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Self-deception: Hypocrisy or Akrasia?

33 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 26 March 2007 05:03PM

What are we to think when someone says with their lips that they desire truth, but by their other cognitive deeds choose comfortable illusions over reality (or comfortable cynicism over reality)?

Robin Hanson has labeled such individuals hypocrites.  In the traditional sense of the term, a hypocrite is a moral liar: someone who says a morality which they do not, themselves, believe.  On the other hand, we don't always live up to the goals we set for ourselves.  If I really believe that I ought to exercise at least 3 times per week, but I don't always do so, am I properly termed a "hypocrite"?  The term akrasia, meaning "weakness of will" or "failure of self-control", seems more appropriate.  Even if I tell all my friends that they ought to exercise 3 times per week, that doesn't necessarily make me a hypocrite.  It's good advice.  (Now, if I claimed to always exercise 3 times per week, knowing that this claim was false, that would be dishonest.)

Accusations of hypocrisy garner a lot more attention than accusations of akrasia - because hypocrisy is a deliberate transgression.  It is tempting to say "hypocrisy" when you really mean "akrasia", because you'll get more attention, but that can cause damage to innocent bystanders.  In akrasia, your transgression is your failure of will - it's fine that you advocate going to the gym more often, you just need to live up to the principle yourself.  In hypocrisy, the transgression is claiming to care: you have no right to publicly advocate the moral principle, because (the accuser says) you don't believe in it yourself.

Will Wilkinson asked Hanson:  "Would it be a kind of victory if people who now say that they care about truth, but who really don't, started admitting that they really don't?"

But much more importantly: who says that people who claim to care about truth, and then deceive themselves, "really don't care" about the truth?  Why not say that they really care about the truth (as is right and proper), but they aren't living up to their own morals?

It may be standard practice in economics to deduce "preferences" from actions rather than declarations, but that's because you're trying to predict, in a scientific sense, what the subject will do next - trying to build good economic models.  Moral philosophy is a different bag o' worms.  At the very least, it is a controversial step in moral reasoning to decide that people's emotional impulses and subconscious pressures, rather than their declarative moral reasoning processes and the words that issue from their lips, constitute their "real selves".  We should then call akrasia, not weakness of will, but strength of will.

To put the dilemma more sharply:  The one comes before you and pleads, "I know that I have many times been guilty of self-deception.  I have bought lottery tickets, I have overestimated my driving skills, I have planned optimistically, I have refused to confront contradictory evidence.  I am weak.  And yet I desire to do better.  Will you help me?"

So that is words issuing from the lips, which say one thing.  And it may be that the one has committed other deeds which say something else.  Who is the real person?  Does that question have an answer, or only a definition?

I do not frame an answer.  It is only needful for me to know that something has asked for my help.  There is something here that can ally to me, in our quest for truth - whether or not you call it the "real self".  Whether or not, for that matter, you call me my "real self".  If the word "I", when I use it, does not refer to the cognitive pattern that authors these words on your computer screen, what does it refer to?  And if the words that issue from some other's lips should declare me to be a ghost, then I will seek out my fellow truthseeking ghosts, and have company in my phantom quest.

Comments (21)

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Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 26 March 2007 06:06:51PM 0 points [-]

My only recent mention of "hypocrisy" is: What is completely natural and human is to claim to want to believe truth. Most every group likes to feel superior by believing that its beliefs are less biased than other groups' beliefs. Consider today's "reality-based politics" or frequent Christian references to TRUTH. ... Probably our greatest lever is shame and hypocrisy, i.e., the fact that most people pretend to want what we (say we) want. If forced to choose between what they pretend to want and what they usually want, many may choose their pretensions.

Wikipedia says hypocrisy is criticizing others as worse than you for not living up to a standard you fare no better on. This is the sense in which I used the word, and my use seems appropriate there.

It is also worth emphasizing that weakness of will is not the only plausible explanation for a deviation between thoughts and actions. Another explanation is motivated bias; we feel good thinking well of ourselves and badly of others, and because of that don't look very critically at our positive claims about ourselves.

