits it exemplifies. Accordingly, we can envision a scenario, whereby she does go to look at the Poussins again, and somehow convinces herself that she likes them more than she previously had. There might be a sort of self-deception at work here. Degas was the then-current guru of French painting, and a man whose opinion Mme de Crembremer respected. After hearing his opinion, she might have felt the stirrings of a desire to reach the same opinion as a sort of vindication of her aesthetic taste. She may also have had a lot invested in her belief that she was a woman of independent taste, however. To hold steadfastly to her original opinion would have called her taste into question by putting it at odds with Degas’. To simply relinquish that opinion would mean surrendering the independent image, however. The only way to bring these competing desires into harmony would be to look at the paintings again, and this time come to a different conclusion.

We have no trouble understanding this “solution” in human terms, and yet from the observer’s perspective there is clearly something amiss. If we know that this is the true motivation, then we also know that she is not after all exercising her independent aesthetic judgment. In holding on to that aspect of her self-image, Mme de Crembremer is deceiving herself, and also anyone else who observes this but does not understand the true motivation. In this case, we still clearly have a change of mind, yet there also seems to be an element of hypocrisy, in that Mme de Crembremer does not live up to the image she projects. Perhaps this sort of hypocrisy is not a serious moral failing, but it certainly involves the sort of internal conflict Turner takes to be the essence of hypocrisy. At the same time, however, it suggests that it will be difficult indeed to distinguish changes of mind from hypocrisy in the way of both! A natural way to try to mark the distinction is to introduce some form of insincerity as typical of hypocrisy—but this option is not available to Turner who rejects the view that insincerity is essential to hypocrisy.10

There are still other interpretations of the example available, however, and some of them may cast further light on the relationship between changes of mind and hypocrisy. First of all, consider a case much like the previous one, but in which Mme de Crembremer is a little more self-aware. Perhaps because she is unable to identify any feature of the paintings which struck her differently upon re-examination, she comes to wonder about her own change of mind. Perhaps she comes to believe that it came about in just the sort of way described above: from the need to bring two disparate desires into harmony. This version of Mme de Crembremer is no longer self-deceived, but then what does she say to her friends? How does she explain her changed opinion of the paintings? Of course she could simply tell the truth as she now understands it, but that would be embarrassing. It would not be an example of unusual moral weakness if she were to conceal this embarrassing truth. Thus she might pretend to the world that her change of mind was due solely to her second, more careful, critical look. Perhaps she will say something such as “I had not previously appreciated the way Poussin uses colour.” This small fib is aimed at deceiving others about her status as an art critic. As such, Mme de Cambremer pretends to be better than she really is, by posing as a detached, autonomous, impartial appraiser of art, untouched by the vogues of artistic fashion yet blessed with an unerring eye. This sort of presence seems exactly the stuff hypocrisy is made of, and its deliberate nature may make it seem even more morally culpable. Yet again, there is also a genuine change of mind here about the value of the paintings.

We can imagine yet other interpretations that involve hypocrisy, but do not include this sort of change of mind, however. Suppose that Mme de Cambremer does not truly value independent aesthetic judgment but realizes that others do, and wants to be thought well by others. It might then be important to her to obtain a reputation for being an autonomous, reliable appraiser of art. One way to do this, of course, would be to take pains to develop the relevant skills. But that might seem too difficult or unreliable a path, and Mme de Cambremer seek to obtain the reputation without having to do the hard work of earning it. Again, this seems to be a paradigmatic case of hypocrisy. She might think that a few well-placed statements of opinion will get her what she wants, and her anticipated pronouncement that she likes the Poussins might be just such a statement.

To see why this could be a case of hypocrisy that does not involve change of mind, notice the distinction between having an opinion and expressing an opinion. There is no trouble with the notion that a person might have an opinion but not express it. This case suggests the slightly more problematic possibility of a person’s expressing an opinion, but not having one. Mme de Cambremer’s initial assertion that she disliked the Poussins may have been merely a remark calculated to bring about the desired reputation, without being backed by any genuine conviction. Thus there need not have been any genuine opinion about the paintings in the first place, and thus no change of mind about them. Clearly, she says one thing at one time and a contradictory thing at another time, and thus it would be natural for an observer to infer that she has had a change of mind. And Mme de Cambremer might take care to engage in the sort of behaviour which might lead to a change of mind, such as a re-examination of the paintings, although she may not even bother looking at them again if she thinks no one will be the wiser. But this is all part of the hypocritical pretence, and the perception of others that she has changed her mind about the paintings does not make it so.

But perhaps there is a change of mind here after all. At one time, Mme de Cambremer believes that the best way to get the reputation she craves is to express one opinion. Then later she decides that she will stand a better chance of getting the desired reputation by saying something different. She has indeed changed her mind then, but not about the paintings: she has changed her mind about the best means to obtain the reputation she is interested in. In this case, Mme de Cambremer would be deceiving others, not about whether she’s had a change of mind, but about what it is she’s had a change of mind about.

It is interesting to note, however, that her hypocrisy does not really lie in this change of mind, although it is in a sense revealed by it. Even if Mme de Cambremer’s opinion of the Poussins had never changed, she could have been acting hypocritically. The crucial question is whether she was trying to pass off her opinion as the result of a nobler process than the one that really formed it—whether she was merely pretending to aesthetic taste. Thus it is clear that the hypocrisy could have existed without any change of mind.

Different interpretations of this passage have revealed that there can be changes of mind without hypocrisy, hypocrisy without changes of mind, and also cases in which there is both a change of mind and hypocrisy. What structural differences between the concepts can be gleaned from the example? First of all, changes of mind require an inconsistency involving different times, whereas hypocrisy seems able to exist at a single time, though events over time may help to reveal it. Furthermore, hypocrisy seems to require the presence of an audience whose esteem is desired, in a way changes of mind do not. This audience puts a demand on a person to adhere to presumed shared standards. For example, if there are standards for changing one’s mind, then a person who pretends to change his or her mind because of those standards, but in fact does so because of factors deemed unworthy or unacceptable by the social group, is a hypocrite. In general, pretending to be motivated by certain considerations, while really being motivated only by a desire to appear to others to be motivated by those considerations, seems to constitute hypocrisy. There is much more here than value-expressive disparity between the words and actions of the same person. Specifically, it seems that some form of deception, directed toward others or oneself, typically plays a role in cases of hypocrisy,11 although of course such description is not necessarily unsuccessful.



The account of hypocrisy as the presence of a value-expressive “disparity pair” within a single individual also fails to differentiate hypocrisy from moral weakness. Exploring some variations on an example Turner provides will serve to illustrate this point and help clarify whether there is a need to draw such a distinction. His example is as follows:

“I am a vegetarian in the sense that I believe that it is morally wrong for people in ordinary situations to eat (red) meat. I am persuaded by arguments based on the view that the pleasure of eating meat does not outweigh such suffering as those animals experience. I am not just barely persuaded either—I think the case can be made in a way that is solidly convincing. However, occasionally, in ordinary situations, I eat meat. Am I a hypocrite?”12

Turner goes on to point out that this sort of situation does not fit dictionary definition of hypocrisy, since I do not falsely profess vegetarianism, nor merely pretend to have vegetarian beliefs. Yet he seems confident that there is hypocrisy here nevertheless, stating, “insofar as I have any intuitions left on the matter, it seems to me that indeed I am a hypocrite.”13 Indeed, the gap between moral belief and behaviour here does seem to exemplify the kind of “disparity pair” which Turner takes to be definitive of hypocrisy. We will argue that some scenarios fitting these basic facts do constitute hypocrisy, as Turner contends, but that other such scenarios do not. Exploring which features need to be present in order to turn this basic sketch into an instance of hypocrisy will help to highlight the shortcomings of Turner’s attempted definition.

Let us begin each case, following Turner’s sketch, in which the protagonist is a clear-cut candidate for the label “hypocrite.” Consider Henry, who is quite vocal about his vegetarianism, frequently criticizing those around him for failing to live up to his high moral standards. Suppose Henry goes home for the holidays, and that his father has prepared vegetarian dishes for him, and meat dishes for the other people present. We, as invited guests, offer to fetch something from the kitchen, and find Henry there, hovering over the meat dish, mouth full. At first he denies that he was eating the meat, and makes feeble attempts to save face, such as saying, “I was just dipping a bit of broccoli into the sauce.” When it is clear that we do not believe these denials, he admits that he ate some of the meat, but claims that there was nothing wrong in doing so, and seems to be casting about desperately for arguments that will justify his behaviour. It does seem plausible to consider Henry a hypocrite, and thus there is reason to think that Turner has indeed sketched an area in which hypocrisy may arise. It is not clear, however, that the justification for labelling Henry a hypocrite can be found solely in the gap between professed beliefs and behaviour. To see which other features of Henry’s situation influence the judgment that he is a hypocrite, consider some alternative scenarios involving the same basic features.

Consider now the case of Delia, a vegetarian who again is home for the holidays. Delia’s aging mother, however, is unaware of her vegetarianism, and has prepared specially for her the dish she enjoyed most as a teenager—meatloaf. Delia is on the horns of a little dilemma, and resolves it in favour of her mother. She eats the meatloaf to please her mother—well, she enjoys it too.

In this case, there is clearly the gap between profession and performance that Turner describes. Notice, though, how much less we are inclined to offer moral criticism of Delia than of Henry. Of course, the absence of moral criticism would not convince Turner that there is no hypocrisy here, since he claims the hypocrisy is not necessarily a term of moral condemnation. But some of the richness of our moral vocabulary would be lost if we were unable to distinguish this case from that of Henry.

Perhaps Turner could distinguish the examples by arguing that there is no conflict between principle and performance in Delia’s case at all—we have simply been given an incomplete account of her principles. A richer account would include the ranking of her vegetarianism among her moral principles, and then it might emerge that eating the meatloaf in this situation is the only thing which fits her moral principles, since, let us say, not harming humans, and especially her mother, is ahead of not harming non-human animals. Remember that the vegetarian principle, as stated, included the proviso that it is wrong to eat meat “in ordinary situations.” Although that phrase conjures up images of people otherwise facing starvation and so on, perhaps the case described here involves a situation which is not ordinary, in that there is a competing moral principle at stake. If so, then perhaps Delia is not a hypocrite after all, even on Turner’s definition, and his account has so far successfully distinguished the hypocrite from the non-hypocrite. But he is not yet out of the woods.

Let us call our next vegetarian Victor. Now suppose Victor goes home for the holidays, and his thoughtful mother has prepared vegetarian dishes for him, but has prepared meatloaf for the rest of the family. Suppose further that his mother’s meatloaf was his favourite meal as a teenager. Amidst the nostalgia of being home with his family, Victor has a sudden longing for meatloaf and has a forkful. Subsequently he feels remorseful and embarrassed for violating his principles and confesses his shame to his family. He explains that he had such a strong appetite for the meat that all he could think of was how tasty it would be, and just impulsively went for it.

On this description, Victor seems like a prototypical sufferer from moral weakness. He is overcome by bodily temptations, and does something he believes to be wrong. Problematic as such moral weakness has been for philosophers, this does not at first seem like a case of hypocrisy. Yet note that Victor’s case shares with Henry’s the professed commitment to vegetarianism and the observed failure to act in accordance with that commitment which Turner takes to be constitutive of hypocrisy. We believe, however, that it would be a mistake to lump these examples together under the single heading of hypocrisy, because important moral distinctions would be lost in doing so.

Let us compare the two cases, looking for differences which may help to locate a more appropriate definition of hypocrisy. First of all, Henry and Victor react very differently after the “lapse” from their vegetarianism. Whereas Victor demonstrates remorse, Henry makes excuses and struggles to justify this behaviour. Henry’s response raises questions about the way he holds this moral belief. In making excuses, he seems overly concerned with how he appears to others and insufficiently concerned with his internal moral standing. This might lead us to suspect that his vegetarianism itself has been adopted largely so as to appear morally upright in the eyes of others. Others might respect him for his vegetarianism, even if they do not themselves accept that moral standard, so long as they see it as a case of depriving oneself, on the basis of one’s morality, of a good which others commonly enjoy. Thus in becoming a vegetarian, Henry might indeed be creating the impression of one who is a particularly moral person. Our suspicion that this is merely an impression, though, might be further supported by his loud proclamations his principles and criticisms of others who do not follow his standards. This sort of concern for reputation does indeed seem characteristic of hypocrisy.

Victor, on the other hand, appears to be concerned with his internal moral standing, and to be more sincere about his principles, even though he has failed to live up to them. His failure seems to lie in a sort of impulse that has escaped from his rational control, and has thereby set up a genuine inner turmoil. In short, Victor’s case seems to be one of weakness of will, and it loses much of the richness of our moral vocabulary if we lump his case in with Henry’s under a common label—“hypocrisy”—simply because they share some structural similarities.

Fr. George Passias
Fr. George Passias



In some cases of hypocrisy, the words and beliefs are paraded rather than really meant or held. Instead of their inner struggle that one might expect from a conflict of value, we find ulterior motives and a subtext of self-interest. Instead of irrationality where the subject’s behaviour defeats his or her best intentions, we discern a rational strategy to grind the hypocrite’s own axe. Instead of harm caused to the subject by the subject, we discover that the hypocritical subject managed to gain something from his or her unwitting audience. Instead of openness and forthrightness about his or her lapse, we witness efforts to hide and conceal the distance between word and deed. Instead of lack of self-control, we find rather calm, cool and calculating behaviour. All this contrasts rather typically with the concept of weakness of will, with its notorious features of incoherence, its self-harm, its helpless embarrassments, its diminished sense of agency. Witnesses to weakness of will, if there be any (and there need not be), are apt to be perplexed, possibly sympathetic observers rather than entrapped victims. The hypocrite is likely to be embarrassed only when exposed.

This series of contrasts is intended to render salient the conceptual differences between paradigm cases of hypocrisy and weakness of will. None of what we say is meant to deny that weakness of will or cowardice may be a cause of hypocrisy. Consider an academic at a faculty meeting where a powerful faction advocates a course of action s/he disapproves of, yet s/he goes along with it, even pretends to believe in it publicly, because of weakness of will or fear of reprisal. Yet the resulting behaviour is essentially deceptive, and is motivated by a concern to look good in the eyes of others, and therefore seems to qualify as hypocritical as well.

It might be tempting to distinguish these concepts by saying that, while the weak-willed person does not have the psychological power to act on his or her principle, the hypocrite does have that power.14 Indeed, weakness of will seems to involve some lack of self-control, while the hypocrite exhibits not only self-control but an attempt to control “the other” as well. The problem with this way of drawing the distinction lies in the obscurity of the notion of “psychological power.” Neither the hypocrite nor the weak-willed person does what s/he advocates. Yet the claim that one and not the other could have done so requires more information about the sense in which it is possible for people to do something other than what they do. This issue is more than can be approached in this work; even without it, however, there is reason to distinguish between the concepts.

