The Intellectual Laziness of Appealing to Hypocrisy, Sans Argument

To point out a person’s failure to live up to the standards s/he advocates for everybody else is often the go-to retort of anyone looking to counter the nonsense of said person’s particularly insufferable opinions.  The implied reasoning being that if someone is proven a hypocrite on an issue, the substance of their position must also be equally dishonorable by association.  For example, let’s consider a person arguing the point that individuals who have premarital sex are perpetuating a harmful societal norm [a position which, for the record, I happen to personally disagree with].  Let us also further consider that this hypothetical person also happens to be someone who has undoubtedly had premarital sex before (confirmed either through testimonies of past lovers, or the existence of an out of wedlock child, or any other such inarguable proof).  The first instinct for many of us who happen to hold the opposing view on the topic is to point out the blatant hypocrisy of the person in question.

“How on earth can you judge the behavior of others for falling to follow a standard you can’t even abide by yourself?”

“Haven’t you ever heard how people in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones?”

“Maybe you should learn to practice what you preach before stating your ideas to others.”

And, generally speaking, none of the above remarks are incorrect, as they pertain to the hypocrisy of the individual advocating the position in question.  However, they are completely immaterial to the merits of the position itself.  If right after lecturing to me about the dangers of smoking, my doctor lit up a cigarette, my correct announcement of his hypocrisy in this situation does nothing to negate the veracity of the stated claim (i.e. smoking is still unhealthy whether stated by a smoking or nonsmoking doctor).  The same would be true for the hypothetical topic and its advocate I conjured up above.

The problem I see is that, while it is a perfectly legitimate move to point out someone’s personal hypocrisy on a matter, all too often I see such a proclamation of hypocrisy serving as a crutch to avoid having to address the content of a proposed claim.  So much so, that many of us seem to immediately search out possible hypocrisy in a person’s character (even when there exists little to no reason to suspect the presence of any such personal failing), simply because s/he proposed as viewpoint we disagree with or dislike. As I already said, I happen to disagree with the position that premarital sex is a harm to society.  It is irrelevant whether I’m arguing with the most sexually promiscuous person on the planet, or a chaste nun, absent of any persuasive argument my stance will still be the same.  Therefore, it would be beyond unreasonable for me to focus the crux of my counterargument on how hypocritical the person I’m arguing with is in terms of her/his adherence to the proposed position, when its completely inconsequential to the underlying reasons for why I’m convinced in the correctness of my own position on the issue.

Now, don’t misunderstand me.  It’s not that I wouldn’t point out someone’s hypocrisy on a subject; I would, and I do (just as I would expect someone not to hesitate to point out my own hypocrisy if its out on obvious display for all to see).  But I take issue when people confuse refuting an argument with the prospect of discrediting the messenger of said argument.  It isn’t that hard to do the latter, but the first usually requires a bit more critical examination (depending on the topic in question, of course).

I recognize that choosing the example of premarital sex to illustrate my point here about hypocrisy is largely a softball option on my part.  In the Western world, the majority of people nowadays see the practice as a norm, where even most of those who choose not to engage in sexual activities prior to marriage (or at all) don’t go around arguing about its wickedness.  But the greater point about how, if one decides to seriously address a proposed claim–and wants her/his contribution to the discussion to be seen as a serious point on the subject matter–concentrating on the personal failings of the opposing side’s advocate should not be acceptable as a valid form of reasoning on the part of the challenger.  Yes, by virtue of their own claimed standards, the people you are arguing with are hypocrites; now, if you want to sway me to your side, explain to me why their viewpoint would be wrong even if they weren’t.

Lastly–keeping in spirit with the general discussion–if in the future I myself fail to abide by the standard I have proposed here (and anywhere else on this blog), readers are more than welcome to point out my shameful hypocrisy on the matter, and than proceed to actually argue against the merits of my position(s).  Fair enough?–I think so.

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