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Reviewed by:
  • Hypocrisy: Ethical Investigations
  • André Gombay (bio)
Béla Szabados and Eldon Soifer. Hypocrisy: Ethical InvestigationsBroadview. 352. $25.95

In discussing what he calls internalemotions, Descartes gives the example of a husband mourning his recently departed wife whom, as it happens, he would be quite sorry to see brought back to life again. He sheds tears at her funeral, but they do not prevent him from feeling, even as they roll down his cheeks, a 'secret joy in his innermost heart.'

Descartes's concern is psychology, not morals; so the word hypocritedoes not figure in his story. But we, for our part, might well wish to add it, and also add the story to the catalogue of tales with which Béla Szabados and Eldon Soifer begin their book: some are biblical (Jesus and the Pharisees), others, literary (Molière's Tartuffe), and many are taken from ordinary life. All are discussed at length later in the book, in connection [End Page 159]with one general point or another. In this brief review I shall stick to my Cartesian example; but all the questions I raise, I have learnt from Szabados and Soifer's insightful analyses.

Why do we, readers of the husband's story, disapprove of him and call him a hypocrite? The answer is simple: his behaviour is deceptive, he intends the mourners to view him as a sensitive, warm-hearted, and faithful man, which he is not. Hypocrisy, then, in its most basic form (Szabados and Soifer call this the 'narrow' sense), is the attempt to present oneself as having a certain virtue when one in fact lacks it. But now, surely, we want to ask: what is wrong with the husband's behaviour, even so? Have the mourners, or the deceased wife, or anyone else for that matter, been hurt in any way by the false tears? False they may be, but they promote respect for marriage and for the dead; they also help the husband to conceal the indelicate feelings that he harbours, and so protect his privacy. Would we rather that he smiled? Small wonder, then, that so many moral thinkers have played down, even denied, the wrongs of hypocritical behaviour: 'Hypocrisy: Not All It's Cracked Down to Be' is the title of a recent piece.

Well, Szabados and Soifer are not on the laxist side. While not endorsing every condemnation of hypocrisy (some of them they judge simplistic), they will nonetheless argue against latudinarian defences, pointing to weaknesses in the arguments offered in their support. I am not sure that I can formulate in a general abstract way what they take to be the chief sin of hypocrisy; let me just point to two features present in my Cartesian tale. First of all, the husband's tears serve to hide a very negative quality of character - call it lack of commitment to people; and while this has no ill effects today, who knows about tomorrow? The hypocrite's mask of virtue often conceals the ugly jaws of vice. But more directly still, the tears are themselves a display of vice. They are deceptive, period. Again, I am not certain exactly where Szabados and Soifer would locate the wrongness of deceit: my impression is that they are ultimately internalists. What for them makes deception blameworthy in itself is not the deprivation that it inflicts upon the dupe: it would be difficult to argue that the other mourners had a right to know the truth about the husband's feelings. No, what really matters is that the husband's inner self is corrupt.

As I have said, I am partly guessing here. It remains that Szabados and Soifer insist on the inherent link between hypocrisy and deception - it might even be deception of oneself. Our husband might, thanks to his tears, come to believe that he really ismourning his wife: would this remove the hypocrisy? Such questions are discussed with both subtlety and verve throughout the book; I particularly enjoyed the incisive study of the ties between hypocrisy and irony with which the book ends.

A final remark, not about content. The book's cover - Giotto's Kiss of...


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pp. 159-160
Launched on MUSE
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