Bryan Caplan  

The Argument from Hypocrisy

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I think Will Wilkinson failed to understand Matt Zwolinski's argument about the significance of the miniscule level of voluntary donations to the U.S. government.  But this is also an ideal time to defend a related, underrated argument.  I call it the Argument from Hypocrisy.  It goes something like this:

1. Lots of people say that X is wrong.

2. But these people almost always do X.

3. Therefore, even the opponents of X don't really believe X is wrong.

4. So X probably isn't really wrong.

As stated, I freely admit that the Argument from Hypocrisy seems laughable.  But it's stronger than it looks.  We just need to add a some extra steps to the argument.  Here's my fleshed-out version:

1. Lots of people say that X is wrong.

2. But these people almost always do X.

2.1. An individual's sincere moral beliefs have some effect on the individual's behavior.  All else equal, the probability of doing X increases as the moral evaluation of X rises from morally unthinkable to morally impermissible to morally permissible to morally good to morally right to morally obligatory.

2.2. People are pretty selfish, but they're rarely self-conscious villains.  So an extreme disparity between behavior and moral beliefs usually indicates an absolutely low level of confidence in the moral beliefs.  Consider people who claim that we are morally obliged to give all our surplus wealth to the poor.   If, on average, they give just 3% of their surplus wealth to the poor, this is a strong sign that few sincerely find their official position convincing.

3. Therefore, even the opponents of X don't really believe X is wrong.

3.1. If even the opponents of X have little confidence that X is wrong, X probably isn't wrong.  Why?  For starters, because humans have strong "myside bias."  If even the faithful can't talk themselves and each other into believing that X is wrong, X is probably isn't wrong.

4. So X probably isn't really wrong.

This fleshed-out Argument from Hypocrisy is hardly airtight.  But it's not supposed to be.  Like most good arguments, the point of Argument from Hypocrisy is not to evoke absolute certainty, but to tilt your probabilities.  Widespread hypocrisy about X really is a reason to disbelieve X.  A pretty good reason, in fact.

P.S. If you don't buy the Argument from Hypocrisy in general terms, how about the subset of hypocrites who habitually commit actions they claim to believe will be punished with eternal suffering? 



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COMMENTS (50 to date)
Jehu writes:

Most moral arguments are advanced by coalitions of Baptists & Bootleggers.
If the level of 'orthopraxis' observed is low, or, God forbid, lower than the population at large, that is clear evidence that the proportion of Bootleggers in the coalition advancing the argument is very high.
This usually means you're going to be screwed in a bad way should they get the power to enforce whatever it is that they're pushing.

Pandaemoni writes:

I tend to think when issues arise like whether or not Warren Buffet should pay additional taxes to the government because he advocates rich people (including himself paying more, the is not that people like Buffet are insincere. Most dog owners would agree that picking up after your dog is a good thing, yet many dog owners (which otherwise acknowledge the point) often cheat and fail to clean up after their dog.

The problem is, even if one believes that paying taxes or picking up waste is a net good for society, the activity itself is still unpleasant, and so one that a person understandably might prefer to avoid personally. This is especially true when the marginal impact of one's own performance is very small (and the ameliorative effect below the threshold of perception of the actor, but the aggregate benefit of many people acting in concert is expected to be over that threshold of perception).

What Buffet and those in that position want, I think, is a effective way for everyone to precommit to doing taking unpleasant action. They'd be willing to precommit individually in order to attain the aggregate benefit, even though in the absence of an effective precommitment mechanism they personally might "cheat."

rpl writes:

Haven't we been over this before? Statement 2.2 is invalid because it fails to consider the alternative explanation of human frailty. People often do things they genuinely believe to be wrong because they yield to temptation. Their belief is no less sincere for their having failed to resist the temptation, which is why they usually try to rationalize their behavior. If the belief were insincere, there would be no need to rationalize.

