Monday, 28 January 2013

I Prefer Honest Hypocrites to Deluded Saints

Good People and Going Wrong, Part 2

My previous post's discussion was incomplete, and I knew it while writing it. I hope to build out some of what I was missing here.

Part of the reason why I tended to prefer defining a good person by intent and earnest endeavour rather than actual action is not just to avoid saying that anyone who disagrees with me is a bad person. I also wanted to avoid the possibly unhelpful conclusion that no one is a good person. After all, I have never met a saint. No one lives up to their own ethical expectations all of the time. Speaking much more personally, I know I fail on even a minute-to-minute basis to live up to my ethical standards, particular when I'm using public transit and the bus is very busy. (I think very nasty things about strangers in such circumstances.) I am a hypocrite of the first order; what I do does not come close to meeting what I expect. But I hope to be an honest hypocrite: I know I do not practice what I preach, I admit it publicly, I try to close that gap, and I do not expect of others any more than what I do (or, actually, even what I do).

In fact, I would be highly suspicious of anyone who did live up to their own ethical standards. Unless I had it on good evidence that they were a saint, I would conclude that their ethical standards are far too low. Ethics are a challenge! They should be! Ethics require growth. Another possibility is that a person might really believe that they meet their own ethical standards, but in truth they do not. I think of the actor-observer asymmetry, where we attribute our own behaviour to the situation but we attribute other people's behaviour to their personalities. This is a very tempting kind of thing to do. In either case, such people make me nervous.

I can reason with an honest hypocrite. If an honest hypocrite has done something wrong, I can say, "Look, you did Action A. Action A violates Principle Y, which I know you hold." An honest hypocrit will fess up to it, apologize, and try to act differently in future. (Or an honest hypocrit might correct my interpretation of events if I was actually the one in error.) Someone who really believes that they are not a hypocrit, in either of the ways I outlined above, would not be so accomodating. They might not hold Principle Y at all, or they might believe that Action A did not violate Principle Y, even when it clearly does. It is much harder to interact with this kind of behaviour, though evidentally we often have to.

But if I take seriously what I said in my last post, that being incorrect about ethical beliefs does not mean you aren't a good person, is it even reasonable to make such a distinction between honest hypocrits and people who really do not believe that they don't have to be good people? Is believing that ethical imperatives are not actually imperatives the kind of incorrect belief that does not prevent one from being a good person? Can a hedonist be a good person?

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