Raise your hand if you think you’re above average in integrity, honesty, fair-mindedness, realism, kindness, generosity or any other virtue.

Now look around you. Way more than half of us have our hands up. That’s a problem. More than half of us can’t be above average.

OK, so how do we sort out the virtue-posers from the real-deal? Good question five months before the elections, or anytime.

Our most popular way to sort is to modify the question: Those of you who are reeeeealy above-average virtuous raise your hand reeeeealy high. Way up there, OK?

You can see though, that’s not going to work. Now more than half of us are raising our hands way up high, climbing ladders, standing on stilts, clambering on top of each other to out-earnest each other, just like the candidates.

Here’s another approach that’s also very popular. Virtue is good right? For example, you like when people are kind and generous to you. So just turn this into a popularity contest. The folks you like, they’re the truly virtuous, and the folks you don’t like, they’re not. That’ll sort out the posers from the truly virtuous.

Do you hear that din in the background there? Folks shouting at you, saying you picked the wrong people. The people you like aren’t virtuous–that’s what they’re yelling. 

Yeah well what do they know anyway? If they know virtue why are they shouting? It’s not kind to shout. Such hypocrites: “We know true virtue” they shout unkindly.

They’re still yelling. What now? That we’re hypocrites for accusing them of being hypocrites and for not admitting that we’re really hypocrites? Who us? They must be talking about themselves. We’re like rubber and they’re like glue…

There’s a far less popular way to sort the really virtuous from the posers. It’s less popular for a few reasons, one is that it takes more effort.

See, most of us put our effort into sorting the virtuous from the non-virtuous. We put far less effort into thinking about how one should do the sorting. Most people will tell you with great confidence who has integrity and who doesn’t, but if you asked them what integrity is, their answer is vague, clearly not something they’ve thought about a lot.

Maybe they’ll give you an example. “Integrity is what Joe has!” Maybe they’ll describe the extremes, “Integrity is always being consistent, as opposed to always lying.”

Those are first baby steps toward a sorting standard but they don’t seem inclined to go any further. An example doesn’t generalize to a standard, and the extremes don’t help you with the tough calls in the gray area trying to figure whether someone has integrity or not.

After examples and extremes, the next step they could take but don’t is toward a definition. For example, Google integrity and this comes up:

The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.

Beneath the definition there’s a history that’s often worth checking. Google the etymology of integrity and you find:

“innocence, blamelessness; chastity, purity,” from O.Fr. integrité or directly from L. integritatem (nom. integritas) “soundness, wholeness, blamelessness,” from integer “whole” (see integer). Sense of “wholeness, perfect condition” is mid-15c.

A definition is more useful than hand-raising, popularity contests, examples and extremes, but it too doesn’t go far enough. Even if we all agreed to the Google definition we wouldn’t agree on who fits it. We next need to translate that descriptive definition into objective sorting criteria that anyone could apply. Not everyone has to agree that it’s the right objective sorting criteria but at least it’s not subjectively slippery the way those other sorting standards are.

Finding these objective sorting criteria is difficult. It takes deliberation, the criteria will never be perfect, and people won’t agree that your objective criteria are the right ones. Still, debating alternative objective criteria will get us beyond the name calling into more careful sorting. Definitions and objective criteria open a fruitful conversation in which we can shop talk among ourselves about concrete criteria rather than just applying our guts’ double standards. Such shop talk would be a far cry better for morality.

Better for morality, but not for pride. See, that’s the problem. We want to sort carefully, but the way we know whether we have is through our gut sense that we have sorted carefully. We can get that gut sense much cheaper through high self-regard than through carefully working out our sorting standards.

Increasingly psychologists distinguish fast easy intuition from slow deliberate reason. In Dan Kahneman’s wonderful book “Thinking Fast; thinking slow” he calls intuition, “system one” and reason “system two.” System one is where we raise hands, run popularity contests, shout, and name call. System two being slower more deliberate and careful but earns more respect than just going with the gut.

But we don’t need to earn that respect though. We can just claim it. We can sort the world by our gut responses and then insist that we came to our conclusions by system two reasoning. We can attack others for following their misguided guts, without actually having to do more reasoning. We don’t really want to do the careful reasoning, we want claim to have done it, so we just pretend we’ve done it.

One vice on the opposite end of the spectrum from integrity is “hypocrisy.” It too deserves carefully reasoned definition and objective criteria. Raise your hand if you’re below average in hypocrisy? There they are again, more than half the hands. No wonder there’s a lot of hypocrisy about hypocrisy, pots calling the kettle black, with people saying in effect “He’s a hypocrite, not like me.”

So how would we define hypocrisy and then build objective criteria for determining who is and isn’t a hypocrite?

Hypo- means below. Below what? A good guess would be below standard self-awareness and shame. The opposite of Hypo is hyper-, meaning above. Some people have suggested that there ought to be a word hypercrisy for people who are overly self-conscious and hard on themselves.

But look at hypocrisy’s etymology:

c.1200, ipocrisie, from O.Fr. ypocrisie, from L.L. hypocrisis, from Gk. hypokrisis “acting on the stage, pretense,” from hypokrinesthai “play a part, pretend,” also “answer,” from hypo- “under” (see sub-) + middle voice of krinein “to sift, decide” (see crisis). The sense evolution in Attic Greek is from “separate gradually” to “answer” to “answer a fellow actor on stage” to “play a part.” The h- was restored in English 16c.

I pick up on that “sift, decide,” and think of hypocrisy as under-sifting or under-deciding, being careless about sorting.

From that I interpretation I can suggest an objective criterion: If you suspect that someone is a hypocrite, swift to judgment, his system two on vacation, his system one working overtime, ask him how he sorts the virtuous from the non-virtuous, for example how he defines integrity and how he knows who has it. If he takes those vague first baby steps, he’s probably under-sifting. He’s probably a hypocrite, a poser swinging hard with moral judgments he pulls out of his gut. He’s probably just running a popularity contest calling the folks he likes virtuous and the folks he doesn’t villians.

Hypercrites are over-sifters, folks who fuss a lot, reasoning their way to careful objective criteria, testing and retesting them.  When you ask them about their standards, you get attempts at objective criteria.  You can tell that they are trying to get beyond the baby steps.

And if you do ask people how they define these moral terms you’ll find yourself in a grand tradition. That’s exactly what Socrates used to do. If you want to hear him go at it, Plato’s dialogue called “Euthyphro” is a great place to start.

And how about you? How would you define integrity, or any of the virtues or vices? What standard do you employ for deciding? I would love to see some shop talk responses here about the stanards we should use.