To see the distinction, it might be helpful to consider some slight variations on the cases already offered. Suppose Henry has adopted vegetarianism for exactly the sort of reasons suggested above: he wants to appear to take the moral high ground and thereby gain the moral approval of others. Unlike in the previous case, however, suppose he never violates this adopted rule by eating meat. Perhaps, if he could be assured that nobody would find out, he would eat meat in a second, but he abstains because he is so worried about his moral reputation that he does not want to take the risk of losing it. In this case, Henry would clearly be deceiving others about his moral beliefs, and doing so to gain a sort of advantage—their moral respect. Even though there is no gap between his belief and his behaviour here, there is good reason to accuse Henry of hypocrisy. Indeed, this version of Henry would still have the sort of “disparity pair” Turner takes to be crucial to hypocrisy, here between announced belief and actual belief. But notice how implausible it is to attribute weakness of will to Henry under this description. So, clearly, not all cases of hypocrisy are also cases of weakness of will.

Now consider a slight re-description of Victor’s case. Suppose that Victor has become convinced that vegetarianism is morally required, but has not told anyone of this decision. He resolves to eat only the vegetarian dishes when home for the holidays, but to do his best to conceal this, so as not to offend his mother, who went to so much trouble preparing dishes. Then he is overcome by the aroma of the meatloaf and has a forkful. In this case, it is still plausible to attribute weakness of will to Victor, but in the complete absence of a moral “audience,” it seems difficult to attribute hypocrisy. It appears, then, that hypocrisy requires others who are meant to convey a better-than-deserved reputation in a way weakness of will does not, and weakness of will requires a gap between belief and behaviour which is not necessary for hypocrisy. Clearly, then, these are distinct concepts.

This is not to say that the boundary between these two concepts is rigidly demarcated. There is fluidity enough here so that akrasia (as the Greeks called it) can pass over into hypocrisy. This may happen when the weak-willed person tries to disguise his or her lapse. Concerned with how one appears to others, one may, by special pleading, re-describe one’s situation so that one’s image as a moral agent is restored in front of actual or imagined others.

Alternatively, one might pretend to be suffering from weakness of will as a way of covering up some other moral failing. Consider the rather curious case of Tolstoy and chastity as it is recounted by Alymer Maude. “When he was nearly seventy, he one day expressed to me his conviction that despite difficulties and repeated failures, one should never cease to aim at chastity; and he added: ‘I was myself a husband last night, but that is no reason for abandoning the struggle; God may grant me not to be so again.’”15 This case again lends itself to several different interpretations. Indeed, if one takes a cynical view of the fact that Tolstoy himself allegedly related this tale, one may suspect that he was simultaneously trying to get a reputation for high moral ideals, and for a sexual heartiness that allowed him, even at his advanced age, to be found desirable by women, and to perform sexually (in an epoch without Viagra!).

Perhaps Tolstoy wants to have his sexual peccadilloes as well as his ideal of chastity. He would begin advocating the moral ideal of chastity for everyone, hence committing himself to act in accordance with this ideal. Yet when he realizes that this is an obstacle in his pursuit of sexual pleasures, Tolstoy would make an exception of himself while still advocating the ideal for everyone else. He might say that his sexual desires and needs are greater and more intense than those of most others. Instead of acting as he should—in a chaste manner—Tolstoy’s surrogate for moral action is a feeling of remorse or guilty conscience after the sexual transgression. This is carefully arranged to occur in retrospect. For if Tolstoy were to feel guilty in anticipation of this transgression, then this guilty conscience at the very thought of the sexual encounter would serve as a deterrent to the act. But our modified Tolstoy knows what he is going about when he does this. It is essential to the success of this manoeuvre that the feeling should not be prior to the action, or too strong for that matter.

It is worth returning to Turner’s example of the lapsed vegetarian one more time. Turner suggests two explanations for the gap between this individual’s announced moral views and behaviour, which have not yet been considered.16 One of these is that the person merely forgot the moral principle or how it was to be applied. The other is that the individual thought there were moral reasons to abstain from eating meat, but self-interested reasons to indulge in it, and simply had the view about ethics that self-interested reasons can at least sometimes be allowed to win out over moral reasons. Turner suggests that this person can still be considered a hypocrite, because of the gap between utterance and performance. Clearly these are not cases of change of mind or weakness of will. But should they be considered hypocrisy?

One insight into this question can be found in a proposed definition of hypocrisy as a failure to take morality seriously enough.17 Certainly one who simply forgets to do what is morally required, or who says in effect “I think it is OK to do this just because I want to, even though I know it’s wrong,” could be accused of not talking morality seriously enough. But if the person is straightforward about this, and in the second case has reached this conclusion at the end of a long, careful process of philosophical reflection, it is hard to see how we can claim that the moral shortcoming amounts to hypocrisy.

Consider the first case of the forgetful vegetarian. Suppose s/he is at a transitional stage in a vegetarian’s career which involves the process of adjusting one’s practice to one’s new beliefs. s/he openly admits the discrepancy. Here we are inclined to credit the excuse “I forgot my vegetarian beliefs”—better still, “I forgot myself.” While this is evidence of some lack of moral seriousness, such lack of attentiveness is not sufficient for hypocrisy. For hypocrisy is not lack of moral seriousness simply, but must also involve giving the impression of such moral seriousness.

Consider now the case of people who are morally less than serious, and who keep forgetting their vegetarian beliefs. Even though such people may openly say, when challenged, that they do not practise what they preach, they do not appear to be hypocrites. The only thing that would make them hypocrites would be insincerity about their attitude to the general expectation that holding a moral belief commits one to act on it, in the absence of good reasons to the contrary. What appears as openness may in fact be a deeper sort of insincerity. For the hypocrite’s strategic silence about not following tacit shared convictions enables him or her to unfairly benefit from others acting on the basis of the convention, while s/he makes an exception of him or herself. Another dissimilarity between the morally unserious (but above-the-board person), and the hypocrite is that the latter finds others’ lack of moral seriousness unbearable, excoriating and castigating them, yet expecting others to bear with equanimity his or her own lack of moral seriousness.

Let us now turn to the case of the individual who, having engaged in moral reflection, has solid reasons for believing that eating meat in ordinary situations is morally wrong. While s/he preaches this, s/he does not practise it and explains the gap by claiming that self-interested reasons can outweigh moral ones. Is this a morally serious person, and if so, can s/he still be a hypocrite? There is a sense in which this person takes morality seriously, since s/he engages in moral reflection. On the other hand, there is a sense in which s/he does not take morality seriously, since we (as observers) might say that s/he does not give moral considerations as much weight as s/he should. We might say this especially when we suspect that the relevant conclusions were reached through a kind of rationalization. For example, if s/he is really motivated by the desire to appear “politically correct,” and the moral arguments are mere self-deceptive rhetorical props, then s/he is a plausible candidate for hypocrisy. So, even if one has some degree of moral concern, this does not rule out the possibility of hypocrisy. In fact, a sort of hyper-morality provides fertile soil for hypocrisy, much like a hyper-rationality is often a source of irrationality.

In any event, perhaps the failure to take morality seriously enough generally appears as hypocrisy simply because others mistakenly assume that one takes morality as seriously as they do, and thus one has a reputation for being “better” in their eyes than one deserves. This appears to be a theme running through all clear examples of hypocrisy. It seems that there must be an “audience” of some sort that attributes to the individual a nobler standing than its members would if they knew the facts. In this sense, the hypocrite, if not exposed, benefits from a sort of deception of others. But this makes it sound as if hypocrisy has more to do with the faulty inferences of its victims and less to do with the hypocrite’s own actions or omissions, which is plainly false—since such faulty inferences in his or her favour are precisely the strategic goals of the hypocrite. While a gap between what one says and what one really believes or does may be the most common indication of such a misunderstanding in one’s favour, we have seen that this is not after all the distinguishing characteristic of hypocrisy. For changes of mind and weakness of will also exhibit this feature, without thereby becoming hypocritical.

Furthermore, there can be hypocrisy even if one lives up to one’s stated principles, if the reasons for doing so are something other than a genuine endorsement of those principles, and if one pretends otherwise. Some form of deception or insincerity appears to be a requirement for hypocrisy, whether, as in cases of cynical hypocrisy, it be the deliberate and fully self-conscious deception of others about one’s moral character, or, as in cases of complacent or self-righteous hypocrisy, it be the less than explicitly conscious, even unconscious ways of self-deception.



What then are the lessons to be harvested from our discussion of some of the challenging contributions to the literature on hypocrisy? By trying to eliminate any sort of deception or insincerity as essential to hypocrisy, these authors have compelled us to explore deception and its role in hypocrisy more deeply. We have argued for a tighter connection than usual between hypocrisy and insincerity. Such insincerity, we claimed, cannot be reduced to, or exhausted by, the self-conscious acts of deliberate other-deception, since it is not uncommon for self-deception to play a role in complacent or self-righteous hypocrisy, nor is unconscious hypocrisy unheard of. In cases of motivational over determination, we may strategically, if thoughtlessly, parade the motive that makes us look better, even though we are guilty of a failure of self-knowledge. And this kind of self-deception may be part of the hypocritical picture. We also argued that the interesting notion of “out-of-the-closet” hypocrisy needs deception as a required feature, and that making the actions of others a condition for one’s own practice counts as hypocrisy only if some form of insincerity is involved. Finally, we have argued that the feature of deception of some sort is needed in order to distinguish cases of hypocrisy from cases of what might at first appear to be hypocrisy but are instead merely forgetfulness, changes of mind, or weakness of will.



1. Joel Feinberg, editor, Moral Concepts, 1969, p. 4.
2. Augustine, Confessions, VIII, 7.
3. Turner, “Hypocrisy,” p. 265.
4. Ibid., p. 266.
5. It is worth noting here that simply forgetting can nevertheless express, or carry, value. One may be morally culpable for forgetting, for example, if others are counting on one, or if one has promised to do something. Even here, although surely Turner is on to an important feature of hypocrisy, his account fails to characterize that feature with enough precision. Indeed, it should be noted that when Turner discusses a case in which there is a gap between what one preaches and what one practices, he gives as one possible explanation that one might simply forget, yet he seems to consider this a case of hypocrisy nevertheless. This raises questions about whether he even consistently applies his own definition.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid., 262 and 268. For a further discussion of the moral status of hypocrisy, see the chapters in Part II of this book. See also Piers Benn, “What is Wrong with Hypocrisy?” in International Journal of Moral and Social Studies, 8, 3, 223-35.
8. Turner, 266.
9. Marcel Proust, Cities of the Plain in Remembrance of Things Past, p. 841.
10. Turner, 268.
11. See Bela Szabados, “Hypocrisy,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, ix (1979) 197 and 206-10.
12. Turner, 263.
13. Ibid.
14. R.M. Hare is one person who has drawn a distinction along these lines, writing, “the typical case of moral weakness as opposed to that of hypocrisy, is a case of ‘ought but can’t’ … Nor will it do to quote cases in which a man goes on saying he ought, but fails to act, even though he can act, in every sense of ‘can.’ For this is the case of what I called purposive backsliding, or hypocrisy, and these are allowed for.” R.M. Hare, Freedom and Reason, 1963, p. 80, 82.
15. Alymer Maude, in his introduction to one of Tolstoy’s works in the World Classics Series of Oxford University Press.
16. \turner, 263-64.
17. Crisp and Cowton, “Hypocrisy and Moral Seriousness,” 347.

Self-Deceptive Hypocrisies: The Complacent, the Self-Righteous, and the Cynical (Béla Szabados and Eldon Soifer, 2004)

NOTE: This article is the second of three on the aspects and roles of deception. It is taken from the 14th chapter of Hypocrisy: Ethical Investigations.

Hypocrisy - Ethical Investigations cover

“The hypocrite will suppose himself to be the one who is acting genuinely and cannot but utterly reject the reproach of hypocrisy.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer1

“One puts oneself into mauvaise foi as one goes to sleep and one is in mauvaise foi as one dreams.” Jean-Paul Sartre2


One argument for the claim that no deception or insincerity is necessary for hypocrisy has its source in the observation that some hypocrites are the last persons to know that they are hypocrites. Such people seem surprised, even astonished, when reasonably accused of hypocrisy, and not all of them feign such surprise. Now the argument goes that deception is a matter of having certain intentions, and we do have knowledge of our own intentions. Therefore, people who are engaged in deception must know that they are. Thus if hypocrisy always involved deception, then hypocrites would always know that they were engaging hypocrisy. Since they do not, there must be some hypocrisy that does not require deception.

This picture is misleading in that it assumes an overly narrow conception of deception. We should not accept the claim that deception is necessarily a self-conscious matter, requiring certain intentions. First of all, people can deceive by mistake, simply because they do not know how others will interpret their words or actions. Thus we clearly need the distinction between deceiving in fact and attempting to deceive.3 Suppose though, as may well be the case, that we can adequately distinguish accidental cases from deliberate ones, and maintain that the agent must know when s/he is deliberately deceiving others. It would still be premature to say that unselfconscious hypocrisy cannot be a form of deception. It is possible that such hypocrisy involves, not deception of others, but rather self-deception, which may not similarly involve knowledge that one is engaged in deception.4 Perhaps a culpable failure of self-knowledge could explain cases in which one is genuinely surprised to hear reasonable accusations of hypocrisy. If one is allowed to include the possibility of self-deception, then one can acknowledge the existence of cases in which people are genuinely surprised to learn they have been hypocritical, without thereby conceding that there can be cases of hypocrisy that do not involve deception.

the emperor's new clothes

But should one be allowed to include self-deception as a sort of deception giving rise to hypocrisy? Some writers seem to reject the possibility outright. For example, in his discussion of hypocrisy, Saul Smilansky writes, “We might of course have a case of self-deception, but such matters are not our concern here.”5 But surely one is entitled to a principled reason for excluding self-deception. Judith Shklar is one writer who attempts to provide such a reason. Shklar argues that allowing self-deception to count would result in a regrettable proliferation of accusations of hypocrisy. She incisively asks, “Is every self-deception, insincerity and inauthenticity hypocritical, even when these are states of mind and not acts to deceive others? … Could anyone escape being a hypocrite if we see hypocrisy through such eyes?”6 Part of the point here is that such a conceptual conflation between self-deception and hypocrisy results in seeing it everywhere, in an inflation of hypocritical anti-hypocrisy, in a victimization of people by targeting them for constant moral critique. Such a view unsettles the delicate balance between individuals and society by licensing constant suspicion of others and relentless social critique of individual blemishes. Furthermore, the term becomes useless as a tool of moral criticism if it can be applied to everyone. To prevent these undesirable developments, Shklar thinks we need to distinguish hypocrisy from self-deception and other forms of insincerity by stipulating “acts designed to deceive others” as a necessary feature of hypocrisy. Unless we do this, “hypocrisy” is severed from its moorings and becomes available as ad hoc ideological insult. Hence it can no longer be part of the language of responsible moral criticism.

There is much that is true in what Shklar claims, but she is not careful enough in drawing her conclusions. When looked at carefully, they do not after all provide a compelling reason for thinking that the basis of hypocrisy can never lie in self-deception.