When it comes to things like tax policy, the argument fails for another reason. Suppose you think that your taxes should be higher, and you vote for that policy. Suppose, however, that you are outvoted. You could volunteer to pay higher taxes anyhow, but that probably won't accomplish the policy objective you hoped to achieve with the tax hike. Warren Buffett, for example, couldn't balance the federal budget by himself, even if he donated all of his billions to the government. It's perfectly reasonable in such a situation for you (or Buffett) to say, "I think we should do this, but I'm willing to do so only if the rest of you go along with it."

Really, the argument from hypocrisy is just a gussied-up ad hominem. We have a strong sense that hypocrites are bad people, so if you can show that a proponent of a position is a hypocrite, then you can dismiss anything he argues without further consideration. Its rhetorical efficacy is undeniable, but surely those of us who consider ourselves thinkers can do better.

Saturos writes:

I just had an epic debate with Scott Sumner on exactly this point. (See the comments.)

Well, I thought it was epic.

@rpl, if you were too frail to give all your surplus wealth to Africans yesterday, then how about right now? And by the way, how many kidneys do you have? are you going to plead frailty in flagrante delicto?

Greg G writes:

Many people say that they believe overeating causes weight gain.

These same people often say they want to lose weight.

Then they continue overeating.

According to the "Argument From Hypocrisy" we can then conclude they probably don't believe overeating causes weight gain or they probably really don't want to be thinner.

Saturos writes:

@rpl, if Buffett pays down the debt by a few million, then he would have effectively contributed belatedly to the government's many wonderful social and economic initiatives by a few million. I think a million dollars of food stamps would definitely have a marginal impact. For every million dollars of debt Buffett is willing to finance, that's another million dollars of borrowed spending the government can securely finance.

Saturos writes:

@Greg G, I think the argument from hypocrisy has more force when they are beliefs which are used to tell others what to do. An overeater isn't trying to advocate for anything.

Saturos writes:

@Pandaemoni, there is a difference between regarding something as a "net good for society", yet nonetheless supererogatory, and on the other hand declaring that omitting to do that thing is a moral failure, which may even be eliminated by force.

I think what Buffett is doing is what everyone does in a democracy: costless signaling of "altruistic" preferences.

Dan R writes:

First of all, congratulations on the recent addition to your family.

I don't think you need to invent a new term for this. "Argument from Hypocrisy" seems like Tu Quoque to me, which itself is just a fancy version of ad hominem.

Oh wait. Another commenter pointed this out already. Well, I second the point.

Greg G writes:

@Saturos So if the person I described in my example is telling other people they should not overeat does that then mean that he really doesn't believe overeating causes weight gain? Or that he really doesn't want them to lose weight?

Andrew writes:

Or we could just agree that right and wrong is dependent on the incentives available when the decision to act is made.

Greg G writes:

By the way, I didn't even have to take this logic all the way to Step 4 to show what a train wreck it is. Step 4 would be to conclude that overeating probably doesn't cause weight gain.

The larger point is that, if you want to test your logic, you need to do it with an issue you are not already invested in ideologically.

Saturos writes:

@Greg G, I'd say he doesn't believe overeating is a bad thing (not that it won't cause weight gain, when it's obvious it does), though I agree it's an ambiguous case. What I do know is that if he pleads addiction as he reason why he can't stop, and simultaneously argues that others ought to be regulated against or otherwise coerced into ceasing their overeating, then he had better advocate the same for himself.

This does leave Singer et. al. with an escape route: They can advocate high taxes in order to curb the public's addiction to spending money on themselves, instead of worthier purposes (presumably the government officials are free of such biases). So Singer needs to be taxed more because he is addicted to his own money and by his own contention needs to be stopped. But that would be a stretch, to say the least.

And it leaves no room for blaming or ascribing moral failure to those who don't live up to the standard - they are simply addicted. So Bryan's argument still holds.

Kevin writes:

@Greg G

I think the AfH works for the weight loss example you gave. It addresses 'confidence' or 'belief' as a scale rather than a category. If someone says they want to lose weight and that they believe cutting back their food consumption will achieve that result, then their failure to doesn't need to indicate that they categorically don't believe that eating less will be effective (or that they're not at all interested in losing weight), it just means that their desire to lose weight is less than their desire to maintain their status quo diet (or their perception of the effectiveness calorie restriction is sufficiently low to warrant the status quo).

