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Moral criticism, hypocrisy, and pragmatics


A good chunk of the recent discussion of hypocrisy concerned the hypocritical “moral address” where, in the simplest case, a person criticises another for \(\phi \)-ing having engaged in \(\phi \)-ing himself, and where the critic’s reasons are overtly moral. The debate has conceptual and normative sides to it. We ask both what hypocrisy is, and why it is wrong. In this paper I focus on the conceptual explication of hypocrisy by examining the pragmatic features of the situation where accusations of hypocrisy are made. After rejecting several extant views, I defend the idea that moral criticisms are best understood as moves in an agonistic or hostile conversation, and that charges of hypocrisy are attempts to prevent the hypocrite from gaining an upper hand in a situation of conflict. I finish by linking this idea to frame-theoretic analysis and evolutionary psychology.

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  1. Subjunctive hypocrisy: Piovarchy (2020:10–11).

  2. This brings me to another disclaimer, that criticisms not couched in moral terms are outside the scope of our discussion. This includes, e.g., the emotionally charged, angry complaints of the kind sketched in Wolf (2011).

  3. See, e.g., Wallace (2010), Rossi (2021), and every writer in the debate cited here, with the possible exception of Dover (2019a) discussed below. But whatever the consensus in the current debate over blame and hypocrisy, might we not say generally that hypocrisy is often a salutary phenomenon, so far as it serves a useful social purpose? This, for example, is a view espoused in Mandeville (1924). Yet even Mandeville assumes at the outset that hypocrisy (or at least some of its forms) is in itself odious, although we may have to tolerate it for the sake of public utility. See, e.g., Douglass (2022:469).

  4. Well, can’t there be hypocritical blame that has never been expressed verbally? Certainly. But I think it should be understood as a defect of character. It is a principally different form of hypocrisy to be given a different treatment. For example, a silent hypocrite wouldn’t be guilty of deceiving others. He should instead be criticised for his own self-deception. See Berkovski (2022) for a discussion of public and silent hypocrisies and their links to self-deception. In any event, as mentioned earlier, this form of hypocrisy is outside the purview of this paper. The present task is to reconstruct the dynamics of a verbal interaction where hypocrisy is a driving force.

  5. Presupposition triggers: Levinson (1983:178–179), Tonhauser et al. (2013:75). “Hey wait a minute!”: von Fintel (2004:316).

  6. See Potts (2015:174), Simons (2006:359).

  7. See Tonhauser et al. (2013:81).

  8. See Simons (2006:358).

  9. Conversational implicature: Potts (2015:179). Difference between observing and flouting the maxims: Levinson (1983:104–105). Wallace himself floats the idea that the critic conversationally implicates that he hasn’t \(\phi \)-ed (2010:316, 334).

  10. Since there is no presumption that \(M\) is conveyed pragmatically at all, it would be misleading to apply the usual tests of conversational implicature, like cancellabiliy or reinforceability. These tests are designed to distinguish implicature from other kinds of non-at-issue content. But if \(M\) is not such a content in the first place, it may pass these tests trivially.

  11. A version of this view is in Shoemaker and Vargas (2021). I discuss it in more detail elsewhere. The terminology of “cue” is from Maynard Smith and Harper (2003) where it is contrasted with “signals”. This contrast is loosely analogous to the one between meaning\(_{\text {N}}\) and meaning\(_{\text {NN}}\) of Grice (1957).

  12. Special conditions for the cue to become pragmatic: Grice (1989:100–104).

  13. Some typical statements: Fritz and Miller (2018:125), Todd (2019:347, 357), Wallace (2010:332), Lippert-Rasmussen (2020:672), Rossi (2021:78), and further references below.

  14. See, e.g., Shafer-Landau (2003:15) for a careful formulation of moral realism.

  15. This connects to the issue of the emotional component of Scanlon’s blame. See Wolf (2011).

  16. Compare a related discussion in Portner (2016:606).

  17. The precedent here is, of course, the original discussion in Austin (1975:16).

  18. Throughout I assume a traditional view of assertion, rather than a revisionist one like in Williamson (2000:249ff). Note too that the revisionist is likely to dispute the felicity of Cohen’s puzzle (6) on a combination of moral and epistemic grounds.

  19. Curiously, Isserow and Klein (2017:199n16) mention the possibility of exactly this kind of explanation, but declare themselves unperturbed—wrongly, in my view.

  20. See Dover (2019a:38), Dover (2019b:400).

  21. Could a known hypocrite plausibly issue a moral criticism? This interesting possibility will be addressed shortly. Secondly, what of a criticism made in private where \(A\) criticises \(B\) in a one-on-one interaction? Again, so far as \(A\)’s judgement is valuable to \(B\), the latter has an interest in protecting \(A\)’s positive judgement of himself. More generally, we may appeal to the notion of “face” and say that also in dyadic interactions people protect their face and project a positive image of themselves (Brown and Levinson 1987). Moral criticisms damage the criticised person’s face.

  22. See Shklar (1979:6), Szabados (1979:205), also Wallace (Wallace 2010:338). Whether the hypocrite deliberately deceives is an open question. See Dover (2019b:408–412) for a compelling survey of hypocrite’s intentions.

  23. See Crisp and Cowton (1994:347).

  24. See Chafe (1994:53–56, 71–78 ), Langacker (2012:107–111).

  25. Standard pragmatic account: Stalnaker (2014).

  26. Accommodation: Stalnaker (2014:6, 47ff).

  27. See the instructive remarks in Stalnaker (2014:75ff).

  28. Frames and language: Fillmore (1975), Fillmore (1985). I ignore Fillmore’s distinction between interactional and cognitive frames, and I don’t endorse his stronger claims about semantic meaning being determined by frames. Other penetrating discussions: Goffman (1974:499ff), Gumperz (1982:130ff).

  29. See, e.g., the concessions in Dover (2019a:41).

  30. Note that the constructive model also lacks an explanation why moral criticisms can regularly appear in “friendly” frames—why, in other words, they should not trigger agonistic transformation. Dover acknowledges this deficiency in (2019a:43), but offers no positive proposal.

  31. Goffman’s distinctions are refined in Levinson (1988).

  32. The “natural setting” of moral judgement: Haidt (2001:820).

  33. Judges may also praise, but as DeScioli and Kurzban note, condemnation prevails.


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I’m grateful to an anonymous referee for useful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

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Correspondence to Y. Sandy Berkovski.

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Berkovski, Y.S. Moral criticism, hypocrisy, and pragmatics. Philos Stud 180, 1–26 (2023).

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  • Hypocrisy
  • Blame
  • Pragmatics