May 112003

[OBLIGATORY] Accusations of hypocrisy are, of course, a form of tu quoque. Bill Bennett would still be a self-righteous prohibitionist gasbag even if he didn’t lose millions at slots. His books are good or bad, his arguments valid or invalid, regardless. Like Evan Kirchhoff and Ken Layne, I find his choice of game far more damning than the fact that he gambled at all. Slot machines are for little old ladies wearing stretch pants and a gardening glove.

Bennett’s case may not even rise to the level of hypocrisy. This has nothing to do with the fact that he never specifically condemned gambling, instead directing his ire toward pot-smoking, adultery, and other vices in which he apparently did not personally indulge. I am perfectly willing to stipulate that Bennett, on his own principles, should have objected to gambling, although he did not. The arch-hypocrite in literature is Tartuffe, who preaches virtues in which he does not believe to enhance his own position. Insincerity distinguishes the true hypocrite. Though Bennett made his pile by declaiming against vices analogous to gambling, which complicates the problem, there is no evidence that he is anything but sincere in his flogging of the Ten Commandments. His sin is not Tartuffery but weakness. If I resolve to rise early to write (and I do) and then sleep in instead (and I do) this makes me, technically, a hypocrite. I daresay that most of us are technically hypocrites. Real villainy comes not from doing what you think is wrong, usually, but from doing what you think is right, or from not caring about the difference.

Hypocrisy plays especially badly with lazy thinkers, as Eugene Volokh more politely points out, because it is easy to detect inconsistency between thought and behavior, hard to detect inconsistency in thought, and harder still to detect plain error. Naturally Bennett is vulnerable to such accusations. He understands this, which is why he’s announced that he will stop gambling.

Lining up someone’s convictions with his personal life is a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose proposition. If you defend gambling, and gamble, then you’re no longer disinterested, and your argument can be disregarded. If you oppose gambling, and gamble, then you’re a hypocrite, and your argument can be disregarded. If you oppose gambling, and don’t gamble, then you’re a smug puritan, and your argument can be disregarded. If you defend gambling, and don’t gamble, then you lack personal knowledge of the horrors of gambling, and your argument, again, can be disregarded. Only vice’s ex-“victims” are presumed to have the standing to make an argument at all. They dominate the discourse, and unsurprisingly, they’re all for laws. This is a recipe for prohibitionism.

Of course Bennett is technically a liar too, but come on. A gambler who says he’s “pretty close to even” is like a fisherman who says it was this big, or a rug merchant who says he can’t lower the price. Everybody knows what “pretty close to even” means. It means “I lost a lot of money.” [/OBLIGATORY]

  19 Responses to “Hypocrisy”

  1. Hey! Don’t stereotype the slot players. The old ladies and I have much fun on the nickel slots.

  2. "If I resolve to rise early to write (and I do) and then sleep in instead (and I do) this makes me, technically, a hypocrite."

    People would call you a hypocrite only if you criticized others for sleeping late. Perhaps this is inaccurate, in the way that people use "jealous" to mean "envious", but it is common usage.

  3. You argue that Bennett’s failure to specifically condemn gambling exonerates him from the charge of hypocrisy. I think it constitutes the primary evidence for the prosecution. You acknowledge that intellectual consistency would demand that Bennett include gambling on his list of threats to Judeo-Christian values. Well, one hardly imagines that he left it off the list by accident? So he deliberately stayed silent for decades on his own preferred vice. He commits a lie of omission far more damning than if he had railed against gambling along with everything else, despite dropping hundreds of thousand at the slots; he stays silent, thus aiding and abetting an industry that does as much as anyone else (at least in the private sector) to degrade the values that he himself claims to consider the most important goals to which individuals can aspire. This is intellectual dishonesty too fundamental to allow us to take seriously the idea that Bennett really believes in his own preachings (Lord only knows how much supporting material for this argument I would find in Bennett’s writings if I could bring myself to open one, which I can’t). You yourself describe literature’s greatest example of hypocricy as a man who "preaches virtues in which he does not believe to enhance his own position." Can you think of a better example of that in recent political history?