For advocates of higher taxes, their general refusal to make voluntary donations to the government suggests that either 1) their confidence in the efficacy of giving the government an additional dollar is low/approaches zero, or 2) their personal interest/motivation/level of caring about whatever thing they believe needs more tax money is less than the perceived private benefit of the money.

Greg G writes:

I also have to agree with rpl and Dan R. Anytime you think you have discovered a new logical fallacy it is likely that you are either flat wrong or late to the party. Kind of like that $100 bill that the proverbial economist thinks couldn't be lying in the street - only more so.

Saturos writes:

Bryan never said it was a strict logical fallacy. And neither is ad hominem, necessarily.

Greg G writes:

Fair point Saturos but the original post sure was dressed up to look a lot like a logical argument. Now I may be on thin ice here since I have had no formal training in logic. But it is my understanding that IF the premises of an argument are true AND the logic is sound, then the conclusion must be true. We can never know things with 100% certainty because all reasoning rests on some unproven premises. My point here was that the reasoning in this post often wouldn't hold up even if its' premises were true.

If I understand you correctly you (and probably Bryan) are not necessarily disagreeing with that but maintaining that it has some limited predictive value despite that shortcoming.

Saturos writes:

@Greg G,

This fleshed-out Argument from Hypocrisy is hardly airtight. But it's not supposed to be. Like most good arguments, the point of Argument from Hypocrisy is not to evoke absolute certainty, but to tilt your probabilities. Widespread hypocrisy about X really is a reason to disbelieve X. A pretty good reason, in fact.

- Bryan, top of the page.

The premises aren't fully solid (they pack mini-syllogisms within them) but it's a strong intuitive argument nonetheless.

soonerliberty writes:

There is a difference between doing something contradictory/hypocritical that is a voluntary action and doing something contradictory/hypocritical that results from force. For example, I may believe that paying taxes is immoral and government redistributing wealth is immoral, but I would be the first to pay taxes (to avoid jail) and the first to accept government benefits (feeling I've already paid my share and realizing government will have to default faster, thus serving an end I believe desirable). I find it necessary to distinguish between the two cases. It is completely different when I bash gays, for example, and then end up being caught in a gay relationship myself (Ted Haggarty). Another point is that leftists often use this argument against libertarians who use roads, accept bailouts, go to government schools, etc. However, I think that just shows that even libertarians are corrupted by government, which is actually a strong argument against it. For example, if I had a money-printing machine, there is an extremely high probability that I would use it repeatedly, though I know the effects of doing so. This is how I know that government will have the same tendency.

Greg G writes:

The suggestion here is that if I think good public policy would require higher taxes on my particular income bracket, then I am a hypocrite for not paying them myself if they are not required.

What if I believe good public policy would require lower taxes on my particular income bracket? Would I then be a hypocrite for failing to cheat on my taxes if I was sure I could get away with it?

chipotle writes:

Isn't the "Argument from Hypocrisy" just a first cousin of the concept of revealed preference?

I'm looking at you, state-employee (and anti-public education crusader), Professor Bryan Caplan:

How can you can you call "The Argument from Hypocrisy" laughable? I think it's strong enough to hoist you on your own petard in its original, oversimplified(?) form.

There's an additional note to be left here.

A firm belief of many people is that "evil is seductive." In other words, when a thing is evil, you will be tempted to do it even when you believe it is wrong.

So the hypocrisy itself fuels the belief it is wrong. If you believe evil is seductive, then when you believe a thing is wrong, but you find yourself incapable of resisting it... that makes it even more wrong.

Basically, they're not being hypocrites because they don't believe it's wrong. They believe it's wrong partially because they are hypocrites. The hypocrisy positively reinforces the belief.

Greg G writes:

Warren Buffett believes it would be good public policy to require all people in a certain income bracket (which he is a part of) to pay higher taxes.

He does NOT believe it would be fair or effective for this burden to fall on only a few voluntary payers.

You may disagree that this would be good public policy. You may even be right about that.