Comment author: akshatrathi 12 November 2010 02:10:29PM 0 points [-]

Another explanation is motivated bias; we feel good thinking well of ourselves and badly of others, and because of that don't look very critically at our positive claims about ourselves

Surely there must be more than the reason that you give.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 26 March 2007 06:29:07PM 8 points [-]

I was thinking of this post as a continuation of our discussion in your Resolving Your Hypocrisy post of Dec06. It's this business of saying "really want" to refer to people's impulses instead of their principles, as if their low self were the only true one, that I strongly object to; it does not help people. (Under the circumstances - though I hesitate to make this accusation - I point out that calling others hypocrites instead of just akrasics, and calling their lowest selves their truest selves, may allow us to look down on them.)

Comment author: Steph_Houghton 27 March 2007 04:29:19AM 1 point [-]

"It's this business of saying "really want" to refer to people's impulses instead of their principles, as if their low self were the only true one, that I strongly object to; it does not help people."

I agree this something to be careful of, but on the other hand what are we to make of consistent contradictions between what someone claims to want and how they act?

Take an example I find extremely shocking, arguments by parents against other parents spending money for their children’s education. This is often put forward on the ground that it causes social inequality. If a poor parent makes this argument, I can understand it. After all it is to their child’s comparative advantage to have the children of those wealthier than themselves receive no benefit from the parents wealth. (Though in reality the more truly educated people there are the better off for all) What I can’t understand is parents who smugly announce that they could spend the money on their child‘s education, but that they will not because that would cause inequality. (granted that this argument comes more often in the hypothetical from the childless, but I have seen parents make it.)

If questioned these parents would doubtless say they love their children and want the best for their them, but should we believe them? If one believes that a child’s education is extremely important, it would seem one would do everything one could to give one’s child the best possible education. Of course maybe the parents believe that a society where money was spent on children in accordance with their ability (i.e. the smarter the more money spent on the child’s education regardless of ability to pay) would be more in their child’s interests as it would make society wealthier and benefit their child along with every one else. However in that case it would seem that the money they will not spend on their child should go to a fund to help the bright but disadvantaged, not spent on their own consumption. If they instead spend the money on frivolity (not to put frivolity down in general), what are we to make of this?

To take this a step further what if their child is very bright and wins a scholarship to Eton. (assuming that Eton does offer a superior education. As an American, I can only go by reputation) If they refuse to let their child go on the grounds that the existence of schools like Eton cause in equality what are we to make of that? Suppose the scholarship is not to a posh school like Eton, but to a state program to educate the most gifted on the premise that this is to the general benefit of society. If the parents refuse to let their child attend because this would create social inequality, because their child is already “privileged” by superior intelligence and shouldn’t be given the means to make this inequality greater, what would this tell us about the parents?

At what point do we say that their behavior towards their child is inconsistent with their claim to love their child and want the best for them?

Contrariwise, what about parents who claim allegiance to the alleged moral ideal of egalitarianism, but spend vast sums of money on their child’s education giving them a massive advantage in life. At what point do you conclude that they are either neo-aristocratic paternalists or ethical egoists?

My point is that while I agree that people do fall short of their ethical ideals (I do it myself more often than I should like others to know), we can not judge people by their words alone.

Comment author: Ray_G 27 March 2007 04:48:49AM 0 points [-]

In the eventuality of all things, we can only be judged by our actions. A weakness of will is better than one who would consciously do differently than they had proclaimed, but in the long run, we are what we do.

Think of any time that we have had to rely on someone unreliable. They may have meant well, they may have tried to an extent, but in the long run if the only thing reliable about them is that they will not execute their expected responsibilities, they have somewhere crossed that line to join with the hypocrite.

Hebrew proverbs speak of the “simple” and the “profane.” A simple man is as a piece of property without fences or borders. Any old thing can blow through. A profane man is property that remained simple for so long – that is, without borders or accountability – that the property is just so overgrown and polluted that no one would want it.

