Thursday, January 26, 2012

In Praise of Hypocrisy: 4


            There’s a fine line between relative and absolute hypocrisy. Consider the case of Lesser-Evilism.

            “Choose the lesser of two evils”; that’s the classic advice of the hypocrite sage. As a compromise it is perhaps forgivable. It doesn’t pretend that its choice is good, just that the alternative is worse. An uncomfortable doctrine; it promises at best a holding action, more likely a disorderly retreat.

            But now consider this mutated version of that advice: “The lesser of two evils is therefore good.” This theory, which I call Lesser-Evilism, is very convenient; for it guarantees a foolproof path to virtue. To be good, you need only be other than somebody else who is worse.

            So if Paul steals $2 from Peter, and if Paul and Saul are rivals, then isn’t Saul justified in stealing only $1 from Peter? Even Peter will agree that’s only half as evil. And if Saul then kicked Peter, then wouldn’t Paul be in the right if he retaliated by merely slapping Peter? Another lesser evil!

            Why stop there? $10 is less than $20; vandalism is not as bad as arson; armed robbery isn’t nearly as scary as kidnapping; and so on. The possibilities are endless! In fact Paul and Saul can lesser-evil poor Peter straight into the grave, with Paul and Saul alternately not-to-blame.

            Note that Paul and Saul are rivals in name, but they’re partners in practice. Their crimes justify each other. Paul and Saul have a lot more in common with each other than either of them has with Peter. And as for poor Peter, he has only himself not-to-blame. After all, he got what he didn’t deserve.

            You’d think that Lesser-Evilism would fail when Paul and Saul are both too obviously wrong to justify themselves or each other. But that is precisely when hypocrisy becomes absolute, and doublethink takes over. Lesser becomes greater; so Lesser-Evilism becomes Greater-Evilism, and the race to the bottom accelerates towards its goal.

            The trouble with Lesser-Evilism is that you can never be sure that the lesser evil is lesser; but you can always be sure that the lesser evil is evil. (If you weren’t, then there would be no talk of lesser evils.) Thus Lesser-Evilism tends to revert to Evilism; the belief that all evil is good. Evilism is, of course, a core hypocritical value. Once you accept it as a moral axiom, then all else follows.

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