In order for him to avoid hypocrisy he only has to act consistently with HIS beliefs, not with YOUR beliefs. It is amazing to me how many people don't get this.

rpl writes:

Mr. Saturos has been a busy little bee. Oh, well, tally-ho:


if you were too frail to give all your surplus wealth to Africans yesterday, then how about right now? And by the way, how many kidneys do you have?

This is a non sequitur. Since nobody referenced in this discussion advocated either of those things, there is nobody to accuse of hypocrisy on those subjects, and therefore the "Argument from Hypocrisy" can't even get started.

are you going to plead frailty in flagrante delicto

As best I can make out from this sentence, you're suggesting that I am arguing that people should be excused for committing crimes on the grounds of "human frailty." However, I never made any such argument, nor do I actually believe that proposition, so this too is a non sequitur.

if Buffett pays down the debt by a few million, then he would have effectively contributed belatedly to the government's many wonderful social and economic initiatives by a few million.

Possibly, but so what? Perhaps he doesn't care about the government programs at all; perhaps he just wants the government not to have a debt crisis. If so, then a few million, or even a few billion is going to make no discernible difference, so why should he bother unless enough other people commit to pitch in that they can avert the crisis? Or perhaps he feels that a world in which rich people pay more tax would be more just, but a world in which only he pays is no more just than the world we've got, so again, why should he bother? Or perhaps he knows in his heart that he should pay, but he just can't bring himself to do it without Uncle Sam looking over his shoulder. Like I said, there are lots of ways that the premises could be true while the conclusion is false. That's what it means to say an argument is "invalid."

This fleshed-out Argument from Hypocrisy is hardly airtight. But it's not supposed to be. Like most good arguments, the point of Argument from Hypocrisy is not to evoke absolute certainty, but to tilt your probabilities.

The word you're looking for is "heuristic," but hypocrisy isn't even a very good heuristic, particularly when you're talking about political questions, where most beliefs are loaded with contingencies anyhow. (And in practice, politics seems to be about the only place that anyone raises this line of argument.)

Argument ad hominem does have some marginal use as a heuristic when facts surrounding a proposition are unavailable and you have to make a decision. However, such conclusions should always be treated as tentative at best. In no case are they an adequate substitute for evaluating a proposition on its own merits.

Actually, in some ways, I have to admire the sophistry surrounding the tax debate. There's an argument ad hominem for every occasion. If you're rich and you favor higher taxes on the rich, you're a hypocrite, and if you're poor and favor the taxes, then you're a class warrior. At no point is it ever necessary to argue the merits of the tax proposal; it's obviously wrong by dint of having been proposed by, you know, people. It's good fodder for the talk shows, I guess, but I stand my my earlier claim: those of us who purport to be intellectuals should aspire to something more logically rigorous.

Kevin writes:

Greg G wrote:

Warren Buffett believes it would be good public policy to require all people in a certain income bracket (which he is a part of) to pay higher taxes.

He does NOT believe it would be fair or effective for this burden to fall on only a few voluntary payers.

It seems like that would almost be worse as far as positions go.

For something to be 'effective' there has to be some outcome to judge it against. If Buffet's preferred tax policy has a specific goal, be it reduce the debt, fund social programs, increase wealth equality, or whatever, then his (no doubt sizable) voluntary donation would be a step in the right direction as far as achieving whatever the goal is. As such his failure to make such a donation denotes his hypocrisy.

Alternatively, if his preferred tax policy has no specific goal (rather, raising tax is the end in and of itself), then admittedly he can't simply donate money himself. Of course, if that's the case, then his position is simply terrible; he wants to raise peoples' taxes basically just because.

Putting my Bayesian hat on, I suspect hypocrites are much more common than arbitrary monsters.

Greg G writes:

Kevin, Buffett's preferred tax policy does have a specific goal. It is simply different than your goal. Buffet's goal is to achieve what he takes to be a fairer overall system.

Realizing he does not want to "raise peoples taxes just because" or make contributions he does not believe would increase the fairness of the tax code would be, as you say, "a step in the right direction."

