Am I a Liberal Climate Hypocrite?

Recently I had the opportunity to fly to China to participate in the Donghu Forum on Green Development and Global Governance. Some of you are likely thinking to yourself: “He is flying to China to talk about green development? What a hypocrite!” This is an understandable reaction. I pride myself in being a sincere climate activist. But my carbon footprint for the round trip flight was about 1.32 metric tons of CO2e. Isn’t this the very essence of liberal climate hypocrisy?

This is a familiar refrain. “Look at Leondardo DiCaprio (or Gore, or Goodall, or McKibben). He jets around the planet while trying to convince people to care about global warming. What a hypocrite!” I’ve thought a lot about this over the last decade and I’ve come to realize that determining hypocrisy is not as straightforward as people tend to think.

Here is my claim—one which I develop in more detail in the final chapter of my climate ethics book, Riders in the Storm: hypocrisy does not solely or even largely depend upon consistency. But why, you might ask? Why isn’t hypocrisy merely a matter of consistency? After all, isn’t hypocrisy defined by the fact that there is a “gap” between one’s actions and one’s stated beliefs?  To be perfectly direct, “No.” This is not an adequate understanding of hypocrisy. It is true that people who have strong moral convictions ought to hold themselves to the same moral standards that they advocate. And I do take considerable steps to try to “walk” what I “talk.” (For more on this see my recent blog post.) But the existence of a gap between actions and beliefs does not necessarily a hypocrite make.

The English word “hypocrisy” is rooted in the ancient Greek word hypokrisia, which means to play a part, as on stage. As the ethicist Tom Regan notes, the contemporary meaning of the word retains this etymology: “Hypocrites are people who play a part. They represent themselves as being better than they are. Although hypocrisy is a form of deception, not all forms of deception involve hypocrisy.”  This explanation distinguishes deception from hypocrisy, where one is merely “playing a part” or “giving lip service.” Failing to live up to one’s moral ideals (e.g., green development) does not, by itself, prove moral hypocrisy but rather indicates moral finitude. Indeed, those who pursue moral ideals that are not fully achievable will always, by definition, have a gap between their actions and their beliefs. But those who take real, concrete steps to asymptotically move closer toward their moral ideals are not hypocrites. They are not merely playing a part or giving lip service. Rather, those who earnestly pursue but fail to fully achieve their moral ideals are simply morally finite.

Let’s return to my trip to China. To know whether this was hypocrisy cannot be determined merely by looking at whether my actions (“walk”) were consistent with my believes (“talk”). Rather, the question is whether I have reason to believe that by making the trip I’ll move closer to achieving the moral ideals about which I say that I care. It is this, and not merely the seeming inconsistency, that would determine hypocrisy. Now, I can’t say that my contribution to the conference was utterly decisive, but I have some reason to believe that the trip made a difference. I was among the only ethicists at a climate change conference with mid-level politicians from the most populous country in the world. I had conversations with many people who had never heard of or thought about environmental ethics. These conversations may, just maybe, make some small difference in the long run. At least that is my hope.

Anyone pursuing their moral ideals in an imperfect world will be participating in what they condemn. But this does not make them a hypocrite. We have no choice but to participate in unjust, unsustainable systems even as we attempt to overcome them. As Naomi Oreskes once noted, “people in the North wore clothes made of cotton picked by slaves. But that did not make them hypocrites when they joined the abolition movement. It just meant that they were also part of the slave economy, and they knew it. That is why they acted to change the system, not just their clothes.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson wisely noted that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I’ve come to the conclusion that most people who accuse others of hypocrisy are guilty of this fallacy. If I say that I care about transitioning to a clean energy economy, then I should spend my time and talent trying to bring that reality about. There will always be a gap between my beliefs (moral ideal) and my actions. Moral ideals are never fully achievable. There is always more to be done. But the existence of this gap does not mean I’m automatically a hypocrite. Rather, it means that I’m morally finite. Moral perfection is not possible, but that does not mean that moral hypocrisy is inevitable. So, be a bit more hesitant before judging others supposed hypocrisy. Be careful of advocating a foolish consistency.

For a more developed discussion of moral idealism, realism, and hyocrisy, see chapter 6 of Riders in the Storm: Ethics in an Age of Climate Change




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