October 9, 2007

Sin, hypocrisy, and the blank slate: social convention is smarter than you are

The use of "hypocrisy" as "failing to live up to the standards that one preaches" has become very popular, probably because of its service in shutting down a debate on how things ought to be. For instance, someone might say to me:

"Well, for all your stern lecturing about doing something more productive than reading blogs or Wikipedia, here you are wasting time writing blog entries about Madonna's career, chock full of YouTube clips. Sorry, I don't take advice from hypocrites."

Ah, but I write maybe two posts a week, and typically on the weekends when I have some time to waste. I know it would be better spent in other ways, but it's human nature to want some goof-off time. The point of that post was simply that reading Wikipedia, etc., is a form of sloth and should be minimized if you want to accomplish something. I'm sure non-nerds have their own ways of goofing off: debating who the best basketball player is, watching American Idol, and so on.

At bottom, "hypocrisy" just means preaching to others to behave one way while casting these rules aside in your own life. You claim to be egalitarian, and hector those who appear inegalitarian, yet you run an operation with a strict hierarchy. That's not merely succumbing to temptation during a weak moment -- it's something you go out of your way to do, consistently day-in and day-out, with no compunction afterwards. And it means you're full of it. There was a very interesting example of this recently when the Dean of Admissions at MIT turned out to be a complete phony, and like a true hypocrite her only remorse was over having been found out, not for lying about her educational background for decades -- all while going through applicants' claims with a fine-toothed comb!

So, the only way a big stink can be made over "not living up to one's standards" (aside from the duplicitious case mentioned above) is if the offender acted as if they were perfectable rather than inherently constrained by human flaws. In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker argues that the "fear of imperfectability" has been one of the driving forces behind the entrenchment of the tabula rasa view of human nature. * One casualty of the blank slate's ascendancy, then, is a belief in sin -- not in the sense of "doing wrong," since we clearly still have those ideas, but in the sense of in-born tendencies to stray from a good life. Now the only conceivable sin is not meeting the high standards you set for yourself, since it's taken for granted that you can become whatever you want if you put your mind to it.

It seems that a key development in furthering civilization along after the classical cultures was a progression in moral standards from merely not committing horrible felonies, such as those proscribed by the Ten Commandments, to avoiding the more subtle but more pervasive temptations catalogued in the Seven Deadly Sins -- and to veer in the proper direction by adhering to the Seven Virtues. Or something like that. Now, culture isn't the only way of achieving this progression, since personality traits like Conscientiousness are moderately heritable and thus apt to shift toward higher levels if the selection pressures are there. Indeed, Gregory Clark floats this idea in his new book on the Industrial Revolution, A Farewell to Alms. **

In the modern view, though, as long as you abide by some secular version of the Ten Commandments, then you're doing fine and no one can judge you. Outspoken atheists tend to deride things like the Ten Commandments as suitable only for the low-IQ, who require the fear of fire and brimstone in order to not behave like raping and pillaging barbarians. Almost all of the conventional wisdom accumulated over the past 1000 or so years, much of it codified in something like the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Virtues, is lost on such people. "Consenting adults," "freedom of choice," "laissez-faire," etc.

But there is evidence almost anywhere you look that those for whom organized religion is important tend to be more virtuous and civicly engaged than atheists. Here is a review of the statistics on atheists vs. active-faith Americans in voter registration, volunteering for non-church groups, being active in the community, helping the homeless, and donating to non-church charities. Atheists do well, but the more religious still outscore them on all these measures. The fact that atheists do well on an absolute level shows that they are not outscored on account of lazy, apathetic members, who might differ from principled and philosophical atheists.

Recently Inductivist showed that those who attend church frequently were more likely to donate blood than those who never go to church. And here I reviewed a study that showed that, even among those with gifted IQs, the more religious scored higher on Conscientiousness as adults. Another interesting datum from the study on volunteering, etc., was that 12% of atheists but only 4% of Christians said that living a "comfortable, balanced lifestyle" was important to them. Naively assuming that this trait is normally distributed as personality traits are, this implies a difference between means of 0.58 standard deviations. If it were height, that would make the active-faith group about 1.7 inches "taller" on average. Also, going to church makes you dress in a dignified way at least one day of the week.

So, while acknowledging that these are overlapping distributions, the picture does suggest that there's a kernel of truth to the popular stereotype of atheists as smug, intellectual slugabeds who talk but don't do. And don't hold up a single counterexample, since that proves nothing. Think back, and average out all the atheists you've ever met, and all those who were religious (had faith, went to church, or whatever). Who's more likely to end up permanently working in a bike repair shop, indie record store, or used bookstore, thereby squandering their potential to accomplish something?

I'm not trying to single out atheists in particular, but just to provide one example of the result of the experimentalist attack on convention, as when someone demands, "Well, logically justify the Seven Virtues, and maybe I'll listen." Maybe the adherent to virtue isn't very bright or eloquent, and so can't do so. "Ha, then there's no basis for following them!" Well, except that they appear to work. The social realm is not like the Platonic world of mathematics or the laboratory of science -- blithely discarding manners and convention in the latter areas may be a good thing in some case, and if it's not, we'll quickly understand that and fix the problem. Math and science are stable in that way.

But the arts, humanities, and the social realm more broadly show the opposite pattern -- if they are disturbed, they will diverge away from where they were. Western artistic creation and criticism basically went extinct within three generations during the 20th century. Look how quickly we went from a world where men and women knew roughly how to relate to each other, to today's world where guys are so clueless that they can't figure out whether or not to pay for dates, let alone innumerable other cases in the relationship between the sexes.

