Sunday, July 10, 2005

"Hands-Clean Hypocrisy" Arguments

I've recently been thinking about those "hands-clean hypocrisy" (HCH) arguments which say, for example, that you shouldn't support the death penalty unless you'd be willing to carry out the executions yourself. A couple more examples pop up at Sir Humphrey's: you shouldn't advocate war unless you're willing to enlist in the army yourself, and you shouldn't eat meat unless you're willing to carry out the butchery. Do these types of arguments have any rational force?

I'm not convinced. If we try to identify the common general principle that HCH arguments are appealing to, it would appear to be something along the lines of:
(P) people ought not to encourage actions that they would not be willing to perform themselves.

But surely (P) is false. I would not want to perform open-heart surgery, or an abortion, or any other medical procedure for that matter. But I'm glad that other people are more skilled and less squeamish about such matters. Am I somehow a "hypocrite" for approving of modern medicine? That doesn't seem very plausible.

So this general principle is false. Is there any other grounding for HCH arguments? It's not necessarily inconsistent to think that something ought to be done, whilst being averse to doing it yourself. But it might involve a sort of free-riding. I think that's what's involved in the war argument, especially. For example, Looking In NZ complains:
The Left is compassionate with other people's money. The Right is patriotic with other people's lives.

The underlying principle here is that one ought not to offload the costs of one's preferences onto others. If you want the benefits of X, you should also be willing to pay the costs - don't expect others to do it for you. (I think this individualistic argument has limited applicability. It is legitimate to demand that others join you in contributing towards a morally-required common goal. Leftists are generally quite happy to pay higher taxes along with everyone else. They are not trying to be free-riders. Quite the opposite: they want everybody to pull their weight, and contribute appropriately towards the demands of social justice.)

In any case, the free-rider argument is distinct from the hands-clean one, and doesn't seem to apply at all to other cases such as butchery or capital punishment. ("You want the benefit of tasty meat, but you selfishly offload all the costs onto those poor butchers!" Doesn't quite work does it.)

In those other cases, I think the HCH argument serves as a rhetorical ploy aimed to engage one's imaginative sympathies. It doesn't really serve as an argument in itself. Rather, it is a plea to think through the real implications of your position. The point is simply to combat ignorance that arises from intellectual 'distance'. It's like saying: "Sure, you can support the death penalty from the comfort of your armchair, where you can ignore or abstract away the details - and even the death itself. But could you continue to support it after confronting the harsh reality?" If you can truly answer "yes", then that's that. The argument has no further force against you.

This "ignorance argument" is quite legitimate, I think. But it's also very weak, as the above makes clear. The literal HCH argument is an illegitimate extension of it. It makes much stronger demands (you don't just have to confront the reality of X, you must take part in it!), demands which are harder to meet, and so have greater rhetorical strength. But they're also entirely unreasonable demands. Because principle (P) is false, the mere fact that I am personally unwilling to X does not exert any rational force on me to universally denounce X (or even refrain from encouraging others to do X). Further, the charge of "hypocrisy" is smuggled in from an entirely separate argument - the "free rider" one discussed earlier - and has no basis in the present context, where the fundamental problem is supposed to be imaginative ignorance, not selfishness.

So, I conclude that HCH arguments lack rational force. Their proponents probably should be making "free-rider" or "ignorance" arguments instead. But if so, they should be clear that that's what they're doing. Avoid the rhetorical questions enquiring as to whether others are willing to get their hands dirty. It simply isn't relevant.


  1. Thanks for the deeper analysis Richard.

    My comment at Sir Humphrey's was (also) refuting the HCH argument that LookinginNZ had made.

    After posing the "war" question, refrained as butchering your own meat, my "perhaps it should?" was meant as a simple device to ask people to stop and consider that thought - before going on to dismiss the HCH logic, by arguing that there are many more ways to show support (for deposing Saddam, and destroying Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, collectively marketed as the War on Terror) than to prove it by signing up for the front line.

    I gather that is the point you go on to make.

  2. oops, not refrained, but reframed

  3. Oh, yes, sorry, I didn't mean to imply that you endorsed the example HCH arguments.

    But I'm not sure that LiNZ is best understood as making a HCH argument after all. A more charitable interpretation would see it as a "free-rider argument" instead, as suggested in my post. His objection, then, is that Young Republicans are pressuring others into bearing the costs (in lost lives) for the war that they are not willing to "pay" for themselves. Nobody denies that YR's support the war. Rather, the challenge is to show that they are bearing their fair share of the burdens of war, rather than offloading them on to others.

    (P.S. I'm not saying that I endorse this argument. I just thought it would help to make it clearer.)

  4. Thank you for exonerating me. As you know, I support the stoning of gays in Muslim societies, but personally I abhor the practice and would not participate in it myself. Please visit my blog and participate in my poll.

  5. Off topic alert.

    A single post blog where someone with a record of religious moderation commits political harakiri just seems too much like a fake to me.

    Back to the discussion.

  6. Oops, that was me not reading it through properly. Sorry. I thought you made it very clear, and I found it interesting to see the argument explained from a philosophical perspective.

    Like many debates, I suspect the conflict lies in the underlying beliefs about the validity of the "war on terror".

    If two parties reach genuinely different conclusions as to the motives and anticipated outcome of an event, then there may be little point in further discussion of that position. So the debate moves to other areas, where the declared motives can be tested or attacked.

    That can backfire; people are just as likely to become more stubborn when they feel their integrity is being attacked, rather than it being intelligent discourse to understand the position.

  7. Amby: Yes, it was mildly amusing but my overall thought was "oh dear".

    Choudhary (the real one) picked a unfortunate time to explain himself in that way.

    I think it might be a good time for the Muslim community to help publish a bit more information on the various types of Islamic faith, if they want people to understand why they could tolerate one subset over another, rather than it being an all or nothing proposition many people no doubt feel they are presented with.

  8. Might not HCH arguments have some bearing with an added qualifier.

    That is, it is inconsistent to support abortion (for example) if you would refuse to do it yourself if you were a skilled doctor, butcher, soldier etc.

    I don't think that makes the argument a very good one however.

    "If you support the war then you must be willing to fight in it yourself, if you were a soldier."
    "I would, if i was a soldier, but I'm not, so I won't."

  9. Thanks for the post Richard. Very interesting, especially after a thread at DPF regarding Matthew Flannagan advocating the death penalty for Graham Capill.


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