First of all, Shklar’s remarks seem to have been intended against a background view that all self-deception involves hypocrisy. Some writers do indeed seem to have endorsed this view,7 on the basis that people engage in self-deception so as to be able to pretend to themselves that they are morally better than they really are, which smacks of hypocrisy. We do not accept this view, however. For one thing, there are obvious counter-examples. If one deceives oneself about the chances of one’s winning the lottery, for example, that is hardly a compelling case of hypocrisy. So even leaving aside Shklar’s concerns about the moral implications of accepting such a conflation of self-deception with hypocrisy, there are compelling reasons to reject it. This does not affect our claim, however. Our claim that some cases of hypocrisy are also cases of self-deception in no way logically entails the claim that all cases of self-deception are cases of hypocrisy.


Shklar has a somewhat different reason for rejecting the claim that all self-deception is hypocritical, however, and this reason deserves consideration. She argues that, while hypocrisy is prima facie bad, self-deception, like deception, is neither always bad nor always blameworthy. It is for this reason that calling all self-deception “hypocrisy” would lead to a regrettable expansion of moral criticism to cases which are not in fact blameworthy. Yet Shklar is again being too hasty to suggest from this that hypocrisy must involve “acts designed to deceive others” rather than self-deception. There may be another way to restrict the accusations of hypocrisy. Indeed, we believe that self-deception is sometimes culpable and sometimes not, and that it is only culpable forms of self-deception that can give rise to hypocrisy. By restricting the concept in this way, we can accommodate cases that appear to us compelling instances of hypocrisy grounded in self-deception, while still avoiding the problematic proliferation of accusations of hypocrisy Shklar is worried about, since not everyone who engages in self-deception would qualify as a hypocrite.

In the following sections, we examine a number of cases ranging from Victorian England back through David Hume to the biblical King David. In discussing these cases, we identify separate forms of self-deception that carry with them distinctive types of hypocrisy. Indeed, we argue that what distinguishes cases of hypocrisy from cases where there is no hypocrisy is distinguishes cases of hypocrisy from cases where there is no hypocrisy is often the feature of self-deception. This lends support to our claim that all hypocrisy does indeed involve deception—so long as we allow self-deception to count as a form of deception. Finally, we discuss the bearing self-deception has on the important question of moral culpability in cases of self-deceptive hypocrisy.

Before embarking on these discussions, however, we want to consider a distinction that may be useful to better appreciate how self-deception may aid and abet complacent, self-righteous or cynical attitudes. This is a distinction between pan- and local hypocrites.


"So, Heep...have you any excuse for your appalling behaviour?"
“So, Heep…have you any excuse for your appalling behavior?”

Classic literary hypocrites such as Moliere’s Tartuffe or Dicken’s Uriah Heep have a whiff of Platonism about them in that their hypocrisy and deception, like that of Plato’s “perfectly unjust man,” extends to their entire character. Let us call these characters pan-hypocrites. On the other hand, the reach of local hypocritical pretence, unlike that of their exotic pan-cousins, does not extend to a person’s whole life or character, but is confined to some special area or segment of it, say, sex, religion, or political correctness. Such local hypocrites may in general be as moral or altruistic as others, yet when it comes to certain areas or aspects of their lives, they are perhaps more inclined to deny or disavow hypocrisy precisely because they are right to believe that they are generally decent people. Therefore, casting aspersions on their entire character—i.e., accusing them of pan-hypocrisy—deflects them from further self-examination and provides them with material for complacent or self-righteous assessment of themselves. They cannot recognize themselves in such a wholesale condemnation, and dismiss it, perhaps saying, “I am basically a decent person and this vitriolic moralistic critic has no idea what sort of person I am.” Hence, the charge of pan-hypocrisy, where what is at issue is local hypocrisy, may engender complacency about one’s moral standing. Alternatively, such wholesale accusations may in turn fuel cynicism about other people’s motives, as well as lead to further attempts to deceive others to protect oneself from unfair criticism, possible embarrassment or shame.

Before turning to a detailed examination of the role self-deception may play in fostering complacent and self-righteous attitudes, let us look at a case of local hypocrisy involving the deception of others. Consider, for example, the case of a generally moral, and erotically overcharged teacher in a small town. Suppose she believes that if part of her inner core—consisting of her intense, unconventional sexual desires and behaviour—is detected or exposed, then this would make important others think she is unworthy of respect. Motivated by her desire to keep their respect, she sets out to deliberately mislead people about her inner core—by pretending to conventional sexual attitudes and behaviour—when it appears to her that the people whose respect she wants to gain or retain would judge it as out of line. In thus deceitfully seeking their respect, such a self-conscious hypocrite may in general be moral, even altruistic, since she need not do others down by getting that respect—just getting that respect in such and such ways, and wanting to get it through deceit, is enough to make her a plausible candidate for hypocrisy.

Observe, however, that her hypocrisy does not invade her entire life or character, but is confined to the domain of her sexuality where she feels especially vulnerable in light of the conventional sexual mores of the small community she happens to inhabit. If the teacher is now charged with being a pan-hypocrite, she will be rightly indignant and it would be natural for her to deflect the particular criticism, whatever its merit, by indignantly justifying herself in terms of her good character in general and/or probing the character flaws of the accuser. Now if the self-aware local hypocrite is prone to such indignation, then the self-deceived local hypocrite is liable to be even more so, since s/he is not (fully) aware of his or her hypocrisy. The likely result is a further entrenchment of the disposition to complacency or self-righteousness.

Russian Orthodox monk with pistol (left). Japanese Buddhist monk with sword (right).
Russian Orthodox monk with pistol (left). Japanese Buddhist monk with sword (right).

The distinction between pan- and local hypocrites and its importance in moral criticism is implicit in Joseph Butler’s discussion of self-deceit and hypocrisy. The relevant passage is worth quoting in full, since it is psychologically perceptive in its observations, offering insights as to how self-deception may play a role in complacent and self-righteous attitudes, as well as giving good advice for the practice of moral criticism:

“In some there is to be observed a general ignorance of themselves, and wrong way of thinking and judging in everything relating to themselves; their fortune, reputation, everything in which self can come in: and this perhaps attended with the rightest judgment in all other matters. In others this partiality is not so general, has not taken hold of the whole man, but is confined to some particular favourite passion, interest or pursuit; suppose ambition, covetousness or any other. And these persons may probably judge and determine what is perfectly just and proper, even in things in which they themselves are concerned, if these things have no relation to their particular favourite passion or pursuit. Hence arises that amazing incongruity, and seeming inconsistency of character, from whence slight observers take it for granted, that the whole is hypocritical and false; not being able otherwise to reconcile the several parts: whereas in truth there is real honesty, so far as it goes. There is such a thing as men’s being honest to such a degree, and in such respects, but no further. And this, as it is true, so it is absolutely necessary to be taken notice of, and allowed them; such general and undistinguishing censure of their whole character, as designing and false, being one main thing which confirms them in their self-deceit. They know the whole censure is not true; and so take it for granted that no part of it is.”8


Note then that the moral critic who mistakes local hypocrisy for pan- hypocrisy is not only a shallow observer of human nature, but is guilty of the logical fallacy of composition: s/he infers, perhaps carelessly or maliciously, from what is true of an aspect of an individual’s character to the entire character. On the other hand, if the local hypocrite thus accused complacency infers from the fact that basically s/he is a good person to the claim that there is nothing amiss with the particular aspect of his or her character or conduct in question, s/he is guilty of the fallacy of division.

Keeping these observations in mind, we are now perhaps better prepared to turn to our discussion of cases of complacent, self-righteous, and cynical hypocrisy, and how they may relate to self-deception.


The morality and attitudes of Victorian England are often condemned as intrinsically hypocritical. While we have serious reservations9 about the attribution of a collective mindset to an epoch or passing wholesale moral judgment on it, there may nevertheless be several distinct reasons for thinking “the Victorians” to be hypocritical. At least one reason has to do with their failures to live up to their stated ideals of chastity, charity, hard work, and so on. In some cases, no doubt, the Victorians put forward these ideals without sincerely believing them, or while making exceptions of themselves, in a straightforwardly hypocritical manner. We will argue, however, that are least sometimes Victorian hypocrisy is based on pervasive self-deception of a sort we will refer to as “complacent hypocrisy.”10


Judith Shklar, ever suspicious of accusations of hypocrisy, questions whether the Victorian middle classes really were hypocritical at all. She defends them thus: “They wished to be what they proclaimed everyone ought to be. To fail in one’s own aspirations is not hypocrisy. In fact the Victorians really believed in chastity, monogamy, thrift, charity and work. If many did not achieve these, many others did at considerable psychic cost. Self-repression and emotional silence, however, are self-inflicted wounds, not social crimes or hypocrisy.”11 Shklar goes on to observe that “only their refusal to admit that the endless slums of Mayhews London existed—that is, only their complacency—was hypocritical.”12 The suggestion is that the Victorians were hypocritical in that they chose to ignore, or pretended in public not to know of, the existence of suffering and evil right in front of their eyes—well, a bit further. This is supposed to be very different from their attitude to chastity, monogamy, thrift, work, since these ideals they believed in and worked towards even if they failed to achieve them. With regard to these ideals, the Victorians made no attempt to deceive others. Hence, even if there is self-repression, there is no hypocrisy, no social crime.

If, however, we look more closely at the instance of the Victorian attitude toward the Mayhew slums, which Shklar acknowledges as hypocritical, we may see more parallels than she recognizes between it and the cases where she denies hypocrisy exists. It was in the interests of the Victorians to ignore, been an obstacle to their belief in progress and social redemption through work and thrift. The slum-dwellers and their children worked long hours a day, yet their conditions and prospects were desperate. Acknowledging this fact would have unsettled their cheerful and easy optimism. This hypocritical complacency consisted in the pretence that things were socially better than in fact they were—in the teeth of the existence of the vast slums of Mayhew. They allowed them to think better of themselves than they deserved, for example by thinking that they were helping to maintain a just society, and that they must be entitled to whatever material advantages they had because material advantages accrued justly to whomever earned them through hard work. Thus their complacency involved an element of self-deception, which served the self-interested purpose of allowing them to maintain a positive outlook about themselves and their society.


But now consider the Victorian attitudes concerning chastity and monogamy. It is possible to trace these attitudes to a belief concerning the relationship between the body and the mind or soul. Victorians appear to have thought that the body, with all its urges and emotions, simply got in the way of the purity and rationality of the mind/soul. Women were thought to be particularly tied up with their bodies in the form of emotions, and thus unable to reason as clearly as men. Men, on the other hand, were prone to sexual desires, but fortunately these could be mastered, to the point where the ideal was not to feel such unpleasant urges at all. In short, Victorians wanted to identify themselves only with the pristine purity of mind and soul, and become almost entirely separate from their bodies. Indeed, physical bodies were considered so shameful by some that even the “legs” of pianos had to be covered up in some “respectable” homes.

In order to convince themselves that they really were these pure rational or spiritual beings, Victorians had to ignore a large amount of evidence to the contrary. They had to refuse to acknowledge things such as their own sexual desires, and the fact that both men and women perspire (and do not merely glisten), and they had to turn a blind eye to transgressions such as their frequent secret peccadilloes.

Dudley street, seven dials: 1872

There is a parallel then between Victorian social complacency in pretending that the Mayhew slums did not even exist, and their spiritual state: the “Mayhew slums” may be seen as analogous to the sexual slums of the Victorian soul. In both cases, acknowledging the evidence would have required them to give up their cherished self-conceptions. It may be argued that if the attitudes toward the Mayhew slums count as hypocritical complacency, so does their apparently sincere pretence to chastity, monogamy, etc., in spite of flourishing of subterranean prostitution and brothels, which they conveniently managed to ignore or be oblivious to. In both cases, self-deception is involved in a culpable way, being used to allow one to maintain a more flattering view of oneself than one deserves. If the objects of self-deception, that is to say, what we deceive ourselves about, connect up with our self-conceptions, then it is not difficult to see that, to protect our self-conception, we would ignore, neglect or suppress evidence that suggests that all is not well with our smug, self-satisfied self-image. Hence a complacent hypocrite is likely to deceive him/herself that “God is in his heaven and all is well with the world and my moral character,” ignoring or not taking sufficiently seriously the demands that moral principles press on us. Such culpable self-deceptions usually have as a collaborative companion the suspension of one’s self-critical faculties.


It is worth noting that, in the cases described here, deliberate deception of others may play no role in the hypocrisy, although of course they may be deceived indirectly if a person projects his/her false but genuinely believed self-image. The techniques/mechanisms of wilful ignorance, biased interpretation, selective focusing, or rationalization, together with a natural inclination to an easy conformism, may be the resources out of which social hypocrisy is generated. If this is so, then to speak of self-deception as isolated from one’s behaviour, as a mere state of mind, while seeing hypocrisy as connected to one’s actions, is misleading. As we have seen, Victorians’ actions and behaviours are revelatory of their self-deceptive hypocrisies and of their complacent self-image—the former serving as a device for protecting such a comforting moral self-image. Their culpable epistemic negligence, their not looking, or refusal to look and acknowledge matters/evidence that had the potential to disconfirm or invalidate their smug moral self-conception, was productive of an attitude of pervasive complacent hypocrisy. Such middle-class Victorian complacency is iconic of their age as well as ours—since our Mayhew slums are the urban and Third World poor, the native reserves next door.


What we have argued so far is that there can indeed be forms of hypocrisy that do not involve direct acts of deceiving others, and thus that the attempt to draw a sharp separating line between hypocrisy and self-deception does not work. We also suggested that the attitude of complacency is one fertile ground for self-deceptive hypocrisy. Thirdly, we struck the chord that resonates throughout our piece, and which we develop as we go along, that concepts such as self-deception are not homogenous but have diverse forms which need careful discussion and illustration. We suggested that in complacent hypocrisy, self-deception takes the form of epistemic negligence in seeking out, facing up to, or appreciating, evidence that would undercut or conflict with our comfortable moral self-image.


If self-deception is heterogeneous, and if certain distinctive attitudes are fertile soil for self-deceptive hypocrisy, does self-deception take more active forms when motivated and sustained by more aggressive attitudes? An affirmative answer to these questions can be discerned in cases where a hypocrite supposes him/herself to be the one who is acting genuinely, and cannot but utterly reject the accusation and reproach of hypocrisy. In such cases, hypocrites not only suppose that all is well with their own moral state, but manufacture and believe their own propaganda when confronted with reasonable accusations of hypocrisy.

half truth and white lies

To unboggle the mind then, consider a Humean case. “A man that has lost a friend and a patron, may flatter himself, that all his grief arises from generous sentiments.”13 Suppose now that he proceeds to denounce Smith, to whom the dead man was also a benefactor, saying that Smith’s grief is hypocritical: “It is the loss of money, not the loss of a friend, that really makes you grieve.” We believe that such a morally self-righteous man is a good candidate for a hypocrite who thinks himself to be sincere, and we will call this sort of hypocrisy “self-righteous hypocrisy.”

