Topic: Government & Politics

Hypocrisy and Alan Keyes

The Alan Keyes saga presents an ideal opportunity to explore the complex issue of “hypocrisy.” The word is in quotes because it is one of the most sloppily employed terms in the English language, used to describe everything from outright lies to cynical posturing to legitimate changes of opinion to imaginary contradictions. From an ethical perspective, true hypocrisy is the equivalent of a lie: one is hypocritical when one pretends to support a position of principle that he or she in fact does not embrace. The primary problem with the way most people employ the word is how they conclude that hypocrisy has occurred.

Past inconsistent behavior, for example, does not prove hypocrisy. The classic example of this is the supposed hypocrisy of the ex-hippie parents who cautions their children against using drugs. This is not hypocrisy, and the contention that it is, frankly, is moronic. Parents have not only a right but an obligation to attempt to prohibit destructive behavior by their children that they themselves may have engaged in at a similar age. Doing so isn’t hypocrisy; it’s called wisdom.

Current behavior that is inconsistent with a past pronouncement of principle isn’t necessarily hypocrisy either, but this is a much more complex issue. Certainly all responsible human beings must have the capacity to learn and grow, and decide that past beliefs were, in fact, wrong. But it is often hard for an observer to know whether this is the truly the case, or that, in the alternative, the individual has simply reversed field for selfish reasons having nothing whatever to do with reason, wisdom or principle. For example, Washington State Congressman George Nethercutt was elected in 1994 while running on a pledge to serve a maximum of three terms, or six years. When 2000 came along, he announced that he was wrong to support term limits, and is now in his tenth year. Is he a hypocrite? There’s really no way to know for certain. If he were genuinely ethical, he would have announced that he was wrong about the wisdom of term limits, and still followed through on his 1994 pledge and stepped down after 6 years. His conduct in seeking re-election raises a rebuttable presumption that he is, in fact a hypocrite.

Even an individual’s current behavior that is inconsistent with his or her ongoing statements of principle is not necessarily hypocrisy. A verdict of hypocrisy must mean that the individual doesn’t really believe in the principles he or she is espousing, for the definition of hypocrisy implies pretense. But there is another possible explanation: weakness, a lack of courage or resolve. An individual may choose to do what he or she knows and believes is objectively wrong because in the balance between ethical and unethical objectives (See “Definitions and Concepts for Ethical Analysis“), the non-ethical considerations are too powerful to resist. One can strongly believe in a principle and still violate it because of riches, love, self-preservation, fear, loyalty to another, or dozens of other powerful motivations. If you believe stealing is always wrong and you steal medicine to treat your child, are you a hypocrite? If you believe in Kant’s categorical imperative and maintain that taking a life is never justified, are you a hypocrite when a rage causes you to kill the man who murdered your family? We hold principles in the certain knowledge that while they are important goals, human beings are not always up to the challenge of living up to them. That fact does not render a fallible human being a hypocrite, nor does it invalidate the principle he or she may have violated when the non-ethical considerations became to strong to resist.

There is another circumstance in which a person can act contrary to a principle he or she advocates without being guilty of hypocrisy, and that is when another important principle is in conflict with it, and the individual concludes that this principle must take priority. And that brings us to the subject of Alan Keyes.

Following the withdrawal of Jack Ryan from the Illinois Senate race (see “The Mindless Right“), the GOP was faced with the prospect of a popular Democrat, State Senator Barack Obama, running unopposed for a critical Senate seat. Keyes, who has run (and lost) for just about every office under the sun, has some name recognition due to his two quixotic presidential campaigns and his short-lived cable show (the amusingly titled “Alan Keyes is Making Sense”) and is, like Obama, both unusually verbally adept and black. The Republicans decided he would be the best candidate to muster spirited opposition in what is almost certain to be a decisive victory for the Democrats, and Keyes accepted their draft. In doing so, he was immediately accused of being a hypocrite, on two counts. First, he had vociferously condemned Hillary Clinton’s run for the New York Senate on the grounds that it was wrong for non-residents of a state to run for state office. Illinois Senate candidate Keyes is a Maryland resident with no connection to Illinois. Second, Keyes is an outspoken opponent of affirmative action, and there is little doubt that Keyes’ race was the Number One reason that he was sought out by his party to take on Obama.

Is the accusation of hypocrisy fair?

It is fair, but that does not necessarily mean it is accurate. Keyes says that he still believes that non-residents shouldn’t run for the Senate, but that he also believes that a candidate holding the (to his thinking, extreme) views of Obama should not become a U. S. Senator unopposed. In this case, Keyes has decided that the latter consideration over-rides a principle that he still maintains. His decision may be flawed or incorrect, but it is not hypocritical. To claim that it is would mean that any time an individual must choose between two genuinely held principles, he or she must be a hypocrite.

What about affirmative action? Is Keyes accepting the benefits of what is, in effect, affirmative action against his previous strongly stated beliefs? This is a more difficult question, but Ethics Scoreboard’s verdict is “no”. Keyes isn’t accepting a benefit, for one thing: the GOP had been unable to find any credible candidate willing to run against Obama and probably get his brains beat out. Keyes is doing the GOP a favor; he is responding to his party’s call. Second, knowing something about the former ambassador’s ego (Full disclosure: he and I were college classmates), I think it is unlikely that Alan Keyes would ever believe that his race, rather than his eloquent and fervent advocacy for conservative positions, motivated his drafting as a candidate.

But we don’t know whether Keyes is being hypocritical, really. It depends on his heart and mind, and while the Washington Post and others can speculate upon whether his agreement to be a candidate in Illinois shows that his earlier stated convictions were only a pretense, only Alan Keyes knows for sure if he is a hypocrite.

That’s the way it usually is with hypocrisy.

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