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Hypocrisy, tradition, and the dead

April 15, 2013

This post to the New Criterion’s Arma virumque blog connects conservatism, hypocrisy, and religion in a way I find fascinating. Responding to the death of Margaret Thatcher and the way the British left has responded to it (not well), James Bowman writes about

those who claim, like A.C. Grayling in The Independent, that respect for the dead is outdated and hypocritical, “a hangover from a past in which it was believed that the dead might retain some active influence on the living, and that one might re-encounter them either in this life or a putative next life.” Jacqueline Rose in The Guardian holds a similar view, insisting that the planned “state funeral in all but name” amounts to “an act of coercion and a masquerade. It will be pretending, at a time when the social divisions of her legacy have never been more acute, that on this at least the British are at one.”

Dear, dear! Pretending, eh? But pretending that the British are at one is the only way of making them at one. For the space of a moment or an hour the dream of unity can come true — “on this at least” — by pretending. Why is that a bad thing? The honor culture, out of which both the theory and practice of manners arose, understood the virtues of hypocrisy, and what a world of trouble we make for ourselves when we insist on doing away with it for the sake of the right we demand to speak our minds about those with whom we disagree, or who are not members of our tribe. In doing so, our minds change. So as to justify to ourselves our inextinguishable hatreds, we must persuade ourselves that in some important respect the hated person does not share a common humanity with us, is in fact the possessor of a unique wickedness and ill will which obviates the need for civility.

Note that Bowman takes for granted the dictum de mortuis nil nisi bonum (of the dead speak nothing but good). Why should we accept this? I’m not sure we should. But I do agree we shouldn’t express celebrate anyone’s death, at least not anyone we could have a civil conversation with without feeling morally obliged to kill them. This goes back to what I saying a few posts ago about not demonizing people. The case against celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher is that even if you disagreed with her, she was your political opponent. She was not your enemy and neither was she the enemy of your civilization. However bad you may think she was, she didn’t deserve to die by execution or just warfare. So you can celebrate her leaving politics–which she did years and years ago–but there’s no justification for celebrating her death. (Interesting border cases are the deaths of Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, and Hugo Chavez. Which of them can be justly celebrate?)

Recognizing that this is reasoning behind condemning celebrations of Thatcher’s death suggests why someone like Grayling would defend it. The radical left tends to see politics as war by other means. (Not that we don’t see this behavior on the right as well–cf. Obama-hatred.) If you see yourself as at war with entrenched political evil, it’s hard to avoid demonizing your political opponents. So really, Bowman is arguing for a conservative moral precept, one opposed to the radicalism of both left and right: “Do not attribute political wrongheadedness to evil motives.”

It’s suggestive, if somewhat hyperbolic, for Bowman to connect this kind of precept to hypocrisy. He does so because he recognizes that it’s a precept we find it almost impossible to follow in practice. Even if we know we shouldn’t, we almost always do think of our political opponents as not just wrong, but evil. But we don’t generally attribute hypocrisy to someone who holds moral precept X but can’t bring himself to always follow it. It’s only hypocrisy if his claiming to hold X is itself a lie. For example, it’s not hypocrisy for an alcoholic to advocate abstinence even while giving in to the temptation to drink, because he admits that what he’s doing is wrong. Hypocrisy would be for someone to advocate abstinence while drinking in secret and not admitting to any wrongdoing.

The situation Bowman describes, however, is more complex: he’s talking about when we claim to hold X, and want to hold X, but can’t quite bring ourselves to wholeheartedly embrace X. Note that this situation can only arise when X is a moral precept dictating what we should believe. We’re morally obliged not to think our political opponents are evil, so even when we form the belief that they are evil, we don’t act on it, and one way this not “acting on it” takes shape is in not celebrating when they die. The thing is, we really do think they’re evil. So on our own, we’re not going to stop ourselves from demonstrating our belief through action. This is where, for the conservative, culture comes in. We form our culture so that it forces us to speak in accordance with these moral precepts even if we’re unable to admit to ourselves that our thoughts violate them. Is this Pascal’s wager-esque intellectual contortion hypocrisy? I don’t think so, but I can see why people sometimes say it is. It’s a refusal to speak your mind because you recognize that what you want to say has been deemed inappropriate by the authority of tradition.

But back to the topic of speaking about the dead. The radical celebrates his political opponents’ deaths because he doesn’t mind demonizing them. The materialist does so for an additional reason: he doesn’t think the dead are still around to be demonized. A.C. Grayling, as quoted above, calls respect for the dead “a hangover from a past in which it was believed that the dead might retain some active influence on the living.” Well, maybe. Praying to saints is one kind of relationship with the dead. Praying for the souls in Purgatory is another. What’s common to these isn’t a belief that the dead have an active influence on the living, but rather a believe that it’s possible to have a moral relationship with someone who is dead.

The claim that, because you have no ability to express your experience of a wrong, you have no moral significance, is the real substance of the Epicurean claim “Where death is, I am not.” The denial of that claim is another sort of “hypocrisy,” in that we can’t fully accept it. Not that we can’t accept that you can do something wrong in your treatment of the dead. Rather, we can’t accept that you can do something wrong to him. When we no longer have someone to object to being wronged, we can only learn we’ve done wrong from either our conscience or our cultural norms, This is why we find it so easy to say that when we wrong the dead we really wrong either ourselves, or some abstract Society.

But these are both untenable. Slandering the dead, or breaking a promise to them, is wrong in the same way murdering them is. When you murder someone, who have you wronged? It’s not enough to say you’ve wronged yourself, or his family, or Society. Moral chaos ensues unless we say we’ve wronged him, even though he’s not around anymore. Or, better, him not being around anymore means you’ve wronged him even more so. The traditional “hypocritical” stance is simply extending this logic from murder to slander and oath-breaking, using a kind of transcendental reasoning to make an argument–though not the Kantian one–for an afterlife.

I say we can’t accept these things–but of course, we do, instinctively. It takes a lot of work to reject them. Political radicalism and metaphysical materialism are both fairly sophisticated doctrines. Essentially, they’re both forms of skepticism. They recognize our “hypocritical” situation and reject its “authority” out of a desire for “authenticity.” The radical says, our political system tolerates evil, and so is itself evil; we must throw it out and start from scratch, otherwise we’re just hypocrites. The materialist says, our metaphysical attitudes rest on unjustifiable assumptions, and so are themselves unjustifiable; we must throw them out and start from scratch, otherwise we’re just hypocrites. The conservative, traditionalist response is to say that, yes, our politics and metaphysics are corrupt, but the idea that we can replace them with something better is a fantasy. The best we can do is try to improve them.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 16, 2013 1:17 am

    I don’t entirely agree with your characterization of materialist skepticism. In my opinion, it functions best when pragmatically evaluating the harm that our delusions to, then only attacking those that not just do us harm, but that are relatively easy to replace. In the case death, as a materialist skeptic I don’t feel any strong urge to confront the traditional societal approach, although some may well feel it’s important to do so.
    It’s the inclusivity of skepticism, allowing for different prioritization, and therefore differing conclusions, but maintaining a rigorous methodology, that is its strength.

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