Kevin writes:

Gary G wrote:

Kevin, Buffett's preferred tax policy does have a specific goal. It is simply different than your goal. Buffet's goal is to achieve what he takes to be a fairer overall system.

If by fair you mean a system where he pays more (read: a higher rate) to the government than his secretary, then he could do that at any time by making a donation based on the rate that his secretary pays. To the extent that a fair system is his goal, and to the extent that he doesn't act in accordance with his stated goal, he's being a hypocrite.

As per the previous comment, he's a hypocrite for refusing to voluntarily act towards his own stated goals or an arbitrary bad guy if he has no goal at all. Since 'has a goal' and 'doesn't' are the options vis a vis his motivation, you appear to be trapped.

sourcreamus writes:

Someone can agree that something is wrong but that it is so tempting they do it anyway. I may want to lose weight but cookies taste really good and exercise is such a pain. Thus the fact that I eat cookies and don't exercise don't tell you if I really want to lose weight, they just tell you I want other things more.
Mr. Buffet has so much money that if he gave a billion dollars a year extra to the government he would never miss it. Thus his refusal to do so says more about his real feelings than my refusal to stop eating cookies says about mine.
If Caplan's final post script is meant to be about Christians, it is poor theology. Only one sin is punished by eternal punishment and no Christians can commit it.

Greg G writes:

Kevin, You have taken the liberty of redefining Buffett's version of fairness as one where "he" is required to pay a higher tax rate than his secretary. That is a half truth but not a very clever one. His vision of fairness would require everyone above a certain income level to pay more than his secretary.

Many libertarians oppose any number of government benefits. Are they then hypocrites for accepting all government benefits in excess of what they have paid in taxes? Do they appear to be "trapped" in hypocrisy to you if they accept the government benefits that laws they oppose grant them?

Kevin L writes:

Almost everyone thinks hypocrisy is wrong, yet most people are hypocritical at some point about something. So is hypocrisy not wrong?

rpl writes:

Greg G,

You are right, of course, but I think you give away too much by trying to defend Buffett from charges of hypocrisy. Maybe he is a hypocrite. So what? His tax proposal is either a good one or a bad one. If it is bad, then it wouldn't suddenly become good if Buffett were to start voluntarily sending his money to the government. Conversely, if it was good before Buffett submitted his tax return, then it didn't become bad the moment he decided to keep his money. Whether Buffett is a stand-up guy, a schmuck, or anything in-between has zero (0) bearing on the soundness of his tax proposal.


(Disclaimer: I am ambivalent about the "Buffett Rule". I am, however, definitely opposed to logical fallacy.)

Greg G writes:

Kevin, you are still missing my point. I don't think it is hypocritical for Buffett or libertarians or anyone else to operate within the existing rules of the game while arguing that the rules should be changed. Otherwise, as rpl shows above, no one could ever argue for a tax code change without being charged with hypocrisy.

rpl I agree on your point of logic but still feel Buffett is worth defending.

Kevin writes:

Greg G wrote:

Kevin, You have taken the liberty of redefining Buffett's version of fairness as one where "he" is required to pay a higher tax rate than his secretary. That is a half truth but not a very clever one. His vision of fairness would require everyone above a certain income level to pay more than his secretary.

If he thinks it's wrong for a wealthy person to give at a lower rate than their secretary, then his failure to donate the difference is certainly hypocritical.

Greg G wrote:

Many libertarians oppose any number of government benefits. Are they then hypocrites for accepting all government benefits in excess of what they have paid in taxes? Do they appear to be "trapped" in hypocrisy to you if they accept the government benefits that laws they oppose grant them?

Libertarians living in a statist society aren't being hypocritical because...

1) Taxation (by various libertarian norms) is theft. The people receiving the money aren't themselves doing anything wrong on libertarian terms, the government that taxed/stole the money (and arguably the voters supporting such behavior) in the first place is/are.

2) Taking or not taking government money doesn't make the world any more or less libertarian, it just makes the libertarian an unsuccessful martyr.

Contrast this with Buffet, who...

1) