In the course of explaining certain moral positions people take, such as the idea that abortion is wrong because it’s murder, or that gay people should be celibate because nobody should have sex before marriage, it’s often said that these people are just being consistent with their beliefs. And while that’s certainly an explanation, it’s hardly an excuse. There’s a tendency to think of consistency in people’s beliefs as being virtuous in and of itself, regardless of what those beliefs may be. It’s understandable why we would want to encourage consistent belief systems: it allows positions to be approached and addressed in a logical manner. And if a person is amenable to rational argument, they can be led along a chain of reasoning that could eventually move them to reconsider their beliefs. But if they don’t adhere to any such principles, this is likely to be ineffective, or at least unreliable. They could always just refuse to acknowledge anything they don’t want to.
But there are some cases where consistency in one’s beliefs can be undesirable. If insisting on harmonious beliefs results in those beliefs being even more wrong than they otherwise would have been, that’s not exactly praiseworthy. Being partially wrong is bad enough, but at least it means being partially right. Being completely wrong is even worse, no matter how elegant we may find the consistency of it to be. If people still considered sex before marriage to be wrong, but no longer believed that unmarried gay people should be celibate, that would actually be an improvement – even if it doesn’t make any internal sense.
In the same way, hypocrisy can often operate as a kind of safety margin that prevents or at least delays people from acting on beliefs that may be in error. Take the case of Paul Jennings Hill, an anti-abortion activist who was executed for the murder of a doctor and his bodyguard. In a book he wrote while in prison, Hill said, “The Moral Law (as summarily comprehended by the Ten Commandments) requires the means necessary for defending innocent people. The unborn are innocent people. Therefore, the Moral Law requires the means necessary for defending the unborn.” It was this line of reasoning that convinced him of the necessity of killing an abortion doctor. After the murders, Hill told his wife, “I didn’t have any choice!”
If Hill had failed to follow this syllogism to its logical conclusion, or at least neglected to put it into action, this could have easily been avoided. It’s fortunate that the vast majority of people against abortion, who may very well believe that abortion is murder and that lethal force is justified to prevent murder, have refused to connect these beliefs – or if they have, they apparently have no intention of acting on it. Here and elsewhere, hypocrisy serves a very useful purpose.
The reality is that we are not perfect, we don’t know everything, and we’re not always entirely rational, so it can be good to leave some wiggle room when deciding whether to act. A hesitance to implement one’s beliefs can serve as a sort of accidental doubt, which, while not exactly the result of a thoughtful consideration of the issues at hand, can still carry some of the benefits. If someone says they would go around raping and killing people if they didn’t believe in God, it’s a good thing that they’re not actually going to do that. If someone says they would sacrifice their own child if they thought God wanted them to, it’s a good thing that they probably wouldn’t. And if someone thinks terrorist attacks against the western world are justified, it’s good if they still choose not to do that. And if someone actually did do any of this, it’s unlikely that we would say, “Well, at least they were being consistent with their beliefs!” (Unless it was in an ironic sense.)
So when people say one thing and do another, it might not be as bad as saying something and actually doing it, even if they haven’t yet reached the point of not saying it and not doing it. Hypocrisy isn’t the best state of affairs, but it can be better than the alternatives. And this dissonance in their beliefs can often provide an opportunity to try and help them out of it. But even if we can’t bring them around, sometimes the most we can ask is for them to remain lost in the wilderness.