old lies & new
By Diogenes (articles) | Sep 10, 2006
The Joseph Sobran site reposts a column from 1997 called "Two Ways of Lying," in which he dissects the "new rules" of public morality. An excerpt:
Under the new rules, you can be called a hypocrite for upholding old standards of virtue that you don't exemplify perfectly; but you can't be called a hypocrite for sinking into utter moral squalor, as long as you profess to believe there's nothing wrong with it. So the defender of traditional morality is kept constantly on the defensive, since only he can be accused of hypocrisy.
It's quite a clever system, because it works entirely to the advantage of one side, while the other side has been slow to figure it out. But it boils down to something simple and obvious.
If you set high standards, there is the danger that you'll create an embarrassing gap between what you believe and what you do. The actual may fall short of the ideal; in fact it's almost certain to do so, and you may look hypocritical when you're only human.
But if you profess low standards, there's no danger of such a gap. Your behavior is all too likely to meet your standards. If you openly advocate pedophilia, then the one thing you can't be accused of when you're caught in bed with a little child is hypocrisy.
To denounce a man as a hypocrite is to say he makes a false pretense of probity. But it's also possible, and eminently fashionable, to make a false pretense of moral apathy and skepticism: "No one can tell another person what's right or wrong for him." While this may sound like principled moral modesty, it isn't. It's moral cowardice deceitfully posing as neutrality. It permits the skeptic to follow his ignoble inclinations while preemptively knocking the weapon of remonstrance out of the hands of those who object.
But this neutrality is easily shown to be bogus. When someone visits even a minor moral injury on these skeptics -- by throwing litter on their lawn or taking their parking spot or interrupting them in conversation -- do they take it quietly, with a shrug? Of course not. They're as vocally indignant as anyone else in the circumstances. Yet if they abided by their professed principles of moral agnosticism they'd be prohibited from blaming or rebuking the offender: blame requires mutually acknowledged moral responsibility -- and they claim to believe there's no such thing. It turns out they're hypocrites too, feigning a detachment they don't really feel about the willful harms inflicted on themselves.
Even those most furious to deny the Natural Law are constantly sneaking it in by the back door to use in their own moral invective against their adversaries. At bottom, there's only one moral rulebook. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man, the project of creating a morality independent of Natural Law is self-defeating:
This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) 'ideologies', all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess. ... The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.
Much of today's polemic of hypocrisy is directed against Catholic moral teaching because of its unique importance in the culture wars. But we shouldn't be overly rattled when self-styled progressives denounce the Church as hypocritical. Whether the allegation is aimed at the misdeeds of her ministers (often true) or at the heartlessness of her doctrine (always false), in every instance the accusation itself presupposes the validity of the moral norms she herself has taught.
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