However, before we can confidently say “Hypocrite,” such a man has to be marked off from someone who is merely thoughtless. To rule this out, let us add the following: His wife wondered aloud how it is that when an even better friend, but poor and thus no patron, had died years earlier, her husband grieved but his grief was not paraded so much as for his patron. He overhears this and the observation disturbs him. There is a dim recognition of its truth. Yet he refuses to entertain the idea. He dismisses thoughts about really makes him parade his grief so much. When doubts recur, he persuades himself that money does not really enter into it, that he is not that sort of person, and so on. And then he goes to the funeral where he denounces someone else, perhaps rightly, as a hypocrite. Such a self-righteous hypocrite feels morally inferior to others, and thus tries to compensate for this by making invidious comparisons between the quality of his own grief and that of others. Hence the hypocrite and the self-righteous anti-hypocrite may have much in common.

These additional features also rule out the idea that our man is merely ambivalent or conflicted about what really explains grief. At one stage, he is not sure whether it is the loss of a friend that entirely explains his feelings. At the next stage come deliberate, perhaps wilful, shift of attention away from a disturbing thought or interpretation unfavourable to oneself, then more or less clever efforts to explain away doubts, to persuade oneself to believe in the construal favourable to one’s moral self-image. All these attempts at moral cosmetics and spin-doctoring are natural enough, for no one who is morally concerned the least bit likes to think of him/herself as the sort of person whose grief at the death of a friend is merely regret at the loss of an income, that is to say, grief for oneself.


So, to depict a comprehensive picture of the roles that self-deception can play in instances of hypocrisy, we must recover for attention the frequent complexity and dissonance of inner experience and its manifestations. Our man’s state of mind is a complex one. The fact that he thinks himself to be sincere, that he is grieved by the loss of his friend, is to be taken into account when describing his state of mind. On the other hand, the fact that he has intermittent doubts whether that alone accounts for the extreme show of his grief or whether patronage figures in it as well, must also be brought out in an accurate description of his state of mind. His attempts to persuade himself that patronage had nothing to do with his parading his grief, while in the case of the other fellow in the same situation, patronage had everything to do with the show of grief, are two features of self-righteous, self-deceptive hypocrisy: invidious comparisons of oneself with others, and accusations of others, accompanied by self-justification. These facts are reasons for saying he is insincere.  So, he is not entirely insincere, or if you will, his sincerity is insincere. He tries to appear better than he really is by scapegoating the other!

Orthodox Priest in BDSM gear.
Orthodox Priest in BDSM gear.

While an argument has been made for self-deception, it may not yet be clear how hypocrisy comes into it. Just as all cases of hypocrisy are not also cases of self-deception, so not all cases of self-deception are cases of hypocrisy. This point calls for bringing out features that help us mark off the mere self-deceiver from the self-deceptive hypocrite. To begin with, note our grieving man’s self-righteous denunciation of Smith, a man like himself in relevant ways. Recall his accusations of Smith as a hypocrite: “It is the loss of money and not the loss of a friend that makes you grieve so much.” Here we witness our man setting himself up as a paragon of purity of heart, when in fact he is also a blatant offender in this particular instance. The use of double standards, a frequent symptom of hypocrisy,14 suggests that he is culpable for his failure to reflect on his own motivation, and for pretending to himself, and indirectly to others in his audience, that he is a genuine griever for a friend, to be differentiated from those others who merely grieve for themselves. This is a variation on one large theme of hypocrisy: to advocate the acceptance of a moral standard or rule publicly and hold others to it, yet more or less unwittingly break it when it is to one’s  own advantage. When the use of double standards is pointed out to such a hypocrite, s/he engages in special pleading and self-justification, pretending to him/herself and to others that the standard does not apply to him/her since his/her case is different. One who is merely self-deceived about one’s motives for grief does not have this public dimension as a feature—such a person does not morally denigrate the other, to lift him/herself up.


Today, St. David's behavior would earn him the titles of "peeping Tom" & stalker.
Today, St. David’s behavior would earn him the titles of “peeping Tom” & stalker.

The self-deception involved in hypocrisy need not be active i the sense of self-justification and rationalization. Consider the biblical case of King David, who committed adultery with Bathsheba and sent off her husband to battle to be killed.15 Nathan brings this offence to light, and in effect charges David with having done wrong by his own principles. Is the offence here hypocrisy?

The parable told makes it evident that David’s conduct involves the use of a double standard, yet he is unaware of it due to a culpable failure at self-reflection and self-examination. Nathan says to him,

There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up; and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter. And there came a traveler unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was to come to him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come unto him.16

The biblical account continues:

And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die; and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had not pity. And Nathan answered Thou art the man.17


This example shows how even generally good people can be self-deceptive hypocrites. King David committed an injustice without even taking notice of it, without condemning himself, yet he was morally outraged that someone else had done a similar thing. There is a clear-cut use of a double standard involved in the case. There is both a rigorous moral standard for judging and punishing the other, and a convenient forgetting to apply such a standard to one’s own case. Self-deception of this sort often works in the service of self-regard, of complacency. The assumption of the complacent is that all is well in one’s own moral house, in one’s own spiritual state. This sort of smug moral self-satisfaction deters and deflects the crucial tasks of self-examination and self-criticism, and proceeds to the examination and criticism of others. In the latter task such people display an assiduity to collect all the relevant evidence and bring moral principles to bear upon the case with insight and perspicuity—their grasp of moral standards is thereby evident. What we have here is a culpable failure of self-knowledge. The lack of the relevant self-awareness is motivated by an anxious desire to seem good or better than others. One is too lazy or reluctant to look, anxious that one’s own moral identifications are at risk.



Thus far we have argued that, in several types of cases where there is no deliberate deception of others, hypocrisy hinges crucially on culpable self-deception, and thus that the claim that hypocrisy always involves deception of some sort is more defensible than has often been thought. In this section, we put forward the additional suggestion that even in some clear case of hypocrisy involving deception of others, self-deception may also play a role.

One pervasive image of the hypocrite is that of what has been called the “cynical hypocrite.” Such people are supposed to plan the inconsistency between preached ideals of conduct or motivation and actual conduct or motivation, and to be fully self-conscious of their aim to gain an undeserved moral reputation. Literature is generously salted with such hypocrites, from Moliere’s Tartuffe, through Shakespeare’s Iago, to Dickens’ Uriah Heep. Such hypocrites present themselves to others as they are not, seeming to work toward benefiting others, while making it explicit to themselves that they are really aiming only to expand their own authority. The lucidity and self-awareness of such people is the very opposite of self-deception,18 since their very success depends on their not ignoring or distorting the evidence about themselves which they observe in other people’s reactions.

However, contrary to such literary depictions of the hypocrite as a larger than life, extremely knowledgeable villain, such “cynical” hypocrites are liable to end up self-deceived, even if they do not in the first instance deceive themselves. Since this is surprising and often missed in discussions of the topic, let us note how it is likely to happen.

Having a reasonable degree of self-knowledge requires that we take the reactions and observations of others about ourselves into account. Self-knowledge in this sense is not tantamount to introspection, but grows out of material also provided by people we interact with. Now if the self-aware hypocrite, fully conscious of what s/he is doing, is reasonably successful, then the evidence potentially provided by the reactions of others will be relevant and bear upon the persona or role s/he presents to them, rather than to his/her genuine commitments and evaluations. Hence the evidential resources for self-knowledge that might be provided by others are not available to such a hypocrite. By isolating themselves thus, these so-called cynical hypocrites are likely to slip unwittingly into self-deception—they are vulnerable in precisely the area where they have been thought strongest.

But why have such hypocrites been called “cynical”? Where is the “cynical” in this description of hypocrisy? It seems to be missing altogether, since there is no reference to central features of a cynical attitude, namely, the distrust or denial of the apparent goodness of human motives, especially those of others, and the display of this attitude by sneers, sarcasm, and the appraisal of others’ actions in the worst possible light. Such an attitude again is fertile ground for self-deceptive hypocrisy, since it leads to a one-sided, narrow view of human motivation that results in blind spots and a refusal to appreciate the rich complexity of human action and motivation. The cynical hypocrite may be reading his/her own suspicions about his/her own motives into those of others, covering up his/her own particular faults by spreading those faults to human beings at large. Such hypocrites are, of course, as likely to be mistaken about their own motivation by taking this pervasively negative view, as they are about others’. This form of hypocrisy is best distinguished from the lucid, self-aware hypocrite, since a cynical attitude is not something that we are necessarily aware of.


The idea of self-deceptive hypocrisy, while intrinsically interesting, raises important questions concerning the assignment of blame and responsibility. In general, we seem to be confronted with a moral quandary. If hypocrisy involves self-deception, then to some extent hypocrites do not really know what they are doing. It might be thought that, to the extent that they are ignorant of what they are doing, they are not really culpable, since we tend to assign culpability on the basis of the agent’s degree of knowledge of what s/he is doing. On the other hand, it might be thought that the self-deceived hypocrite, far from being a candidate for exculpation, is even more deeply inculpated. Since s/he is a hypocrite and self-deceived about it, s/he is committing multiple wrongs, and therefore twice condemned, once for each vice.

But these general considerations fly too high over the moral landscape. Perhaps the only general relevant moral consideration here is that if the self-deception is culpable, and it may not be, then the moral blameworthiness is greater. But assigning blame is a case-by-case affair, requiring looking at and seeing the particular details of each moral situation. If, for example, the complacent Victorian, aware of the plight of the hardworking poor, refuses to discuss or implement urban renewal, s/he is culpable when s/he hypocritically preaches social progress through sheer work and thrift. Such a person knows better, yet pretends to the contrary. Concerning the self-righteous we might say that they are culpable for the motivated deflection of evidence that counts against their rosy self-appraisal and their hurting of others through accusations. And the more evidence the cynical hypocrite has for the damage his/her perspective causes to his/her personal relationships, the more s/he is culpable for causing it.


Elder Ephraim Arizonaa

In this chapter, we have been exploring the complex relation between hypocrisy and self-deception. We identified three attitudes that constitute fertile soil for self-deceptive hypocrisy. After briefly discussing the conceptual problem inherent in the idea of self-deception hypocrisy, we argued that such hypocrisy is not only possible, but also a common fact of life that makes the moral life even more difficult. We claimed that the idea of self-deceptive hypocrisy is not the idea of some one thing, but is heterogeneous and takes diverse forms. Then we proceeded after making a distinction between pan- and local hypocrites, by way of description and example, to discuss the roles that self-deception plays in complacent, self-righteous and cynical hypocrisy. These roles range from culpable ignorance or thoughtlessness, through wilful ignorance and biased interpretation, to rationalization. We pointed out the risk of ending up self-deceived, even in the cases of self-aware, deceitful hypocrisy. Finally, we argued that self-deception can be culpable and it is only cases of culpable deception that contribute to and enhance the blameworthiness of self-deceptive hypocrisy.


1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, translated by N.H. Smith, 1955, p. 164.
2. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, translated by Hazel Barnes, 1956, p. 68.
3. Note that the intention to deceive may not result in any actual deception. People might “see through” the attempted deception, and it may be that nobody is actually fooled.
4. For some work on the problem of self-deception, see Herbet Fingarette’s Self-Deception; Bela Szabados, “Self-Deception,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy (1974); the essays in Mike Martin, ed., Self-Deception and Self-Understanding, 1985; Annette Barnes, Seeing through Self-Deception, 1997; and Alfred Mele, Self-Deception Unmasked, 2001.
5. Smilansky, “On Practicing What We Preach?” p. 78, footnote 2.
6. Judith Shklar, Ordinary Vices, p. 47.
7. Joseph Butler, J.J. Rousseau and I. Kant seem to subscribe to such a view. See Butler’s Sermon, “Upon Self-Deceit,” from Fifteen Sermons Upon Human Nature; see Rousseau’s Letter to D’Alembert; also see I. Kant, The Doctrine of Virtue, pp. 94-95.
8. Butler, pp. 153-4.
9. For a refreshing recent view of “the Victorian” as post-modernists whose “hypocrisy” is really nothing but the ability to cope and live with often incompatible social and moral demands, see A.N. Wilson, The Victorians, 2002.
10. This terminology follows Crisp and Cowton. See “Hypocrisy and Moral Seriousness,” p. 345.
11. Shklar, pp. 54-55.
12. Ibid.
13. David Hume, “Of Self-Love,” Appendix 2 to An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, in Philosophical Works, Vol. 4, ed. T.H. Green and T.H. Grose, 1882, pp. 269-70.
14. We discussed the relationship between double standards and hypocrisy in more detail in Chapter 11 of this book.
15. We discussed this case in Chapter 1 of this book.
16. Nathan’s parable to David. Samuel 2:11-12.
17. Ibid.
18. Herbert Fingarette seems to draw a rather sharp distinction between hypocrisy and self-deception. He exclusively disjoins the two claiming that the former has explicit spelling out or full consciousness as a feature, while there is no spelling out or full consciousness at all in the latter. See Fingarette, pp. 56-57 for a sketch of what he takes to be cynical hypocrisy.

Passias Crust

Hypocrisy and Deception (Béla Szabados and Eldon Soifer, 2004)

NOTE: This article is the first of three on the aspects and roles of deception. It is taken from the 14th chapter of Hypocrisy: Ethical Investigations.

Hypocrisy - Ethical Investigations cover

“We often do good to be able to accomplish evil with greater immunity.” La Rochefoucald1

“When we and the hypocrite have learned how hypocrisy is exposed, we might have to cope with the second order hypocrite, the double-bluffer who has learned how not to act like a hypocrite.” Gilbert Ryle2


That hypocrisy necessarily involves deception has struck some writers as so obvious that it has been put forward without argument as a shared basic intuition.3 Indeed, hypocrites are commonly characterized as falsely professing to be virtuously inclined; as assuming a false appearance of virtue or goodness while dissimulating their real character or inclinations; as feigning virtue that they do not have, or pretending to be more virtuous than they really are. So there is good reason to think that deception is essential to hypocrisy.4

Nevertheless, it is possible to have doubts about this conventional picture. Perhaps it is shaped and nourished by an overly narrow diet of examples, which are ultimately unrepresentative of the broad range of hypocrisies. Perhaps deception is characteristic of only a small, albeit striking, range of cases. It is in this spirit that some philosophers have lately denied the necessity of any sort of deception or insincerity for hypocrisy, arguing for example that persons who openly admit to not practising what they preach are still correctly called hypocrites.5 In this chapter we examine such arguments and claim that, even though they point to neglected  or unnoticed parts of the conceptual landscape, they sabotage their very goal by oversimplifying the nature of deception and the various roles it can play in hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy and Gluttony confront a wandering monk.
Hypocrisy and Gluttony confront a wandering monk.


