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President Donald Trump plays a round of golf on July 15, 2018 in Turnberry, Scotland. Leon Neal/Getty Images

From the White House to ancient Athens: Hypocrisy is no match for partisanship

Donald Trump has spent a lot of time on golf courses during his presidency.

That may come across as hypocritical if many of us consider how Trump criticized Barack Obama for playing golf during his presidency instead of attending to the country’s needs.

Such hypocritical behavior, of course, is not unique to one politician or political party.

Immigration advocates have criticized Barack Obama for presenting himself as a champion of immigration reform. They point out that during his presidency he deported more immigrants than any other president.

You may ultimately support these politicians despite their respective actions. This fact reveals a stark truth: Our biases toward a person are stronger than our moral judgments of their hypocrisy.

As a philosopher focused on the history of philosophy, I spend a lot of time studying big ideas like God, justice and skepticism.

In reflecting on such ideas, I realize that many seemingly straightforward concepts are more complex than they initially seem.

Hypocrisy is one such concept.

Hypocrisy as morally reprehensible

It’s often difficult to determine how the hypocrisy of public figures plays into our moral judgments of them.

Some researchers have argued that when it comes to political preferences, voters’ concealed opinions about political candidates belie their openly stated views.

Nonetheless, numerous studies show that people respond with outrage against public figures once their hypocrisy has been discovered.

Philosophers and psychologists who have studied this phenomenon agree: When it comes to people who are in positions of moral authority – from family members to our priests or religious mentors – we tend to react negatively to their hypocrisy.

Perhaps that’s because hypocrisy adds deception to a lie. Moral authorities who are discovered to be hypocrites have doubly deceived us. They have not only contradicted their stated moral views but also pretended that they have not done so.

Recall, for example, the scandal surrounding the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 2001, when it was discovered that he had a child out of wedlock. For years, Jackson had hidden the affair he was having. When the truth emerged, people were outraged by the hypocrisy of someone who publicly deemed himself a spiritual and moral leader.

So, it seems reasonable to argue that hypocrites relinquish their claim to moral authority and deserve blame.

But if we look at the experience of the Greek philosopher Socrates on trial, we might come to a different conclusion.

Socrates’ experience as a guide

Plato’s “Apology” recounts Socrates’ self-defense against two charges: corrupting the youth and believing in false gods.

Meletus, Lycon and Anytus – three highly influential men in Athens – bring these charges against Socrates, and a jury of about 500 citizens decide his fate. Socrates’ accusers claim that he broke the law by teaching young people to question Athenian customs and by introducing strange new gods into the Greek pantheon.

Socrates denies the claims. He argues that public opinion had been prejudiced against him for years – that his accusers are insincere in their accusations.

But the jury finds Socrates guilty. As punishment, he is forced to drink poison hemlock.

Socrates in prison about to drink hemlock given by his executioner. Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1931

What fascinates me most about the trial is how Socrates presents an argument against hypocrisy.

He chastises his accusers for being pretenders – public figures who give the impression of telling the truth, all the while knowing that their words are lies:

“How you, O Athenians, have been affected by my accusers, I cannot tell,” he says, “but I know that they almost made me forget who I was – so persuasively did they speak; and yet they have hardly uttered a word of truth.”

In an exchange with Socrates, Meletus claims to have thought seriously about the charges brought against Socrates, one of them being the corruption of the youth. But then he states that Socrates is the only person in Athens harming the city’s young people.

“Hypocrisy” is defined as “a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not: behavior that contradicts what one claims to believe or feel.”

A hypocrite, then, in the most basic sense of the word, is someone who doesn’t practice what he preaches.

In this case, if we understand a hypocrite to be someone who pretends to have a virtuous character when he in fact does not, then I argue that Meletus fits the bill. From a moral high ground, he claims to have good reasons for accusing Socrates, and when it’s publicly revealed that he doesn’t, he presses on nonetheless.

Socrates plainly shows the hypocrisy of his accuser when he says:

“Meletus is a doer of evil, in that he pretends to be in earnest when he is only in jest, and is so eager to bring men to trial from a pretended zeal and interest about matters in which he really never had the smallest interest.”

But the jurors remain unconvinced, and they find him guilty.

Two sides of the aisle

Socrates’ trial resonates in today’s highly polarized political climate. Although many people may view hypocrites as deserving of moral disgrace – especially when they’re public figures – their biases for or against such people mitigate the intensity of their moral judgments about them.

Americans’ strong support of one politician, or their bitter distaste for another, will play a big part in how they view their respective acts of hypocrisy.

Antipathy between Republicans and Democrats is so strong that influential politicians on either side of the aisle can act immorally and hypocritically without any significant negative repercussions from their voter bases.

Despite his immigration policies, for example, Obama retained significant Latino voter support. And the historically high voter turnout in support of Trump during the 2020 U.S. presidential election, in spite of his hypocritical behavior, further reveals the extent of this extreme partisanship.

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