So, the eventual burial of the blank slate worldview, the beginning of which I think we're starting to see, will hopefully bring back the idea that human nature tends toward sin, and that we should adopt customs that steer us away from those tendencies. None of this requires religious devotion, but in order to prove that, non-believers have to get over their scorn for following tradition. They usually qualify that phrase as "blindly" following tradition -- but it's no less thoughtless to abandon customs whose logic cannot be elucidated. How do you know they don't serve some beneficial function?

Evolutionarily minded atheists love to say that "evolution is smarter than you are" in response to people who are incredulous about the power of natural selection to adapt organisms to their environment genetically. That's true, but we could have that go in the opposite direction as well: social convention is smarter than you are to adapt people to their environment when human nature cannot be relied upon. That means convention wins in the short-term -- if human nature changes on a genetic level, and it can do so very quickly, only then is "another world possible."

* One implication he points out is that if man appears imperfect, that cannot be due to nature, and therefore must be due to defective social institutions which must be re-engineered to churn out better people. The first examples that come to mind are likely Soviet Russia and Maoist China, as well as similar re-education programs that continue to operate in the West: political correctness, affirmative action, and so on.

Still, most prominent conservatives -- meaning those with real power, those who staff think tanks, etc. -- are in favor of affirmative action, No Child Left Behind, massive illegal immigration, bringing democracy to Iraq, and other policies doomed to failure by not considering human nature. And many libertarians' faith in some Econ101 version of homo economicus is even more risible than Rousseau's belief in Natural Man, since at least the latter wasn't surrounded by counterevidence (he lived his whole life within a civilized society). These days, just about all of the elite are a bunch of clueless clods.

** In Andrew Hinde's demographic history of England, England's Population, he shows that the weight of the evidence suggests that stagnant population growth in Early Modern England (roughly 1500 to 1750) was not due to increased mortality but lower fertility. In particular, it looks like prudence became popular: during these hard times, the age at first marriage went from early 20s to mid-late 20s, celibacy increased from almost 0 to tens of percents, and marriage rates tracked real wages -- you got married when you could afford to form a family, and didn't if you couldn't. Now, they didn't have to have the conscious, explicit objective of being prudent, just as an extravert doesn't have to rationally calculate that they'll be better at sales than computer programming -- they'll figure out what works best.


  1. Whit Stillman had a very keen line, uttered by Nick Smith, in Metropolitan: "It's not sin, it's hypocrisy," after it emerges that Nick, Mr. Moralizer, slept around.

    The implication of these accusations of hypocrisy is that one's own moral code matters more than any universal one; otherwise we would first accuse him of sin. All that matters, in effect, is that you be 'true to yourself,' that you respect the laws you have chosen for yourself.

    Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary have as their definition for hypocrisy, "The assuming of a false appearance of virtue or goodness, with dissimulation of real character or inclinations, esp. in respect of religious life or beliefs; hence in general sense, dissimulation, pretence, sham." (OED's definition.)

  2. There's a typo: Charlie accuses Nick of being just another hypocrite, and he responds, "It's not hypocrisy, it's sin." And he's right in that case -- succumbing to temptation in a weak moment is not the same as sleeping around.

    It would be hypocrisy if he lectured others on the evils of casual sex while gleefully and shamelessly indulging in it when no one was looking.

    We should be true to our moral codes -- sure, but the issue is how do we decide when we fail at that? The tendency now is to say whenever you slip up. X preaches against adultery, has a single affair and repents, but it's too late -- X is obviously a hypocrite, in this view.

    That assumes the perfectability of man, and so it's wrong.

  3. Neal Stephenson includes a meditation on hypocrisy in _The Diamond Age_.

    “You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of a climate, you are not allowed to criticise others—after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism?”

    “Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others’ shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour—you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.

    “We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy,” Finkle-McGraw continued. “In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception—he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it’s a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing.”

    “That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code,” Major Napier said, working it through, “does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.”

    “Of course not,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It’s perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said that it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct. Really, the difficulties involved—the missteps we make along the way—are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal , struggle, between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power.” All three men were quiet for a few moments, chewing mouthfuls of beer or smoke, pondering the matter.

  4. I don't think your permalinks work properly

  5. Agnostic,

    I wish that when I needed to deliver I could write as well as you do when you're squandering your time.


    "The implication of these accusations of hypocrisy is that one's own moral code matters more than any universal one..."

    And therein lies the problem with such an obsessive focus on hypocrisy. If it is the gravest offence, the easiest way to avoid it is to simply to lower the standards you set for yourself and for others. As long as you don't claim that this or that action is wrong, you've a licence to do whatever you want.

    That attitude is especially damaging to less endowed populations with little to fall back on, less impulse control, and greater time preference.

  6. to today's world where guys are so clueless that they can't figure out whether or not to pay for dates

    Thank you for laying all the blame of this complicated, nuanced, vexing social conundrum on men - as if it's all men's fault that pretty much everything has changed.

    I suppose now you're going to tell me that yes, men should pay for dates, AND yes, women and men should both earn $1 to each other's $1.

    ::rolls eyes::

  7. I suppose now you're going to tell me that yes, men should pay for dates, AND yes, women and men should both earn $1 to each other's $1.

    No, I'm going to tell you that you should stop crying like a little girl.

    I didn't blame either sex for the predicament -- just noted that it was true, and used it as an example of the relative instability of the social realm.

  8. First time I'm at your blog.

    It's brilliant!

    Your thoughts, your analyses, opinions - very nicely done. I enjoy reading your blog and of course, wished mine were like that. But perhaps you already know, it's far from it *wry smile*

    I often find myself withdrawing from debates, which is disastrous for me, for what is to come in future. But I digress.

    Again, I enjoy your page and will be back time and again.

    Thank you for sharing *smile*



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