Those who deny that deception is essential to hypocrisy generally offer an account of hypocrisy that centres on inconsistency—on a failure to live up to one’s own principles. The etymological history of this usage, as we have seen, goes at least as far back as the accusation of Jesus against the Pharisees that they are hypocrites because “they do not practice what they preach.”6

Several philosophers have followed this usage and, since inconsistency does not imply deception, these philosophers need not take deception to be essential to hypocrisy…


Dan Turner offers an account of hypocrisy that focuses on “disparity pairs,” such as words versus deeds, pretended beliefs versus genuine beliefs, or beliefs versus desires.7 Turner claims that this model of properly restricted disparity pairs captures shared basic intuitions about hypocrisy, without legislating away conflicting ones, and “is enough to generate most, if not all, of the central structure of the notion.”8 Turner sees it as a virtue of his account that it does not presuppose or entail any sort of deception or insincerity, nor that hypocrisy is always a bad thing.9

Although there are noteworthy differences in the details of these accounts of hypocrisy, our primary focus is the negative claim they have in common: that hypocrisy need not involve deception or insincerity of any sort. We will argue that this claim is mistaken. For one thing, we will argue10 that philosophers who focus on an account of hypocrisy as inconsistency have difficulty explaining how hypocrisy differs from what appear to be distinct forms of inconsistency, such as weakness of will, change of mind, or mere forgetfulness. It is instructive in this context to note how readily such accounts blend hypocrisy with weakness of will. Consider, for instance, what Thomas Hurka asserts in the following passage: “In a common form of hypocrisy, you believe the moral principles you state and wish you could live up to them. But you can’t—you’re weak willed.”11 First, however, let us consider some of the examples defenders of the inconsistency accounts of hypocrisy put forward in support of their conception. We will argue that, when cases are treated with sufficient depth, it emerges that only the cases that involve deception at some level are clear candidates for hypocrisy.


Dan Turner offers an argument in the form logicians call modus tollens for the conclusion that hypocrisy need not involve deception. First, he states that “if hypocrisy is a form of deception, then there can be no ‘out-of-the-closet’ hypocrites.”12 He goes on to say that there are, however, “out-of-the-closet” hypocrites. Therefore, hypocrisy is not a form of deception. Clearly, the force of this argument depends on the claim that there are “out-of-the-closet” hypocrites. The expression is used by Turner to describe people who openly and “freely acknowledge that they do not always practice what they preach.”13 Such alleged hypocrites are intended to provide a contrast to hypocrites who conceal their failure to practise what they preach, who are still in-the-closet.

The expression “out-of-the-closet hypocrite” is provocative, for it resonates with the figure of speech now used to describe homosexuals who are open about their sexual orientation and publicly identify them as gay. Since they no longer conceal their sexual identity, they no longer pretend to be what they are not—hence, they no longer hide in-the-closet.

The analogy only needs to be explicit to see that it is misleading. A gay person, whether s/he is in- or out-of-the-closet, is still gay. It is far from clear, however, whether a person who openly and freely declares that s/he does not practise what s/he preaches is still a hypocrite. This is a crucial dissimilarity, and Turner owes us a much more compelling case for the existence of “out-of-the-closet hypocrites” before helping himself to this analogy.

Modus Tollens

Turner provides two examples which he thinks are appropriately described as “out-of-the-closet” hypocrisies, as hypocrisies without any sort of deception or insincerity. One of these, which concerns a vegetarian who sometimes eats meat, we will consider in a later section.14 For now, consider Turner’s case of a cigarette smoker, who says, “I admit I am a hypocrite because I smoke, but I also want to urge you not to smoke; it is a terrible thing that no one should do.”15

The first interpretation of this case that comes to mind might be that the person involved is a nicotine addict. As such, the case can be generalized to include addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, or whatever. An addict who desperately needs a fix may say, in the middle of getting that fix, “Whatever you do, don’t get yourself into this mess by becoming addicted,” thereby apparently satisfying the requirement for “out-of-the-closet” hypocrisy.


Yet we would argue such cases are not plausible as hypocrisy. There are relevant differences between addiction and hypocrisy. One is that calling someone a “hypocrite,” laden as that term is with moral overtones, suggests that the person could have behaved differently, and could have practised what s/he preaches. An addict, on the other hand, can preach but cannot practise. As Crisp and Cowton observe, “it may be that the smoker is addicted to nicotine to the point that she really cannot do anything about it. In this case, she would be misusing the term ‘hypocrisy’ … If the smoker is unable to give up, then she cannot be required to give up, then she cannot be required to give up, since ‘ought’ implies ‘can,’ to use Austin’s phrase.”16

If this is correct, then the defender of the inconsistency view needs a case where a person says, “I’m a hypocrite because I do what I’m telling you not to do,” but the reason for doing it is not that one is unable to do otherwise. But then what is the reason the person does what s/he advises others not to do?

One other sort of case worth considering here involves people who are not strictly addicted, and could do otherwise, but are in the habit of acting in a particular way. A useful example along these lines is that of “a teacher who tells his pupils not to put their hands in their pockets because it looks slovenly and ruins one’s clothes and yet always has his own hands in his pockets.”17

Presumably we would not say such a teacher is “addicted” to putting his hands in his pockets. But it is not obvious whether the teacher “could have done otherwise.” Bad habits are hard to break, although presumably not impossible. Perhaps this case is not different in essence from the case of the addict after all. If that is right, then the critics have again failed to provide a case in which a person could have lived up to his/her stated principles but does not. Of course, establishing the conditions under which people could have acted differently than they did would require us to address the issue of free will in a way that lies beyond the scope of this project, but if we are right that hypocrisy must involve the ability to have done otherwise, then we do not yet have here a compelling case of hypocrisy without deception.

Even if we ignore the “could have done otherwise” argument, there are other reasons for thinking that people who do not practise what they preach are not necessarily hypocrites. For one thing, hypocrites are typically after social approval, cultivating the appearance of being principled persons by their preaching. The admitted miserable condition of the addict or habit-bound person is, by contrast, an object lesson as to why people should not smoke (or perhaps more convincingly, should not do crack-cocaine).


Finally, the inconsistency between the addict’s statements and behaviour may be more apparent than real. If the statement “Don’t smoke” is taken to be an elliptical way of saying “Don’t start smoking” then the addict’s ongoing behaviour is not after all contrary to the universal prescription. The addict may believe that it is acceptable for those who are already addicted to cigarettes to continue to smoke, but not acceptable for those who are not to start. But if this is the general proposition, then the addict’s behaviour in continuing to smoke does not after all contradict his/her stated principles, (the addict is not, after all, starting to smoke), and thus there need be no inconsistency.18 Although such people might commonly be referred to as hypocrites, we argue that this description may be inaccurate even if we count mere inconsistency as sufficient for hypocrisy, let alone if, as we maintain, use of the term should be reserved for cases in which there is deception of some sort involved.

Of course, to say that hypocrisy and addiction are distinct is not to say that it is impossible to be both a hypocrite and an addict. We are not referring here to con artists who pretend to be addicts to embezzle funds, say, from the Addict’s Aid Society. Indeed, such a person is not really an addict at all, and may not be a hypocrite either.

The Smoking Monk (Mount Athos)

Rather, the hypocritical addict is a person who uses his/her public confessions of failure and apparent concern for others, to establish his/her reputation as a crusader against smoking or to deflect blame or criticism from his/her own conduct. The simple addict engages in self-disclosure when s/he openly admits to not practising what s/he preaches. The hypocritical addict uses such openness to conceal motives s/he thinks others would find unworthy of respect or unacceptable. Such people come out-of-the-closet only to hide in another, perhaps more difficult to detect, closet. This is indeed a compelling case of hypocrisy, but notice that it also involves some sort of deception or insincerity. While in standard cases of hypocrisy, the deception often consists of concealing the gap between the preaching and practice, the “out-of-the-closet” sort of hypocrite, we suggest, has learned how such standard hypocrisy is detected or exposed, and how not to act like a standard hypocrite. S/he openly acknowledges the gap, yet continues to deceive or be insincere about his or her motives or inner core. Hence, these addict/hypocrites, when properly described, direct attention to a neglected range of hypocrisy and help us to better understand the concept, but do not provide an example of hypocrites who are not deceivers.


A classic example along these lines arises in Moliere’s play Tartuffe (the alternate name of which is The Hypocrite). The title character is a man who pretends to extreme religious piety so as to work his way into the home of a man named Orgon, where he is not only fed and sheltered, but generally fawned upon and treated as an honoured guest. Tartuffe takes advantage of his host’s hospitality, and even goes so far as to make advances on Orgon’s wife, Elmire. Orgon’s son, Damis, reports this scandalous behaviour to his father, in Tartuffe’s presence. The key passage for our present purpose is Tartuffe’s reaction, speaking to Orgon, when thus accused:

Yes, brother, I am wicked, I am guilty, A miserable sinner, steeped in evil, The greatest criminal that ever lived Each moment of my life is stained with soilures; And all is but a mass of crime and filth; Heaven, for my punishment, I see it plainly, Would mortify me now. Whatever wrong They find to charge me with, I’ll not deny it But guard against the pride of self-defence. Believe their stories, arm your wrath against me And drive me like a villain from your house; I cannot have so great a share of shame But what I have deserved a greater still. Ah! Let him speak; you chide him wrongfully; You’d do far better to believe his tales. Why favour me so much in such a matter? How can you know of what I’m capable? And should you trust my outward semblance, brother, Or judge therefrom that I’m the better man? No, no; you let appearances deceive you; I’m anything but what I’m thought to be, Alas! And though all men believe me godly, The simple truth is, I’m a worthless creature.19

Is Tartuffe being hypocritical in this passage? If deception is crucial for hypocrisy, then it might seem the answer has to be no, since what he says is true. He tells Orgon that he is a scoundrel—which we know to be true—and further warns Orgon not to be taken in by appearances, because he is anything but the godly man he is thought to be. Now if all this is intended as a genuine confession, then it seems there cannot be any hypocrisy involved on Tartuffe’s part. However, there is reason to think this is not after all a genuine confession. First of all, the very fact that Tartuffe does seem to be a thoroughgoing scoundrel makes us suspicious of any sudden transformation, and his later behaviour in the play (e.g., by again trying to seduce Orgon’s wife) confirms these suspicions. Even more telling, however, is Orgon’s reaction to Tartuffe’s speech. Orgon takes this confession as yet one more indication of Tartuffe’s piety. He not only gets angry at Damis for accusing such a saintly man of wrongdoing, but tries to earn Tartuffe’s forgiveness for the slur of his character by offering him the deed to his home, and his daughter’s hand in marriage. Since Tartuffe’s entire success is based on playing upon the sensibilities of his gullible host, it seems most likely that Tartuffe intended his speech to bring about exactly the sort of reaction it did. In that case, he says things that are true, in the confidence that they will not be believed, and will be viewed instead as a poignant demonstration of the virtue of humility.20


If this reading is correct, does the resulting situation amount to hypocrisy? It certainly has the element of trying to obtain a better reputation than one deserves, and thus we are surely tempted to consider this speech hypocritical. But again, what Tartuffe says in this passage is true. Accordingly, this might seem like exactly the sort of test case we were looking for. This appears to be a case of hypocrisy without deception, unless one merely stipulates it away, claiming it is not hypocrisy solely because it does not have this feature taken to be essential.

On more careful consideration, however, it can be seen there is deception here after all. It is true that the words are literally true.21 Nevertheless, part of what is communicated through the speech is not true at all. Tartuffe is deliberately conveying the idea of someone who scrutinizes himself carefully for fault, and chastises himself soundly when he finds it, with genuine remorse. Yet he is none of this. He is indeed full of what the world considers fault, but even when he becomes aware of this, he has no interest in changing. He apparently believes that being a scoundrel is exactly the right way to be, especially if one can take advantage of others’ gullibility, to one’s own selfish advantage. Thus the appearance of remorse and humility that Tartuffe conveys in this speech is indeed deceptive, even though the words are literally true. And it is exactly this deception that provides an advantage for Tartuffe, gaining for him benefits that he could not obtain if people knew the truth. This does indeed seem to be a case of hypocrisy, then, but it is a case that turns out to support rather than undermine the account of hypocrisy as deception aimed at getting a better reputation than one deserves.22

Fr. George Passias
Fr. George Passias

So far, those who want to maintain that there can be hypocrisy without deception have failed to provide a compelling case. Some of the proposed cases, such as those involving addicts (or people with bad habits) who advise others to avoid the same predicament do not amount to hypocrisy. Other cases, such as that of Tartuffe, turn out to involve deception, though at a more subtle level than is immediately obvious. There are still other cases to consider, however.

Another group of people who do not practise what they preach consists of those who believe that rules that apply to most people do not apply to them. Although this seems to meet exactly the definition of hypocrisy as inconsistency, we will argue that such cases often cannot plausibly be considered hypocrisy at all. Consider, for example, a person who has special skills or abilities that make it unlikely that s/he will be hurt by actions that would be very risky for others. This is the point behind examples where people on TV say things such as “Don’t try this at home, kids,” or “Remember, I’m a trained professional.” But surely there is no reason to think such people are hypocrites. If the general rule is that “only individuals with characteristic x can or should do action a,” then a person who has characteristic x is not being hypocritical in saying to those who do not, “I am going to do this, but you should not.” Similarly, society may authorize some individuals to do some things that are prohibited to the general public. For example, emergency workers are entitled to drive through red lights when the rest of us cannot. If such emergency workers say as they drive by “I’m doing this, but you shouldn’t,” they are displaying the kind of inconsistency Turner and others identify, but surely nobody would think they were being hypocritical. Even if people are mistaken about their beliefs—even if they do not really have the skills that will shield them from injury, for example, or are simply deluded as to whether they are emergency workers, their failing to practise what they preach would not amount to hypocrisy. People who genuinely believe they are exempted from a rule in light of some specific characteristic are not being hypocritical if they act contrary to the rule while still recommending it to others.

What would make such an individual a plausible candidate for hypocrisy would be if that person’s reason for being exempted boiled down to nothing more than “I don’t have to do that, and you do, because I’m me and you’re not.”23 Besides failing any plausible version of a universalizability test of morality, a person taking such a stance is likely to be doing exactly what we are arguing is crucial for hypocrisy—engaging in deception. People who simply assert that they are special, and that ordinary moral rules do not apply to them, are not likely to have much credibility. Accordingly, people who think this way are not likely to make their views explicit. They will publicly endorse the rule, urging others to follow it as if they think it applies to everyone, and keep secret their belief that it does not apply to them. Such people are indeed strong candidates for hypocrisy, and their failure to practise what they preach is crucial for identifying them as such, but notice that they are also deceivers. They deceptively suggest that they think the rule applies to everyone including them, when they really think it applies to everyone except them.

Geronda Ephraim

We have argued that cases of “out-of-the-closet” hypocrites”24 are candidates for hypocrisy only if there is some sort of deception or insincerity also involved. Deception in hypocrisy often takes the form of concealing from others a breach between one’s preaching and practice. However deception may take other forms too. The modified versions of “out-of-the-closet” hypocrites we elaborated show that a person may acknowledge or confess a failure to practise what s/he preaches, and deceptively use this apparent “openness” to evade moral censure or blame. The deception here is about inner motive or intention and this suggests that people may be hypocrites, even though they practise what they preach—if they pretend to be motivated by certain considerations while in fact being motivated only by a desire to appear to be motivated by those considerations. Here again, however, it seems that situations can only properly be described as involving hypocrisy when there is deception present.