There is hope for the simple, while there is none for the profane.

Somewhere along the way, a weakness of will becomes a matter of habitual choice, and there is no more excusing for good intentions.

Comment author: TGGP4 15 February 2008 02:06:30AM 0 points [-]

Caplan takes on self-control here.

Comment author: DonGeddis 22 July 2008 05:07:38PM 0 points [-]

I don't practice what I preach because I'm not the kind of person I'm preaching to.

(by Bob Dobbes, in Newsweek ... long ago)

Comment author: Mitchell_Porter 24 May 2010 08:31:09AM 0 points [-]

Another mistake is to deduce hypocrisy solely from evidence of inconsistency. Hypocrisy isn't the only cause of inconsistency.

Comment author: Australopithecine 02 July 2011 05:47:27AM *  0 points [-]

What of those who act hypocritically in that something they profess doesn't match certain actions - but simply haven't yet become aware of the hypocrisy? Theirs isn't a conscious decision to choose illusion over reality, and neither is their self-deception born of akrasia, this weakness of will you speak of. This belief and this action remain non-overlapping magisteria in their minds, to steal from Gould.

Take the example of a person who professes to seek and embrace truth whereever they find it. Jolly good for them! But they don't take the next step of acting on this belief to search out and test other 'truths' they espouse, and so they remain an active participant in a cult, even going so far as to say they believe in the cult because it is true. Clearly there is some kind of self-deception going on here, but how could one recognize it, and where is this bias or heuristic? It's not deliberate hypocrisy nor akrasia. Is it simply a lack of follow-through or is there more to it? Someone could go their whole life without realizing they hold two contradictory ideas or that their actions contradict something they profess.

At some future point this individual could have a crisis. They profess to believe in the cult because it is true. They learn that some claim made by the cult is untrue. Now they must pick between what were once two non-overlapping magisteria; pick the cult by BSing some other reason and continue professing it despite contrary evidence, or pick the other claim of seeking out truth.

I don't know where I'm going with this. I'd be interested to see your take on this though. How much can a lack of putting two and two together be a form of self-deception? I see how some organizations or ideas could stand to profit by isolating themselves from investigative thought. Say you're taught all your life that communism, or capitalism, or religion, or atheism, or pork is bad. This claim could be true, could be false, or somewhere in between. Plenty of people go their whole life never thinking of challenging the claim, of looking to verify it. The thought never crosses their mind. How can we combat this tendency to just accept something and never give it a second thought, to never realize how one idea or claim could be contradictory to a different one we hold? Great articles! I'm highly enjoying them.

Comment author: p4wnc6 06 July 2011 04:51:38AM 0 points [-]

Plenty of people go their whole life never thinking of challenging the claim, of looking to verify it. The thought never crosses their mind.

Do you have any evidence that this is the case? In my experience, it's not. Most people tend to feel that coming up with an argument for why their particular beliefs are true is extremely important, it's just that they then fall into patterns of confirmation/disconfirmation bias, affect bias, and mind-projection fallacy. A person raised in a fundamentalist Christian home is taught that there are really true and verifiable explanations for the specifics of why evolution is wrong. There's a huge propensity to find ambiguity intolerable. The more dogmatically an assertion is held, the more intolerable ambiguity becomes.

The cases where error exists due to sheer lack of curiosity don't appear to be common. But in those cases, maybe a more fundamental question to ask is why there is a lack of curiosity. Perhaps it is social convention to accept an idea and it would be uncomfortable to challenge it. Perhaps adherence to a particular idea has provided a reasonable amount of comfort and consistency in a tribe's history and if they cannot imagine increases in their success and comfort, there is little motivation to stray from the accepted dogma. These types of question cast light on what this sort of mistake is, which is different from hypocrisy/akrasia. I'm just not sure this question is (a) an important distinction or (b) worth adding on to this particular thread. It might be worth creating a new discussion thread for it though, to get more thoughts than just my own.

