Do as I say not as I do: what’s wrong with hypocrisy?

Battle of Ideas festival 2013, Saturday 19 October, Barbican, London


Of all scandals involving public figures, the ones that are relished most are those in which the protagonist has been found to be privately indulging in behaviour they have publicly condemned: the pious champion of family values who turns out to have a gay lover on the side, the politician who talks tough about border controls while employing an illegal immigrant as a maid, or the socialist who rails against unearned privilege while quietly sending her children to private school. The resulting charge of hypocrisy has always been an ambiguous one, however. Is the real issue the hypocrites’ inability to live up to their own high standards, or their moralistic condemnation of behaviour that is perfectly reasonable and ought to be blameless? Do the republican ideals of a Thomas Jefferson count for nothing because he was a slave owner, or can we uphold them even as we condemn his hypocrisy?

In recent years, there has been a greater focus on the private lives of politicians and other public figures. If there once existed a gentlemen’s agreement whereby the press turned a blind eye to the private indiscretions of ministers, no such niceties apply today. But should we really be judging people by what they do in their private lives, rather than by their public achievements, or lack of them? Does it really matter if a politician, business leader or sports person is a horrible and immoral person at home, if at work they enact policies that improve people’s lives, create jobs or perform on the sports field? Or should we expect and demand personal integrity and good character in anyone in a position of responsibility and influence? Should we demand more transparency and openness, so we can be sure our public figures are what they claim to be?

Or does a focus on their private lives reflect diminished expectations about what people can and should achieve in the public sphere, regardless of any personal flaws? And does a preoccupation with judging people’s private behaviour by their own public standards reveal a certain relativism – a reluctance to make an absolute judgement about what is and is not acceptable?

Anne Atkins

novelist, columnist and broadcaster; prize-winning journalist; regular contributor, BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day

Ruth Dudley Edwards
historian and journalist; author, The Seven: the lives and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic (forthcoming)

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
writer on medicine and politics; author, The Tyranny of Health

Joe Friggieri
professor of philosophy and former head of department, University of Malta; poet; playwright; theatre director; three-times winner, National Literary Prize

Dolan Cummings

associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)