There is another adaptive variation of hypocrisy that needs to be considered when searching for “hypocrisy of inconsistency” without deception. This variation involves people who make the actions of others a condition for practising, saying, “I’ll follow this principle only if others join in.” An example, provided by Saul Smilansky, is that of a person who says: “I am an egalitarian. If egalitarianism triumphs I would be willing to give up two-thirds of my salary in taxation. But until then, as long as the present social order persists, it is perfectly legitimate for me to pay only a quarter of my salary in taxes … I am all for changing the rules, but why should I now be the only one to pay?”25 Smilansky claims that, although such an individual readily admits she does not practise what she preaches, she “is no less a hypocrite than her more immediately recognizable partner”26 who conceals her actions so that the failure to practise what she preaches is not noticed. If Smilansky is right, perhaps we have here an example of a person who is hypocritical in light of inconsistency alone, without appeal to deception.

There are two reasons Smilansky cites to support his claim that this amounts to hypocrisy. The first is that “(with certain limited exceptions) one is obliged to practise what one preaches irrespective of the degree of acceptance of this preaching by others.27 This reason has a kind of Kantian resonance in that it suggests that principles are categorical imperatives, and anyone who qualifies them with “ifs and buts,” or compromises them by conditions, is already well on the way to the hypocrisy allegedly inherent in consequentialism. This reason, let us note, is only as sound as the Kantian theory it presupposes, and there are reasons for serious misgivings about the latter. Indeed, the difficulty of maintaining this approach is indicated by Smilansky’s need to qualify the assertion by allowing “certain limited exceptions.” He would, for example, allow deviating from the path one advocates when “doing one’s bit in the direction of one’s preaching, without the support or parallel action of others, would be more or less suicidal,”26 such as might be true of an advocate of gun control in “the Wild West or Beirut.”28 Similarly, he allows deviation from one’s preaching when “the achievement of the social aim depends on mass conformity, since one individual’s contribution, when it is quite certain that others will not join in, is insignificant or nonexistent.”29 After such qualifications, which we agree are necessary, the Kantian claim no longer seems as striking or powerful.


The second, and more powerful, reason Smilansky gives for believing that the person who says “I’ll do so if others join in” is a hypocrite will not in fact help the persons looking for an example of hypocrisy without deception. Smilansky claims that, contrary to appearances, there is deceit going on in such cases: “The deceit follows from the fact that there is a pretence of principle being declared, together with the knowledge that it is highly unlikely that the principle will be put to the test. Making the actions of others a condition for one’s actions pretty much guarantees that.”30 In other words, the person is in a sense stating a conditional of the form, “If others do x, then I’ll do x, too.” If one knows the antecedent is false, however, then it seems the only reason to make such a statement is that one hopes to gain a reputation for being willing to do x, without the cost of actually having to do it. We agree that in such cases there is a plausible, even compelling, case of hypocrisy, of a sort that might be called “counterfactual hypocrisy.” Note that, if the antecedent condition were miraculously to be met, such people might or might not carry through on their commitment to x. Although the one who does not do x when others have x’d is the clearer hypocrite, having made a blatantly false counterfactual statement, arguably even one who does do x when the circumstances call for it—perhaps to avoid further damage to one’s reputation—may be considered a hypocrite. This might be true, for example, if the person would never have made the statement in the first place, if s/he had realized there was a chance of actually having to carry through on it.

So we agree with Smilansky that people who make insincere counterfactual claims about what they would do if others behaved as we know they won’t are engaged in a form of deception and thereby qualify as hypocrites. But Smilansky seems to have described the case too broadly. Although he has identified an important and neglected area in which hypocrisy might arise, we believe that not all cases fitting his basic mould are in fact hypocritical in this way.

Consider again the case of the egalitarian who does not conceal his or her present practice, acknowledging that s/he pays only as much tax as presently required by law.  Suppose that s/he formulates the egalitarian principle clearly, and preaches in a manner that explicitly spells out the conditions for practice, as well as giving, so Smilansky himself says, “a principled set of reasons for not practicing what s/he preaches.”31 Consider then the above egalitarian, plus the following relevant new information. S/he knows that it is very unlikely that the preaching will be put to the test of practice in his or her lifetime, and says so. However, s/he works hard toward the realization of those conditions, investing considerable time, effort and money in the process. The “principled reasons” for not practising what s/he preaches are fairly applied and s/he does not demonize others who disagree. This person’s arguments suggest a genuine interest in a better society; s/he is not privileging his or her own role, but sees him or herself as one in a group of like-minded people. This person satisfies all of Smilansky’s requirements for hypocrisy, yet s/he seems like a genuine and realistic social reformer. We believe that it is the total lack of pretension in this case that makes us reluctant to label the egalitarian in question a hypocrite.

Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew kneel to kiss the Stone of Unction, traditionally claimed as the stone where Jesus' body was prepared for burial, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem May 25, 2014.
Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew kneel to kiss the Stone of Unction, traditionally claimed as the stone where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem May 25, 2014.

Smilansky’s basic sketch of the egalitarian-as-hypocrite is that of someone who not only conditionalizes his or her practice on the cooperation of others, but rigs those conditions in such a way that they in fact sabotage the goals of the principle itself. Furthermore, suppose that s/he flaunts the ideals, yet makes invidious judgments about those who live conventional lives—like him/herself—but do not avow egalitarianism. It is natural to see such a person a hypocrite, since in this case there is no pretension to principle and deceit going on.

To sum up our point then: To preach, not practise, openly admitting the breach, and conditionalizing one’s practice on the cooperation of others, does not necessarily involve deception, and does not as such amount to hypocrisy. Whether such a scenario adds up to hypocrisy depends on what these conditions are and how they are specified. If the latter are deceptive, we have good reason to suspect hypocrisy. In any event, there are diverse cases, requiring different treatment. For example, the successful practice of chastity does not generally require the cooperation of others, while bringing about an egalitarian society does. Accordingly, it is almost certainly hypocritical to say “I would be chaste if other people were, but they’re not, so I won’t be either,” but the comparable case of the egalitarian we have described need not be hypocritical at all. In any event, we have argued the cases of the “I will only if others do” sort are hypocritical only when the principles are “rigged,” and there is thus deception involved.


We have argued that the defenders of the “hypocrisy as inconsistency” theory have not yet provided a compelling case of hypocrisy, in which one could have acted on one’s stated principles and did not, that does not involve deception of some sort. We have yet to provide a positive argument to the effect that deception is required to distinguish hypocrisy from other forms of inconsistency, such as weakness of will, forgetfulness, or changes of mind. Before proceeding to this positive argument, however, we need to consider one more range of cases of potential counter-examples to our claim that hypocrisy does require deception. We will argue that these cases also involve deception, but that the deception involved is of a particular sort. In the next chapter, we consider the relationship between hypocrisy and self-deception.


1. La Rochefoucauld, Maxims, 1931.
2. Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, 1949, p. 174.
3. See e.g., Eva Feder Kittay, “Hypocrisy,” 277-89.
4. On this view, all that remains to be done is to explain how hypocrisy is to be distinguished from other forms of deception.
5. People who argue in this fashion include: Judith Shklar, Ordinary Vices; Dan Turner, “Hypocrisy”; Roger Crisp and Christopher Cowton, “Hypocrisy and Moral Seriousness,” 343-49.
6. Matthew 23:3.
7. Turner, p. 265.
8. Ibid., 266.
9. Ibid., 266 and 286.
10. In Chapter 14 of this book.
11. Hurka 266.
12. Turner 265.
13. Ibid. 264.
14. See Chapter 14, Sections D and E of this book.
15. Turner 265.
16. Crisp and Cowton, 345.
17. Ibid.
18. We owe this insight to Leanne Kent, a former student.
19. Jean Baptiste Poquelin Moliere, Tartuffe; Or, The Hypocrite, Act III, Scene 6 (Harvard Classics, Vol. 26, Part 4, on-line edition).
20. This technique was first laid out by the Apostle Paul who reproaches himself as “the first among sinners.” Orthodox Christian texts have continued this tradition for the last 2000 years. Geronda Ephraim is a continuer of this tradition: he reproaches and accuses himself in every letter and homily he writes. His devoted disciples, who are under blind obedience to him, believe that these accusations he makes against himself are a testimony to his humility and saintliness.
21. It is interesting to compare this case with cases of irony. In standard cases of irony, the speaker says something that is false, expecting the listener to take it in the opposite way, understanding that what is meant is not what is literally said, but the reverse. In the present case, the speaker again expects the listener to take what is said in the opposite way, but in this case the words are literally true, and the expectation is that the reader will invert it and come to a false belief on that basis.
22. Monasteries have received countless large donations by utilizing such techniques of feigning humility and self-reproach. This technique leaves such a deep impression on gullible lay people that it reinforces their belief that the abbots or abbesses are holy (especially if they’ve already been prepped by other pilgrims with miracle stories about these individuals). A common phrase heard is, “S/he’s so holy and yet so humble, what a saint!”
23. In not so many words, this is a very common statement in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries. “Because I’m the Geronda (or Gerondissa),” is often heard by monastic disciples who confess logismoi or are scandalized by the un-monastic behaviors they witness in the abbots/abbesses. It is common for new novices who have not yet been completely broken by the elder to get scandalized easily by various behaviours that occur in the monastery; especially of the superiors and older monastics. This is natural because the young novices are continually reading monastic texts which censure different behaviours as unmonastic and many times these behaviours are quite commonplace in the monasteries from the head down. After a strict indoctrination process of being continually humbled (either verbally or other methods), long work hours, sleep and food deprivation, etc., the novice is either completely subjugated to the superior, or after a series of mini breaks, realizes the monastic life is not for them.
24. We discuss Turner’s other case, that of the meat-eating vegetarian in Chapter 14 of this book.
25. Smilansky, “On Practicing What We Preach,” American Philosophical Quarterly, (1994) 75.
26. Ibid., 77.
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid., 75.
29. Ibid.
30. Ibid., 74-75.
31. Ibid.
32. Ibid.


The “Absolute Truth” About Dogmatism (Judy J. Johnson, 2008)

NOTE: The following article are excerpts from the first chapter of What’s So Wrong About Being Absolutely Right: The Dangerous Nature of Dogmatic Belief by Judy J. Johnson:

What’s So Wrong About Being Absolutely Right

It is much easier to demolish someone else’s ideas than to suspend judgment and carefully examine our own. Such analysis requires moving beyond what we believe to why and how we hold beliefs of central importance. Many people do not analyze their beliefs much beyond the what stage. Certainly not dogmatists. They have little difficulty explaining the content of their beliefs, and their arrogant pronouncements clearly reveal how they believe. Less visible are the psychological reasons why they close their minds to anything that contradicts what they know to be true—absolutely true. In describing fanaticism (a variant of dogmatism), Winston Churchill said, “A fanatic is someone who can’t change his mind and won’t change the topic.”


Psychologists can only infer from observable emotions and behaviors the invisible forces that drive people to close their minds to reason and act in self-defeating ways. The theory of dogmatism proposed here is such an inferential model—a systematized compilation of ideas about plausible causes that account for dogmatism’s unique characteristics. For some, it may seem odd to propose a theory that has not been empirically validated, but that is the core of psychology. In a similar vein, “to believe something while knowing it cannot be proved (yet) is the essence of physics.”1 Theory is thus a convenient model that can turn useful fictions into testable predictions.

All of us have encountered dogmatists and dogmatism. We recognize that personal and worldly decisions are made by dogmatists whose default systems include instant, premature judgment and dismissal of opposing or novel ideas. Tenaciously, they cling to their steadfast beliefs when common sense and countervailing evidence suggests they should re-examine their faulty assumptions. With little reflection or humility, they are driven to defend themselves against facts, comments, or questions that they interpret as direct threats to their intellectual integrity and personal dignity, as a result, we cannot get through to them.

The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs - Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth
The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs – Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth

Yet, as with all problems, closing our eyes and hoping for the best is surely naive. It is therefore urgent that we study the organization of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that shape doctrinaire belief systems. We need to know what we’re up against before zealous movements gain emotional momentum and convert fear to dangerous, self-righteous anger, and before the free spirit of democracy is derailed by close-minded decisions. It behooves our familial, educational, and political systems to counter these dangers with reason, vigilance, and the liberty of open-minded dialogue, all of which strike fear in the hearts of dogmatists, whose social, political, moral, and spiritual values are frozen in time.

Why is it that some people obstinately refuse to open their minds to new ideas, even when persuasive, contradictory evidence should give them reason to pause? They simply refuse to see things any other way. Not only do they cling to beliefs with rigid certainty, their lack of interpersonal skills makes them oblivious to the effect their proclamations have on others. From ordinary people to priests, presidents, and professors, dogmatists feel protected by what they believe and fail to see that how they believe limits their opportunities for success and erodes their credibility. Like the bed in their guestroom, their minds are always made up, but seldom used.

But these are only some of the problems created by the need to be absolutely right. Around the dinner table, dogmatism is there to constrain thought. At social gatherings, dogmatism interrupts free-spirited conversation. During office meetings and government sittings, dogmatism derails progress. The dictatorial bark of dogmatism had interrupted peace and progress ever since humans began articulating beliefs about the world and their place in it. In its mildest form, dogmatism is the voice that asserts: “I am right; you are wrong.” Moderate dogmatism presents a stronger variation: “I am right; you are stupid.” Extreme dogmatism (or zealotry) is vicious and violent: “I am right; you are dead.”2 Understood from a psychological perspective, individual dogmatism is the practice that assures one: “I am right; therefore safe.”


Since ancient times, great thinkers have espoused the philosophical importance of being open-minded and cautioned against the perils of doctrinaire thinking. But little was written about dogmatism as a distinct personality disposition until the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany, when Erich Fromm and Wilhelm Reich sought to understand why Germans were drawn to Hitler.

Dogmatism is a personality trait. Psychologists use the term personality trait to refer to aspects of personality that motivate us to think, feel, and act in fairly consistent ways across time and different situations. In that sense, traits allow us to make reasonable predictions about people’s behavior, because we observe the same person express his or her unique traits (in this case, dogmatism) in many different situations. Traits are therefore more widespread and enduring than specific habits or behavioral tendencies.3


Dogmatism: Ancient and Modern Meanings

Throughout history, believers of various ideologies have clamored to dominate religious and political movements. In this regard, dogmatic beliefs that justify power and dominion over others know no boundaries. Psychologically, belief systems consist of perceptions, cognitions, and emotions that the brain considers to be accurate if not true. While perceptions are interpretations we make about the world based on our sensory systems, cognitions refer to abstract mental processes that continually organize and process these perceptions in unique, meaningful ways. Thus, the terms cognitive and cognition refer to our brain’s abstract organization and interpretation of sensory experiences—what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell.

This visual metaphor represents an attempt to synthesize research & theory on cognitive diversity.
This visual metaphor represents an attempt to synthesize research & theory on cognitive diversity.

Dogmatism presumably emerged with the development of language, through which people began crafting myths and folklore about their experiences, abilities, identities, social roles, and various cultural values. When strong emotions became attached to tales and myths, belief systems ensued, some of which were consolidated in dogma that later became institutionalized. Such dogma was stamped with official authority that had the potential for the rigid trappings of dogmatism. But the first definition of dogma is relatively neutral. The Oxford English Dictionary defines dogma as:

“1. That which is held as an opinion; a belief, principle, tenet; esp., a tenet or doctrine laid down by a particular church, sect, or school of thought; sometimes, [my emphasis], depreciatingly, an imperious or arrogant declaration of opinion. 2. The body of opinion formulated or authoritatively stated; systematized belief; tenets or principles collectively; doctrinal system.”