Comment author: blackhole 25 May 2012 02:18:43AM 1 point [-]

Don't most people preach the expected but live their desires?

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 18 June 2012 08:57:55AM 2 points [-]

Related quote from The Diamond Age:

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.

Comment author: robertskmiles 18 June 2012 11:21:37AM *  1 point [-]

The Neo-Victorians in that book certainly have a very interesting take on hypocrisy.

For the sake of those unfortunates who haven't read it, the argument is that the current popularity of condemning people for hypocrisy is a consequence of cultural and moral relativism. Because it's supposedly not allowed to criticise someone for breaking your moral code (because they may have a different code which must be considered equally valid), you can only criticise people when they break their own moral code. The idea is that we, as people, enjoy moral condemnation, but in a culturally and morally relativist society, the only form of moral condemnation acceptable is accusations of hypocrisy, so it grows to a disproportionate significance.

I'm not sure I buy it entirely, since most people have very little trouble with condemning others according to the judger's moral code. But I think it is likely to be a factor.

Comment author: Multiheaded 18 June 2012 11:48:49AM *  -1 points [-]

(Note for those who haven't read it: the Vics aren't depicted as "the good guys" all in all, although they have badass moments. Actually, it might be a good "scary eutopia" by Eliezer's standards, but the major factions are optimized to look simply scary to the intended audience of geeks, with the exception of - surprise! - the ones based on "hacker values" such as CryptNet or the Distributed Republic.)

Comment author: robertskmiles 18 June 2012 11:59:26AM 1 point [-]

I'm not sure I agree with you on that. CryptNet and the Distributed Republic have quite minor roles in the story, and pretty much every single major character (with the exception of the Confucians) is a Neo-Victorian. It's too good a book to have Righteous Kind And Noble Heroes Beyond All Reproach, and the Vicks have their problems, but I'd say they are basically "the good guys", and if not that then certainly the protagonists, of the story.

Comment author: Multiheaded 18 June 2012 12:18:18PM *  -1 points [-]

But Stephenson himself hardly comes across as anything close to a Neo-Victorian, that's why I said that. Hell, from the interviews he sounds like a multiculturalist to me (or at least a rather non-judgmental person), while Lord Finkle-McGraw is the opposite of one in DA.

http://reason.com/archives/2005/02/01/neal-stephensons-pastpresent-a/singlepage

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2004/nov/04/onlinesupplement

Comment author: Multiheaded 18 June 2012 12:32:24PM -1 points [-]

Oh jeez, just screw it. Seems that I can't say even a slightly, tangentially ideological thing without fucking up.

Comment author: robertskmiles 18 June 2012 12:53:31PM 0 points [-]

I don't think you fucked up. Down-votes aren't from me.

Anyway, yeah I agree, Stephenson's own position is very different from the Vicks'. I still think they're the "good guys" in the story though, even though their opinions aren't held by the author.

Comment author: Multiheaded 18 June 2012 01:38:35PM *  -1 points [-]

Oh, it's just that I'm in avoidant passive-aggressive mode and behaving all spineless. My social AT-field has worn thin on this side after two confrontations with the LW opinion in a row, so for a while I'm uncomfortable with further exposing my beliefs to scrutiny - here, it's a factual belief ("The author likes and endorses / hates X"), but of course it's hard to detach from my unspoken ideological biases ("X is such an Y thing, clearly anyone smart likes/hates it!").

Comment author: Multiheaded 18 June 2012 01:58:32PM 0 points [-]

(In-story, I thought the most "heroic" of the movers and shakers was Dr. X; after all, he was a solitary visionary who challenged two opposed factions, and the relevant tropes demand that such characters aren't to be simply deluded nutjobs. It's more or less the "Take a third option" fallacy.)

Comment author: TheOtherDave 18 June 2012 02:56:12PM 0 points [-]

That argument is not at all unique to that book.
I've heard it made many times in real life, typically by American conservatives to condemn American liberals.