  4. Michael: I suspect Bennett omitted gambling for the reason he gave, that he doesn’t think it’s that bad. This convicts him of intellectual inconsistency, but to refuse to condemn your chosen vice is nothing if not sincere. To condemn it may also be sincere: that was the point. However, I do envy your ability to find evidence in books you haven’t read.

  5. Hypocrisy is not inconsistency. It’s bad faith, which the gas bag ideologues like Bennett and Ginrich and Perle have in ample supply

    And when Michael Krantz says "Lord only knows how much supporting material for this argument I would find in Bennett’s writings if I could bring myself to open one, which I can’t" he is not claiming to substantiate his views by unread books, is he now?

  6. The parsing of characteralogical and ethical criteria may be a more intellectually challenging enterprise than say watching TV but probably no more rewarding. The oozing rectitude of the Bush Reagan morality militants seems to bring a few of these men into plot lines between A Face in the Crowd and Elmer Gantry though the obsessions of Captain Ahab also come to mind. If you don’t intend to convict why indict?

    Hmmm,"there is no evidence that he is anything but sincere in his flogging of the Ten Commandments." There is no evidence of a negative so, well, Bennett is at least not insincere. Maybe. Oh boy, a not insincere meddling gas bag with an out-of-kilter moral compass.

    Yup, bad faith is a vague notion. Faith is a vague ineffable thing. Part of the deal here is that I am not invested in proselytizing about the bad feeling and more I get when I see men like Bennett preaching (well except for war criminal-in-waiting Henry Kissinger) nor am I capable of constructing moral briefs to prosecute them. And I suppose since I am not calling for capital punishment or any sanctions (perhaps embarrassment has worked it’s own wonders) various stipulations and gambits of casuistry are not required. But thats me,I am happy to bask in my Whitmanesque contradictions and inconsistencies.

    My reading of Michael Kranz’s elliptical claim is that he wonders, intuits, hopes, that there might be some reason to believe that if he could stomach reading Bennett, he [Michael] would find confirmation of his non scholastic arguments.

  7. Bad faith is a little vague. Would you amplify?

    Michael is claiming, somewhat elliptically, that he would find support for his views in Bennett’s books if he could only be bothered to open them. I recommend that he do so, since he provides no other evidence for Bennett’s insincerity.

  8. Aaron apparently thinks that Bill Bennett believes that drinking, drug-taking, premarital sex, homosexuality, atheism, abortion rights, secular values, Hollywood entertainment, violent video games, no fault divorce, out-of-wedlock children, and so on are all destructive forces tearing at the fabric of an "American Family" which is our nation’s only hope for a moral, prosperous future — but that casino gambling "isn’t that bad."

    Give me a break.

  9. Robert: Let me be the first to congratulate you on being large and containing multitudes. But as a scholastic casuist myself, I find it difficult to argue with someone who refuses to define his terms. I also fail to see why "parsing ethical criteria" is a waste of time, nor do you explain it. Terms like “oozing moral rectitude” imply judgments that it might be useful to examine.

    Michael: My working hypothesis is that people think what they say they think. The rest I leave to those who can see through book covers. In any case, your tone is misplaced: there is nothing absurd about attributing an absurd position to someone else.

    Robert and Michael: What gave either of you the impression that I was somehow defending Bennett, when the main point of my piece was that hypocrisy-hunting is a destructive exercise best left to the stupid?

  10. >My working hypothesis is that people think what they say they think.

    When the person in question makes his living by telling others what pleasures to forswear in order to please God and benefit the community at large, that’s a fairly weak hypothesis.

  11. I see. I had no idea moralists were more prone to lying than the general population. What do you suggest?

  12. Thank you,

    Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
    Cheerfulfor freest action formd, under the laws divine,
    The Modern Man I sing.

