If there’s one thing we all agree on, it’s how much we despise hypocrites. Whether left or right, religious or secular, the thing that really gets under our skin is the pious canting of those who say one thing and do another—or worse, expect others to conform to a standard they don’t embrace themselves. It’s ugly in an individual. But in a society? Maybe not always.
Not long ago, for instance, to dissolve a marriage required proof that one side of the marriage was “at fault.” The most obvious faults were adultery, desertion, and abuse, but the difficulty lay in proving—it wasn’t always easy to convince a court, and convincing lawyers cost money. To make the process easier, a feuding couple might resort to playacting: One of them would agree to a fake tryst in a hotel room with an understanding accomplice, and the other would arrange for a detective or other third party to “discover” them in flagrante delicto. The third party’s testimony would secure the divorce, but at the cost of someone’s reputation.
Another option was physically moving to a state or country that would grant an easy divorce to anyone who established residence. The state of Nevada, with an eye open for the main chance, relaxed its divorce laws in the 1930s and allowed newcomers to claim residency after a mere six weeks. When unhappy spouses (usually women) left home for extended periods on vague pretexts, the suspicion that they’d gone to get a Reno divorce was often correct.
This kind of disingenuousness greased the skids for the passage of no-fault divorce laws nationwide, starting with California in 1969. Nearly 50 years later, as we debate the effects of illegitimacy and broken families and same-sex “marriage,” I wonder if perhaps a little hypocrisy was necessary to help maintain the integrity of the institution.
Here’s another example: A few weeks ago, constitutional scholar Louis Seidman wrote a provocatively titled editorial for The New York Times: “Let’s Give Up on the Constitution.” Seidman’s main argument is that this archaic document, cobbled together by dead white guys two centuries ago, can’t possibly meet the needs of an evolving culture. To pretend it does forces politicians at all points on the political spectrum to genuflect toward the Constitution while stretching, twisting, and blatantly disobeying it. The stretching, twisting, and disobeying don’t disturb the writer, but the false reverence does. Policies should be judged on their merits, not on their conformity to an outdated document. To pretend otherwise is unbecoming to a free people—hypocritical.
But does failure to meet a standard mean we should ditch the standard?
“Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue,” said François duc de la Rochefoucauld, 17th-century master of le bon mot. It’s the homage given by sinful people to the idea of rectitude. Truth be told, we’re all hypocrites to some degree, and that’s not always bad. The boss doesn’t have to know how you really feel about him, and every acquaintance who asks, “How are you?” needn’t be burdened with your personal baggage. If we were completely honest with everyone all the time, society would collapse in a primal scream.
Sometimes lip service is better than no service. For people to pretend to be virtuous, when they’re anything but, means that they at least have some notion of virtue—and might someday aspire to the real thing. We wisely tell a child that if he acts brave he may become brave; a disgruntled wife that if she treats her husband in a loving manner, she may come to love him.
Nobody admires a two-faced schemer, and when a two-faced schemer uses false piety to gain impious ends, that’s wicked. So is lying under oath or lying to one’s self or lying to God, who demands truth in the inner being (Psalm 51:6). But when a whole society swears off cant, everyone is left to do what’s right in his own eyes, as in the days when Israel had no king (Judges 21:25)—a “solution” with an extremely bad precedent.