You’re having an argument. Tensions mount. You pull out your big guns half-cocked, moral principles you don’t, can’t, and shouldn’t live by.
Claiming the high ground, you say things like “don’t interrupt,” as though you never interrupt, “don’t be judgmental,” as though you’re never judgmental, “don’t generalize,” as though you’re not generalizing about their generalizations, “don’t be negative” as though “don’t” isn’t negative, “don’t be unkind” as though it’s kind to summon rules you can’t live by. You summon whatever half-baked moral principle makes your case in the moment.
Hypocrisy doesn’t result from having double standards but pretending you have one standard when no one does.
It’s not just that there’s a time to be negative and a time to be positive. The problem with trying to live by absolute moral principles runs deeper than that. The more positive you are about one thing, the less positive you are about its opposite. If you really love justice, you really hate injustice. If you judge judgment to be bad, you’re judging. If you’re kind to one person, you’re unkind to others since kindness take effort – you can’t be kind to everyone all at once.
Always be this; never be that. One-side-fits-all rules are easy to remember, fun to preach, useful to wield in arguments and impossible to follow. We’re least hypocritical when we realize and admit it, and most hypocritical when we ignore and deny it.
We all try to figure out the contexts in which it’s better to be honest vs. dishonest, receptive vs. unreceptive giving and ungiving, etc. That's what we really do and should do.
We don't become hypocrites by sometimes being dishonest, unreceptive or ungiving, but by pretending that one never should be, as though it’s possible to live by these impossible moral principles rather than admitting that, like everyone, we’re struggling with moral dilemmas, deciding where to be honest and dishonest, where to be receptive and unreceptive, where to be giving and un-giving. That’s the work we’re all doing. What unites us in common cause is trying to do it well.
Attacking each other with one-size-fits-all moral rules is how we become hypocrites; defending ourselves when the rules come back to bite us is how we reinforce our hypocrisy. We declare some impossible categorical rule and then are forced to gerrymander its border in self-defense. We say “Don’t be dishonest,” and then, when caught being dishonest, we say, “I wasn’t being dishonest but tactful. Totally different.”
What’s the difference? We don’t even bother to wonder since all we’re trying to do is defend ourselves as abiding by laws we don’t abide by, except when they help us. We declare ourselves committed to some virtue and then just slide whatever we want in and out of that category. “Honesty is a virtue. Dishonesty is a vice. But when I don’t tell you the truth, I’m being honestly tactful. When you don’t tell me the truth you’re dishonest.”
Our fake absolute moral principles stunt our moral growth. Because we’ve decided we should always do this and never do that, we fail to get around to wondering where to do what.
If we want to become wiser, we have to trade in our unworkable moral absolutes for moral frameworks modeled on the serenity prayer with its quest for ever-improved “wisdom to know the difference” between situations that call for this vs. that response.
Here’s a list of variations on the serenity prayer applied to some of the moral dilemmas we face every day and will face until the end of our days. These dilemmas can’t be sidestepped with fake one-size-fits-all moral absolutes. The dilemmas can only be ignored, making us hypocrites.