This post looks at a paper, “Rational Hypocrisy: A Bayesian Analysis Based on Informal Argumentation and Slippery Slopes,” Cognitive Science 38 (2014) 1456–1467, written by Tage S. Rai and Keith J. Holyoak (posts Metaphor, Bidirectional Reasoning) that draws a connection between what may look like moral hypocrisy and the categories we select for cases with weak arguments by looking at the slippery slope argument. Moral hypocrisy is typically viewed as an ethical accusation: Someone is applying different moral standards to essentially identical cases, dishonestly claiming that one action is acceptable while otherwise equivalent actions are not. The authors provide the following example:
“I respect the jury’s verdict. But I have concluded that the prison sentence given to
Mr. Libby is excessive.” With these words, former President George W. Bush commuted
the sentence of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Jr., for obstruction of justice and leaking the
identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Critics of the decision noted that Libby had actually received the minimum sentence allowable for his offense under the law and that many of Libby’s supporters, including the Bush administration, were actively pressing for mandatory minimum sentencing laws at a national level. Accordingly, critics of the decision saw it as a textbook case of moral hypocrisy: Different rules were being applied to Bush’s underling, Libby, than to everyone else in the United States.
The implicit assumption is that the hypocrite is being dishonest, or at least self deceptive, because the hypocrite must be aware (or should be aware) of the logical inconsistency and is therefore committing a falsehood. Rai and Holyoak have extended the analysis of Corner et al concerning slippery slope (post Slippery Slope) arguments to moral hypocrisy and suggest that the alleged hypocrite may be both honest and rational.
Rai and Holyoak suggest that there may be an inverse relationship between the slippery slope and moral hypocrisy. The logical structure of an allegation of moral hypocrisy is related to the structure of slippery slope arguments. A critic of a slippery slope argument believes that cases A and B do not (and should not) belong to the same category because they are highly dissimilar and the utility of B is much more negative, such that the inclusion of A will not lead to the inclusion of B in the future. In contrast, a critic who alleges moral hypocrisy when someone treats a new case B more favorably than a precedent case A believes that cases A and B do in fact belong to the same category because they are highly similar and the utility of B is equal or more negative, and hence should be viewed and treated similarly (or less favorably) from a moral perspective. By extension, it may be possible that just as with slippery slope arguments, perceptions of moral hypocrisy depend on inferences of prior probabilities and utilities related to content.
The authors continue the example:
We could turn the critique of Bush’s action into a slippery slope argument by claiming that commuting Libby’s sentence would morally require us to commute everyone else convicted of similar crimes, because Libby’s crime was no less heinous than theirs. The stronger this slippery slope argument seems, the weaker is Bush’s perceived defense against the allegation of moral hypocrisy. More specifically, as the similarity of Libby’s crime to those of other convicted felons and the negative utility of Libby’s crime increases, the strength of both the slippery slope argument and the allegation of hypocrisy increases. However, perhaps Bush in fact viewed Libby’s offense as dissimilar to and less negative in utility than the crimes of others convicted of the same charges (because, for example, Libby was a “patriot” motivated by “noble” motives, such as increasing the security of the United States). Given such prior
beliefs, Bush could rationally decide that commuting Libby (based on his exculpatory circumstances and exemplary character) was rationally and morally consistent with not commuting the sentences of others convicted of what appeared to him to be dissimilar crimes.
By analyzing accusations of moral hypocrisy in Bayesian terms of informal argumentation,
the authors treat the critical observer of a potentially hypocritical moral action as being presented with two competing hypotheses. The first hypothesis is that the alleged hypocrite has acted genuinely hypocritically for selfish reasons. The moral actor’s actions are internally inconsistent with their held moral beliefs. The alternative hypothesis is that the moral actor has acted in an apparently hypocritical way due to differences in the prior beliefs of the moral
actor and the critical observer. From this perspective, no two cases are completely identical,
and the critical observer’s inference of moral hypocrisy may actually reflect disagreement
between the observer and the moral actor over the prior probability of the two cases
having a shared category membership. Thus, for the critical observer faced with
Bush’s decision, the two competing hypotheses are that Bush had different prior beliefs
as to whether Libby’s actions were sufficiently different and less negative in their moral
utility from those of other criminals as to warrant better treatment, or that Bush believed
that all criminals should go to jail and that Libby was a criminal, but hypocritically commuted
his sentence for selfish reasons.
In their experiments Rai and Holyoak found that:
1.) as a precedent action A and a proposed action B become more similar, and the difference in their relative utilities increases, perceptions of moral hypocrisy increase.
2.) perceptions of moral hypocrisy increase, independently of changes in the similarity or relative utility of two cases, if the potential for selfish gain is believed to be present, because potential selfish motives count as positive evidence in support of the hypothesis that the actor is genuinely hypocritical.
So we may tend to put arguments in different categories based on who is saying them, the strength of the arguments, and quite possibly the reference point which we are using. This might cause a kind of parallax. This seems to me to share something with Kahan’s cultural cognition. It also points out something most of us already know, putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes can explain a lot that we often ignore.