Thus, dogma need not always enact the practice of dogmatism; it may merely reflect the content of institutionalized belief systems that may or not be practiced dogmatically. According to Webster’s to be dogmatic is to be “positive, magisterial; asserting or disposed to assert with authority or with overbearing and arrogance; applied to persons; as a dogmatic schoolman or philosopher.” Tenets differ in that they do not carry such stamps of authority. Webster’s again notes: “A tenet rests on its own intrinsic merits or demerits; a dogma rests on authority regarded as competent to decide and determine.”

Conflicts about various belief systems that were formerly settled among families, small bands, tribes, and larger groups (known as chiefdoms) later became settled by the resolute decisions of appointed rulers who had a monopoly on information, which allowed them to exercise arbitrary power. Such muscular control meant they could apply force to indoctrinate people with “official religious and patriotic fervor [and] make their troops willing to fight suicidally.”4 Ruling elites converted supernatural beliefs into religious dogma that institutionalized and justified the chief’s authority. Moreover, shared ideology expanded the bonds of kinship that held groups together and motivated people to cooperate, thus enabling large groups of strangers to live together in peace.5 To further consolidate and legitimize their power, rulers built temples and monuments as visible reminders of their supremacy. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Industrial Revolution, European empires used state religions to give kings, queens, and monarchs divine status that legitimized war and the colonization of the Western world.6

Common Sense is not So COmmon

As recently as three centuries ago there was no question but to automatically accept dogma as pure, even divine, doctrine. Humans have always sought meaningful explanations for existence and effective guidelines for living, and, linguistically, religion refers to anything which one is strongly devoted. Through stories and religious rituals, beliefs and behaviors become transformed. Long before the scientific method became the practice for developing a body of reliable knowledge, scriptures were routinely endorsed as indisputable truths, and they were adopted and held with absolute conviction, but without much reflection on their accuracy or feasibility. Beliefs were assumed to be divinely inspired, and it is therefore understandable that the terms dogma and dogmatism were first associated with religion. Given the brutal history of torture and killings that religious dogma inspired, it is also understandable how the term dogma acquired a pejorative meaning. Yet religious dogma may be simply perceived as devout teachings based on divine revelation—teachings that promise communal associations that are sustained through ritual.

Seen from the psychological perspective of dogmatism, political and religious ideologies are not the key problem in social unrest; their corresponding dogmas simply consist of articulated or written words. The purpose of any dogma “lies in its ability to point beyond itself to a deeper reality which cannot be readily articulated in a simple formula or expression.”7 But when dogma is elevated to absolute truth, it is often accompanied by deeply embedded emotions that compel people to unquestioningly adopt it as a demonstration of loyalty or piety—an act that assuages fear and offers psychological protection. Emotions, not reason, propel allegiance and obedience, and the dogma of yesterday kindles the dogmatism of today, which can be anything but benign.


Throughout the Middle Ages, gross misinterpretations of Jesus Christ’s teachings were applied during the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Catholic Church’s witch hunts. These hypocritical misrepresentations of dogma and fantasies chewed up bits of undigested ideology and spit it out as dogmatism. These examples of rigid, individual dogmatism are beleaguered by pervasive, enduring psychological problems that lurk beneath the dogma of one’s stated beliefs. As we shall see in later chapters, within these murky domains, negative emotions of anxiety and anger contaminate and obscure reason, which ultimately compromises personal and intellectual freedom.

Emotions F3.large

Religious beliefs held sway during the Middle Ages, when uncritical acceptance of dogma was the norm—especially given people’s lack of education, their socialization to honor authority figures, and their fear of questioning religious authorities. This culture of religion stifled efforts toward rational inquiry up until the 17th and 18th centuries, when scientists and philosophers inspired a new Age of Reason. Eminent philosophers and scientists advocated superstition be replaced by the voice of authoritative reason. They stressed the importance of subordinating religious belief to the power of reason, empirical observation, and critical thinking, and in their struggle to facilitate open-minded inquiry, they began to formulate a scientific approach to knowledge that would gradually replace the Church’s dominion over political and religious orthodoxy.

Yet today, as they did centuries ago, dogmatic people continue to assert their beliefs as if they were scientific axioms that do not require proof. It is axiomatic that the earth rotates on its axis and that squares have four equal, perpendicular sides, but is it axiomatic that Jesus rose from the dead or was conceived by the Virgin Mary? When such beliefs are presumed to be self-evident rather than based on evidence, they exonerate the believer from any burden of proof. People who are more flexible in their thinking often reject such faulty reasoning and dislike the proselytizing manner of fervent believers.

Dogmatists in other religions sanctimoniously condemn the unconverted with a close-mindedness that commandeers reason. Yet to condemn, control, or rule others from one’s own self-doubt and emotional apprehension risks violating people’s inalienable rights.

Mattathias killing a Jewish apostate (1 Maccabees 2: 15 - 29).
Mattathias killing a Jewish apostate (1 Maccabees 2: 15 – 29).

Dogmatism, Common Synonyms and Related Terms

Psychologists generally agree that dogma, ideology, opinions, attitudes, values, and belief systems have distinct meanings but three overlapping properties. First, these terms connote individual beliefs about what is true or false, good or bad, desirable or undesirable, right or wrong. Second, all are accompanied by emotions that vary in intensity and duration from mild, transient emotions to passionate, sustained arousal. Such emotions create physiological responses that a person may or may not be aware of. Third, because our attitudes and values consist of several related beliefs that motivate behavior, entire belief systems are more potent than single beliefs.8

However, whether a particular belief stands alone or in relation to other beliefs, “beliefs are principles of action: whatever they may be at the level of the brain, they are processes by which our understanding (and misunderstanding) of this world is represented and made available to guide our behavior.”9 And “as long as a person maintains that his beliefs represent an actual state of the world (visible or invisible; spiritual or mundane), he must believe that his beliefs are a consequence of the way the world is. This, by definition, leaves him vulnerable to new evidence.”10 Whether one’s beliefs are based on facts that attempt to reveal truths or are value judgments that imply behavioral proscriptions, beliefs about either domain reflect attempts to understand ourselves and the surrounding world in a way that enhances the quality of life. Finally, behaviors reveal underlying beliefs much more than verbal pronouncements alone, for, as the adage notes, “Love is as love does.” On a broader scale, democracy is as democracy does, and dogmatism is as dogmatism does.


While attitudes and values are typically prominent and enduring, single beliefs and opinions are less persistent and more narrowly circumscribed in their emotional, cognitive, and behavioral parameters. People whose attitudes and values are held dogmatically may be described as opinionated, and although the terms dogmatic and opinionated imply close-mindedness, opinions refer more to specific issues that are often of shorter duration and less penetrating. There is nothing inherently destructive about being opinionated, but dogmatism is another matter, especially given its degree of intolerance, its excessive and prolonged emotional baggage, and its harmful behavioral consequences.

Throughout this book the terms dogma and ideology are used interchangeably, but both are intended to convey closed-minded, rigid convictions about belief systems that have damaging consequences for individuals and groups. Whereas some belief systems reflect cultural attitudes and values that are based on informal, commonsense notions about, for example, marriage and parenting, others are institutionalized policies that are derivative of formal, academic theories. But regardless of how dogma or ideology is derived, ideologues who adopt dogma as inerrant truth bathe reason in excessive emotion.

Philosophers have long given serious thought to dogma, dogmatists, and dogmatism.11 More than two years ago, the skeptics first applied the term dogmatics to people who believed that absolute truth was attainable through the activity of reason. If one reasoned hard enough and long enough, universal truths would emerge. Such claims did not sit well with two pre-eminent skeptics—Pyrrho (ca. 360-270 BCE) and Sextus Empiricus (ca. 160-210 CE). These philosophers and their followers believed that reasoning could never distill logical theory into a single truth. Their objective was to examine arguments to determine if equally reasonable counter arguments could be mounted. Any sound opposing argument would show that a declaration statement cannot be considered correct with absolute certainty, and, therefore, any claims of discovering truth are invalid (this is especially so with statements pertaining to abstract concepts, which most psychological constructs are, including dogmatism). By acting on their belief that nothing can ever be proven, only falsified, these and other skeptics dismissed all theories of objective truth as delusions of certainty.12


While the skeptics argues that beliefs and ideas are never true, they nonetheless believed that we could become knowledgeable, provided our ideas are supported by solid premises and sound reasoning, and as long as no strong argument provides a better alternative explanation. Even when these conditions are met, we can still go no further than to state that “this is how it seems to me.” Once people understand that no one can ever know for certain that any proposition is true, they will cease to strive for absolute truth and, consequently, acquire peace of mind and tranquility (this is the state of ataraxia, as described by ancient philosophers).

In our pursuit of knowledge, we must also guard against the erroneous view of radical skeptics who are lost in a quagmire of doubt, denial, and disbelief.13 These skeptics refuse to believe any assertion or apparent fact, preferring instead to habitually doubt everything. While the radical or absolute skeptic arbitrarily denies anything without grounds for rejection, the dogmatist arbitrarily asserts truth without grounds for acceptance. The absolute skeptic and the dogmatist are therefore similar in that neither values open-minded inquiry and evidence-based knowledge. We can assume that the absolute skeptic and the dogmatist would occupy extreme ends on a linear scale that measures close-minded thinking, because both have a rigid approach to ideas and information and both are unable to expand or substantiate views that they arbitrarily reject or cling to with unwarranted certainty.


In contrast, the scientific skeptic has a more broad-minded approach to knowledge. He or she questions the validity of a particular claim by calling for evidence to prove or disprove it.14 Evidence emerges only from a scrupulous, deliberate process of original inquiry, critical thinking, and constructive criticism that validates new knowledge against previous benchmarks of understanding. The task of modern-day skeptics is to purge our inquiries and beliefs of bias, hasty alliances, and accidental inheritances, to overcome prejudice (literally, pre-judgment, judgment before inquiry), to examine all possibilities with sympathetic interest and critical attention, and to love truth loyally so that we may be spared the embrace of falsehood in the darkness.15

Individual belief systems are adopted through a complicated process. It is not always clear whether personal statements are components of an overarching, systematized ideology or whether they evolve from personal meaning extracted from organized, institutional ideologies derived from dogma.16 What is clear—and clearly disconcerting—is the manner in which dogmatists adopt, adhere to, and impose their beliefs on others.


At the individual level, gradients of dogmatism all have in common rigid, ideological beliefs, and while political and religious belief systems are assumed to be the most common targets of dogmatism, quite possibly some social science researcher might prove me wrong by discovering that significantly more people are dogmatic about parenting styles and sexual morality. But regardless of the issues involved, dogmatic minds are closed to new ideas and evidence that refutes their established beliefs. Displays of intolerance and discrimination towards others are justified by uncorroborated or unverifiable dogma that removes the dogmatist from the rational world of history, philosophy, and science. In the extreme, dogmatism plays out the psychological fantasies of fanatics who are devout followers of fundamentalist ideology, such as that seen in suicide missions and terrorist attacks. Among these dogmatists, there is a powerful temptation to join groups that appeal to the weakest link in the chain of their psychological being.

Working Toward A Psychological Definition of Dogmatism

A comprehensive psychological definition of dogmatism needs to capture the essence of its entire suite of cognitive, emotional, and behavior complexity, and it needs to do so with enough precision to render it capable of empirical validation. We will keep in mind that beneath the definition of each characteristic is a network of deep-rooted causes that have serious psychological and psychosocial consequences. What are the patterns of thoughts, emotions, motivations, and behaviors that motivate and sustain dogmatic belief systems? Why do some people transfer their personal autonomy to external agents whose reasoning ability they glorify? What enables some leaders to command followers to surrender their own moral standards and commit atrocities that violate international laws or disregard  universal codes of ethics? Why do some people declare that killing is wrong but rationalize its legitimacy when carried out in the name of God, democracy, or freedom? How do individuals develop polarized beliefs that legitimize casting groups of people into “us versus them” dichotomies that justify blame and retaliation against members of an out-group who then become scapegoats for dogmatists’ own unacknowledged weaknesses and failed identities? Why do some government leaders declare war and then simplify the complex with categorical rationalizations—win or lose, live or die, honorable or traitorous? Situating the conflict in a political or biblical context of righteous indignation makes their war noble and moral—a simple solution that prevents guilt, strips war of its horror, and turns flesh and blood into mere statistics. It is important to note the catalytic link between emotional vulnerability and dogmatism, especially during uncertain, fearful, or oppressive times, when vulnerable individuals abandon their moral and ethical principles. A compelling theory of dogmatism needs to address these questions as fully and open-mindedly as possible.


The following psychological definition of dogmatism provides the framework for the theory proposed in this book: Dogmatism is a personality trait that combines cognitive, emotional, and behavioral  characteristics to personify prejudicial, close-minded belief systems that are pronounced with rigid certainty.17 As such, it reflects a style of thinking that is derivative of emotions, particularly anxiety, that narrow thought and energize behavior.

This is a psychological definition, but we cannot overlook certain social conditions that interact with psychological predispositions to unleash unconscionable, dogmatic authoritarian aggression (one of five behavioral characteristic of dogmatism).  Although this book focuses on dogmatism as a psychological trait, its development does not independently originate in the psyche; it is clearly influenced by social phenomena. Particularly vulnerable are individuals whose personal risk factors combine with stressful social and cultural environments that suppress independent, rational thought.

If we are to understand the mass psychology of group behavior, a thorough knowledge of the culture’s history is necessary to contextualize group goals. Whether the group is predominately motivated to gain freedom, pursue a particular religious or political ideology, redress social injustice, or seek revenge, its manner of addressing complex issues requires an assessment of the players’ motives within broad historical, cultural, and political contexts—a daunting obligatory task. Dogmatism inevitably reflects an interaction of inextricably linked individual and institutional forces.


Behaviors that reflect the close-mindedness of dogmatism were present long before the conservative right clashed with the liberal left. Similarly, religious fundamentalists locked horns with secularists on battlegrounds that significantly predate the current conflict between creationists and evolutionary theorists, who seem unable to reconcile their differences. In addition, the demands of environmentalists collide with corporate game plans, feminists struggle against patriarchal power, and academics defend their turf in the very manner that advanced education warns against—a manner that betrays an open-minded pursuit of knowledge.

Despite philosophic and scientific advances made before, during, and after the Age of Reason, and despite scholarly contributions that emphasize the importance of open-minded inquiry, daunting social and political problems in the early years of this millennium are exacerbated by emotional excesses that gird dogmatism. The result is short-term quick fixes that, more often than not, work against the long-term interests of humanity. As we examine dogmatism’s unpleasant characteristics and harmful consequences to one’s self and associates (microdogmatism) and to social and cultural institutions (macrodogmatism), quite likely someone you know or have known will breathe vivid life into the black words on these white pages.

