Hypocrisy is a Bad Argument

Arguing that someone’s position is hypocritical is quite common. There are many opportunities for pointing out hypocrisy in public figures, as positions seem to readily change based on individual or party interests. There are times when the hypocrite label is unwarranted, such as if someone changes a position based on newly acquired information that indicates the old positions was wrong. But often enough political changes are genuinely hypocritical.

So what?

It is relevant that someone is a hypocrite in the context of general assessment of character. With respect to politics, the charge of hypocrisy could cost one an election or reelection. With respect to individual arguments, though, hypocrisy is less relevant. Some examples:

A police officer that regularly violates traffic laws issues citations to citizens for violations of those same laws. Hypocritical? Yes. Will that argument get someone out of a ticket? Not likely. The hypocrisy of our hypothetical officer does not change the underlying reason for issuing a citation, which is to encourage people to comply with laws designed to increase traffic safety. The fact that an officer, or officers, and the rest of the general population routinely violate a specific traffic rule with no ill effect might convince a legislator that the rule is unnecessary, but this requires far more data than pointing out hypocrisy.

More recently, Donald Trump criticized the amount of golf that former president Obama played while in office. Since his inauguration, President Trump has played far more golf than his predecessor. Hypocritical? Certainly. Is it relevant to his performance as President? Not really. If there is a definitive threshold above which the volume of golf is known to have a detrimental impact of job performance and of the budget, then both President Trump and president Obama can be objectively evaluated and compared. Ultimately, both the original claim (that Obama played too much golf) and the apparent hypocrisy of the current president’s golf habits are just political insults.

Another recent example is that Chuck Schumer apparently had some unkind words for former FBI Director Comey last year, but was appalled by POTUS’s decision to fire him this year. This apparent shift in support for Comey has prompted many to criticize him as a hypocrite. Is this hypocritical? While this specific example is a bit more nuanced, I can absolutely understand the claim of hypocrisy. Is it the hypocrisy relevant? Not at all. The concern is over the timing and circumstances of the former FBI Director’s firing. Hypocrisy on the part of Schumer or any other legislator is immaterial to the whether the firing itself was appropriate.

The charge of hypocrisy is relevant when the issue is the person at which the charge is levied, particularly for matters of honesty and integrity. These can be very powerful arguments when striving for political power. They are also handy distractions when the fundamental issue is not directly related to an individual’s character. Be cautious when employing such arguments as attacks, as they are frequently inappropriate, and often leave avenues for counterattack.

Happy arguing.