    The thing about moral argument is that is a post facto gesture. People don’t start with, "What is the Good?" or "How can I attain the Good (not the goods)?" Contemporary ethical discourse is about social sanctions and attack and humiliation. In all this fulminating about William Bennett has anyone said, "I respected him before these revelations and now I don’t." Or, " I thought he was a tedious scold before and now I think he is a regular fellow." No, the wagons were circled by zealots of various political stripes around their preconceptions and there went ethical investigation.

    I do (sort of )admire your ambition to unpack hypocrisy even to point out what a waste of time it was and no, I didn’t think you were defending Reverend Bennett but I must confess I did miss your main point. I return to my original assertion, hypocrisy is bad faith and it is one of those social (not ethical) faux pas that allow for the unrestrained unleashing of Shadenfreude (there’s an umlaut in there somewhere) on the alleged perpetrator. Which is better than jail time in many cases

    I bet there will be more.

  13. If you missed my main point, I suppose that’s what I deserve for burying it in the second-to-last paragraph instead of listening to what my high school English teachers told me. I relied, unfairly, on my readers’ previous acquaintance with this blog, where the evils of ad hominem are a regular theme.

    Moral discourse need not be post facto, although I agree that it usually is. Ethical egoists like me, for instance, believe all sorts of actions are right that they thought were wrong before they became ethical egoists. (I’ve written about this elsewhere with regard to A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. I sympathize with Potter when he asks George Bailey why he’s “playing nursemaid to a bunch of garlic-eaters.”) Most people are moral intuitionists, and for them moral arguments are post facto by definition.

    Schadenfreude, incidentally, is missing not an umlaut but a C.

  14. Anyway, at least I spelled faux pas correctly

    If I had listened to my high English teachers I would be a constipated twit churning out drab bulletins from a homogenized and pasteurized interior. Not listening is a badge of honor. Though basic journalistic tactics are helpful in writing for more than oneas in having a strong nut graf .

    And more to the point, I regret having missed your previous lessons on the evils of ad hominem (I assume you mean arguments). This is especially interesting because while I accept the premise that ad hominem arguments are logical fallacies, as I become more wedded to the great intangible of character, I am less concerned about the regulations of logic. I find great merit in the litmus test of whether one would buy a used car from, uh, let’s say Henry Kissinger or Donald Rumsfield.

    Until we meet again,

    Meditating among liars, and retreating sternly into myself, I see that there are really no liars or lies after all,
    And that nothing fails its perfect returnAnd that what are called lies are perfect returns,
    And that each thing exactly represents itself, and what has preceded it,
    And that the truth includes all, and is compact, just as much as space is compact,
    And that there is no flaw or vacuum in the amount of the truthbut that all is truth without exception;
    And henceforth I will go celebrate anything I see or am,
    And sing and laugh, and deny nothing.

  15. I write this from Maui, so I’ll be brief.

    I think all you guys are missing the point. Bennett, as a capitalist, must espouse virtues consistent with capitalism. Windbag that he is, he could not ever discuss gambling as a vice because the same impulse that impels people to gamble also impels them to invest. In each case there is the contribution of capital towards an enterprise for which there is an unknown return.

    Am I saying that investing is like gambling? Sadly, one has only to look at my portfolio to know this is, prety much (although not entirely) the truth.

  16. With a portfolio like that, what are you doing in Maui anyway?

  17. Virtues consistent with capitalism?

    What are those?

  18. What are the virtues consistent with capitalism? Well, let’s see. There’s union busting and scab hiring. Foreclosing on widows. Tying maidens to railroad tracks. And proper dress, i.e. tophats and monocles.

  19. Aaron: Since 9/11 Maui is accessable even to the impecunious.

    Robert: Oh you are so right, there are NO virtues to capitalism. How could I have been so blind? You’re amazing grace has once more opened my eyes.

    Floyd: Monocles are for old-time capitalists. Laser surgery now permits 20/20 vision in both eyes.

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