The question is, how objectively can we—you and I—assess psychological impediments that constrict our willingness to open-mindedly consider alternate views? … How accurately can you summarize countervailing ideas before contradicting them with your own? This does not mean that once you have fully considered opposing views you cannot arrive at a comfortable position and choose not to engage, at length, someone whose views significantly differ from your own. You may simply agree to disagree. But first, do you understand that with which you disagree? Genuine understanding requires active listening and hearing.


It is consoling to know that we are all capable of being somewhat rigid, even close-minded about some of our ideas some of the time. We are inclined to adopt beliefs that accompany the circumstances of our birth and habitually defend them in the absence of thoughtful examination. Beliefs maintained by a combination of complacency and habit are not necessarily dogmatic, nor do they lead to incontrovertible, implacable belief systems that hallmark dogmatism. Dogmatic believers, however, are proud of their unwavering belief systems, even though they would not want to be thought of as dogmatic or pig-headed. Their desire to keep such uncomplimentary awareness and judgment hidden is not any different from the rest of us who want to conceal our own unacceptable thoughts and emotions.

Flexible open-mindedness about value-laden belief systems concerning politics, religion, and sex—the three big adrenaline movers—is an ongoing conscientious struggle. Close encounters of our own closed minds are often too close for comfort.

As Korzybski noted back in 1958, the common tendency is for people to make hasty generalizations  that lead to misevaluations and self-deception.18 We arrive at our beliefs for “non-rational reasons and we justify them after.”19 Those with the personality trait of dogmatism have a habit of doing this and generally lack awareness of the doctrinaire manner in which  they hold their beliefs. Such insight would shatter their self-image—an image that needs to be continually propped up and preserved by agreement from others. To see themselves as dogmatic would be too chilling to reconcile. When challenged to open their minds about alternative ideas, their inclination is to quickly judge and dismiss (especially ideas that conflict with their own). In doing so, they preserve the illusion that they are rational and open-minded.


It is interesting to note that research suggests that once people adopt particular beliefs, they are less open to re-examining the validity of those beliefs from different perspectives.20 Reviewers of scientific research papers are far less likely to publish articles that do not support their own theoretical biases.21 They are not intellectually disabled, but they can be emotionally rigid and single-minded about beliefs and ideas, especially their own. Intelligent people who are capable of thinking through complex issues but choose instead to cling to traditional paradigms exhibit an “ideological immune system.”22 They are the academics who desperately seek to preserve a body of knowledge by immunizing themselves against foreign, cognitive intruders. After all, new ideas might germinate seeds of controversy that would threaten and destabilize their aura of intellectual integrity. Mathematical geniuses, acclaimed musicians and writers, and other highly intelligent people are not resistant to the errors of dogmatic protectionism.

This state of affairs is the opposite of what our intuition tells us it should be, yet “educated, intelligent, and successful adults rarely change their most fundamental presuppositions.”23 Psychologist David Perkins discovered that the connection between ideological rigidity and intelligence quotients unveiled surprising results: the higher the IQ, the greater the person’s inability to consider other viewpoints.24 Social psychology research indicates that very intelligent people and those with high self-esteem are more resistant to changing their views.25 However, other studies reveal modest correlations in the other direction: “The ability to overcome the effects of belief bias (or knowledge bias) was significantly related to cognitive ability in a formal reasoning task.”26 The results are therefore mixed, and more studies of belief inflexibility around values and formal reasoning are needed. It is possible that people with both types of cognitive rigidity invest time and energy bolstering their own convictions or trying to recruit and convince others because, “new and revolutionary systems of science tend to be resisted rather than welcomed with open arms, because every successful scientist has a vested intellectual, social, and even financial interest in maintaining the status quo. If every revolutionary new idea were welcomed with open arms, utter chaos would be the result.” The charismatically skilled who succeed at this mission leave important lessons for the rest of us.

Describing someone as an intelligent dogmatist may sound oxymoronic, but we would be naive to assume that all dogmatists are uneducated or of low intelligence. While dogmatism clearly indicates a defective style of rational thinking, it is not, strictly speaking, the product of intellectual deficiency. Something else is brewing beneath the surface. Dogmatic beliefs are driven by psychological needs and emotions that end up giving the appearance of intellectual limitation. As we shall see, beneath the surface there is a host of biological predispositions that interact with various other individual and environmental conditions to shape close-minded, inflexible thinking.


What Dogmatism Is Not

Dogmatism is not the opposite of critical thinking. Although much has been written about how to promote critical thinking skills such as inductive and deductive reasoning, abstract analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of conceptual models, less attention has been given to the deeper psychological conditions that seriously impair one’s ability to think critically. People who are prone to dogmatism can learn all the theory available on critical thinking, but if unmet psychological needs are pushing them in dogmatic directions, their minds will not be sufficiently open to turn theory into practice.

Dogmatism should also not be confused with the open-minded passionate, social activism that creates popular movements for social change. What distinguishes dogmatic activists from their non-dogmatic counterparts is the former’s arrogant unwillingness to examine an issue from different perspectives and their unjustified rejection of those with opposing beliefs (even though their personal rejection may not be apparent). Open-minded people speak out; they do not lash out. They inspire reflection because they neither oblige agreement nor disdain disagreement. In sharp contrast to self-righteous dogmatic rants that deny opposing views, open-minded, inclusive, passionate reason stirs action.

Zealous dogmatists can move society in extraordinary directions. When individual dogmatism ignites group dogmatism, little remains that is thoughtful or useful in social activism. These are the people who feel the urge to assert their beliefs every chance they get and fail to recognize that passion without reason is puerile, reason without passion is sterile, and reason without passion is fertile.

You might be wondering how dogmatists differ from fanatics. According to research, dogmatists, fanatics, and zealots are soul mates, with some distinctions.27 Linked y their emotional intensity, all are capable of unleashing spiteful, self-righteous vengeance. While not all of them wield sledgehammers to drive their beliefs into the thick skulls of nonbelievers, dogmatists, fanatics, and zealots are all rigidly and emotionally attached to views they adopt as inviolate truth, and they readily dismiss opposing ideas and the people who hold them. Fanatics and zealots, however, show excessive, frenzied enthusiasm for beliefs that have an absurd or bizarre quality. Overlapping qualities among dogmatists, fanatics, and zealots often blur the distinctions. In general, fanatics occupy what has commonly been referred to as the “lunatic fringe,” while dogmatists appear relatively more rational—both in the beliefs they hold and in their less dramatic manner of presenting them. Characteristics of dogmatism are also differentiated from personality disorders that have secured special recognition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. These disorders, which have overlapping behavioral characteristics of dogmatism, include the antisocial personality disorder, which exhibits dogmatic, authoritarian aggression; the histrionic personality disorder, which exhibits a preoccupation with power and status; and the narcissistic personality disorder, with its vilification of the out-group and self-aggrandizement. These are all features or subtraits of dogmatism.28

Monks and nuns from the various monasteries under Geronda Ephraim during St. Anthony Monastery’s Feast Day (ca. 2006)
Monks and nuns from the various monasteries under Geronda Ephraim during St. Anthony Monastery’s Feast Day (ca. 2006)

The Trait of Open-mindedness

Why do some people become dogmatic while others do not? Psychologists are currently unable to answer this question, but we can clued that the personality trait of open-mindedness is an antidote to dogmatism, and people who are cognitively flexible plainly differ from those who are easily threatened, emotionally defensive, and dismissive of anyone who disagrees with them or even proffers opposing beliefs. Open-minded, cognitive elasticity is seen among those who are awestruck by the miraculous beauty of life; they do not need to confine its complexities to explicit, doctrinaire categories of presumed truth. In their personal lives, they are open to considering and accepting different views and have little if any need to change the beliefs and values of people who differ, unless opposing beliefs directly threaten their own or others’ freedom. Those with open cognitive systems can comfortably explore a topic as widely and deeply as the conversation takes them. They confront the issue, not the person, and rarely infer motives for an opponent’s stated beliefs or jump to conclusions when someone changes the topic. Condescending frowns, sarcasm, and patronizing voices are rare. In their presence, we are relaxed and yet poised to respond to whatever topic emerges, be it serious or silly. Able to laugh at themselves and the absurdities of life, open-minded people generally prefer a philosophic sense of humor that is without hostile, pretentious condemnation.29

Curious and open-minded, they resemble the Athenians of yore who so valued the pursuit of knowledge that they invented the first alphabet, philosophy, logic, principles of political democracy, poetry, plays, and the idea of schools. Open-minded people today are no exception. They recognize “the fallibility of one’s own opinions, the probability of bias in those opinions, and the danger of differentially weighting evidence according to personal preferences.”30 Willing to suspend judgment as far as humanly possible, they explore multiple views and are not subservient to the beliefs that underlie social conventions. Because their beliefs are autonomously determined, these people are not easily convinced that certain ideas are absolutely true, nor are they readily manipulated by propaganda.  Similarly, because their acceptance, rejection, or reservations regarding social values are authentic, they are less vulnerable to external reinforcements of flattery or bribery. They can detect inherent biases and premature assumptions, accurately process new or challenging viewpoints about complex or controversial issues, and are capable of admitting errors in their own thinking, whereupon they revise their beliefs accordingly.

Open-minded people understand that a demolition act on opposing belief is relatively easy; the more difficult task is to distance themselves from personal convictions, to put their egos aside and let them rest awhile. Flexible of mind, they can tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty. They examine ideas that are based on stereotypical reasoning or incomplete information, and they recognize when personal needs shape, control, or distort information. At their best, they are invulnerable to manipulation. Their reasoning emanates from an open-minded appraisal of reality and they accept that eternal, universal truths are elusive. Truths are reasoned, conditional, and probable, not final and absolute.  Many would agree with Seth Lloyd: “Unlike mathematical theorems, scientific results can’t be proved. They can only be tested again and again until only a fool would refuse to believe them.”31

Such a provisional stance is not to be confused with wishy-washy, ideological free fall. Open-minded people deliberate as long as necessary about important ethical and scientific principles that are derived from reason. And reason consistently triumphs over emotion, especially in matters concerning ethics and morality. To become better informed about their belief and disbelief systems, they examine the source of controversial facts and opinions and recognize that to rely only on information that substantiates their own beliefs reinforces their biases and stifles objective inquiry. They demonstrate cognitive permeability by openly modifying their previous views and assumptions as necessary. Able to suspend judgment and reflect on opposing ideas, they enjoy sharpening their ideas on the fine, abrasive steel of dissenting voices, agreeing that “minds are like parachutes; they only function when open.” They are humble seekers, trudging along a path that echoes Socrates’ dictum: “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.” Socrates surrendered his life to the supremacy of such open-minded reasoning.

Finally, recognizing that the best use of one’s intelligence is to first understand oneself, open-minded people are able to examine their own psyches by peering into their genuine thoughts, feelings, and motives as objectively as humanly possible. This self-scrutiny can then be applied to psychological analyses of group motives to determine, for example, if a government is open-minded enough to willingly admit error and make the necessary readjustments.

Dogmatically Undogmatic


  1. McEwan, introduction to What We Believe but Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty, 2006, p. Xvi.
  2. Soyinka, Climate of Fear: The Quest for Dignity in a Dehumanized World, 2005, 118.
  3. W. Allport, “What Is a Trait of Personality?” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 25 (1931): 368-72. Gordon Allport is still recognized as providing one of the earliest—and still one of the best—psychological definitions of a personality trait.
  4. Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, 1999.
  5. Batchelor, Alone with Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism, 1983, p. 41.
  6. Rokeach, Beliefs, Attitudes, and Values, 1968. Rokeach states that the different components of attitude are not consistently defined. More than 40 years later, while social psychologists still have not reached complete agreement on the definition of an attitude, there appears to be some consensus on these three components.
  7. Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, 2005, p. 52.
  8. , p. 63.
  9. C. Baltzly, “Who Are the Mysterious Dogmatists of ‘Adversus Mathematicus’ Ix 352? (Sexus Empiricus),” Ancient Philosophy 18 (1998): 145-71.
  10. Sextus Empiricus was a Greek physician and philosopher who defined three schools of philosophy: the Dogmatic, the Academic, and the Skeptic. His three surviving works are Outlines of Pyrrhonism (three books on the practical and ethical skepticism of Pyrrho of Elis, ca. 360-275 BCE), Against the Dogmatics (five books dealing with the Logicians, the Physicists, and the Ethicists), and Against the Professors (six books: Grammarians, Rhetors, Geometers, Arithmeticians, Astrologers, and Musicians). The last two volumes critique the role of professors in the faculties of arts and science.
  11. Suber, “Classical Skepticism: Issues and Problems,” http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/writing/skept.htm This article reviews the rationale and motives of skeptics, academic skepticism, and dogmatism, and illustrates how the philosophic definition of dogmatism differs from the psychological definition. Philosophers claim that people can be dogmatists even if they are not absolutely certain of their beliefs. From a minimalist philosophic definition, “a dogmatist is one who is willing to assert at least one proposition to be true” (p. 10). This contrasts with the broader, psychological definition in this book, which incorporates emotional (primarily anxiety) and behavioral characteristics that are highly influential in the personality trait of dogmatism.
  12. Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, 1997, p. 17.
  13. Suber, “Classical Skepticism,” p. 32.
  14. T. Jost, “The End of the End of Ideology,” American Psychologist, 61, no. 7 (2006): 651-70. Jost presents a good historical review of ideology and its various definitions. He notes that the term ideology “originated in the late 18th century when it was used mainly to refer to the science of ideas, a discipline that is now known as the sociology of knowledge” (p. 651).
  15. This definition of dogmatism is derived from the work of Milton Rokeach, Robert Altemeyer, and myself, Judy J. Johnson.
  16. Korzybski, Science and Sanity, 4th ed. 1958, p. xxxvi.
  17. Shermer, “The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Freud,” panel discussion, Nova, PBS, DVD, 2004.
  18. Abell, and B. Singer, eds., Science and the Paranormal, 1981.
  19. J. Mahoney, “Publication Prejudices: An Experimental Study of Confirmatory Bias in the Peer Review System,” Cognitive Research and Therapy 1 (1977): 161-75.
  20. S. Snelson, “The Ideological Immune System,” Skeptic 4 (1993): 44-45.
  21. Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things, 59.
  22. Rhodes and W. Wood, “Self-Esteem and Intelligence Affect Influenceability: The Mediating Role of Message Reception,” Psychological Bulletin 111 (1992): 156-71.
  23. Macpherson, and K.E. Stanovich, “Cognitive Ability, Thinking Dispositions, and Instructional Set as Predictors of Critical Thinking,” Learning and Individual Differences 17 (2007): 123.
  24. Altemeyer, The Authoritarian Specter, pp. 212-13.
  25. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th, 1994.
  26. Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, 1971. A philosophical, unhostile sense of humor is listed as a feature of Being-cognition—an open-minded style of thought that characterizes self-actualizers.
  27. E. Stanovich, “Reasoning Independently of Prior Belief and Individual Differences in Actively Open-Minded Thinking,” Journal of Educational Psychology 89 (1997): 342-58. Stanovich cites researchers who, in the tradition of cognitive science, have “examined the influence of prior beliefs on argument evaluation and demonstrated how prior belief does bias human reasoning” (p. 342).
  28. Lloyd, “Seth Lloyd,” in What we Believe but Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty, 2006, p. 55.