I’m deeply ambivalent about accusations of hypocrisy. On the one hand, “Yeah, well you do it too” arguments are among the most annoying cheap shots I ever encounter. On the other hand I think embracing one’s own hypocrisy is about the most worthwhile and difficult task on the path to ethical behavior.

Accusations of hypocrisy are annoying cheap shots when they’re used automatically to turn the tables on any criticism. With some people, there’s no receptivity, no reflection, just an automatic “well you do it too,” or “well what about the way you do this other bad thing?” or the thoroughly vague, “well, you’re not perfect.” If the accusation of hypocrisy is simply a defensive formula, it’s no more worthy of our attention than “I know you are but what am I?”

In logic and philosophy there’s a name for this cheap shot formula. It’s called the Tu Quoque (Latin for “you too”) fallacy. It takes the form:

Joe says Sam is wrong for doing X.

Joe also does X.

Therefore, Sam can ignore Joe’s accusation.

It’s called a logical fallacy because the conclusion doesn’t follow logically from the premises. Armed with this fallacy with its fancy Latin name, the part of me that finds accusations of hypocrisy to be nothing more than annoying cheap shots could shoot them all down:

“That’s all you’ve got? A tu quoque fallacy? I don’t have to listen to you.”

But logical fallacies, much as I love and collect them, are not exactly what they appear to be. Fallacy sounds like “false” but what fallacy really means is that the conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow from the premises. Fallacy really means “It ain’t necessarily so” which is not the same as it is necessarily not so. A fallacy isn’t a false conclusion but a weak one. So, much as I’d like to be able swat away any annoying argument by calling it a fallacy, I shouldn’t. In fact, doing so is another kind of annoying cheap shot. Occasionally I’ll encounter someone who wields fallacies like gag orders. Since you used a Tu Quoque fallacy you’re wrong about everything.

Can’t really do that with fallacies.

Besides with me, people should get away with some Tu Quoque arguments. See, I’ve noticed that I have an automatic defensive response that makes me unreceptive to worthy counter-arguments sometimes. If someone does something that offends me, instantly, what flies out of my awareness is any evidence of my having ever done the equivalent.

Perhaps you’ve noticed the same in you.

Sometimes it takes a whole lot of “Jeremy you’ve done it too” before I can see my hypocrisy. But then, despite my stubborn resistance, there it is, and I feel sheepish for having been so self-righteous in the name of what turns out to be my double standard.

I collect sayings that remind me not to be so self-righteously hypocritical. I try to use them as mantras:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

I wouldn’t put it past me.

Takes one to know one.

Philosophers find their true perfection, knowing the follies of humankind by introspection.

And yet I also take these with a grain of salt. For example, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Let’s be serious. Who is without sin? No one, right? So then should there be no judgment at all in this world? Leave it all to God? Take whatever anyone dishes out and don’t say anything critical or you will have violated this virtuous-sounding principle?

Don’t judge or you too will be judged? So no judges? No legal system? Should we just all huddle in our glass houses and shut up about the world outside? It’s like if you can’t do everything nice don’t say anything at all.

Absurd.

So here’s where I’ve settled in my ambivalence about hypocrisy:

1. Everybody is a hypocrite… It’s not just that we’re hard-wired for self-defense, and making up excuses for behavior we wouldn’t tolerate in others, it’s that we’re hard-wired, period. My nerves are more attuned to my feelings than to yours, and yours are more attuned to your feelings than to mine. Therefore we will have double standards. And they can be a real problem.

2. …so try not to be meta-hypocritical. We tend to gloat and sneer when someone else’s hypocrisy is exposed, as if hypocrisy were some rare disease. It’s meta-hypocritical to say, “I’m not a hypocrite but he is.”

3. And even though we are all hypocrites, we must judge sometimes… Yes we all live in glass houses. And yet sometimes we have to throw a stone at someone who is being hypocritical. I’m hoping for example that what little tax money I pay that goes to the UN helps the UN peace-keeping forces bring down Laurent Gbagbo, the hypocritical deposed president of Ivory Coast.

4. …because questions of degree really do matter. “You do it too” arguments tend to gloss over differences of degree. Imagine someone who kills thousands of Americans and argues that it should be acceptable since we allow hunting.

5. Therefore don’t argue from absolute principle… Black and white, all or nothing, zero-tolerance policy and principles invite people to ignore issues of degree.

6. …instead, wonder, worry about and study questions of degree...You may think you know where to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable hypocrisy, but drawing that line is not simple and certainly not as simple as listening to one’s gut.

7. And Jeremy, practice those mantras.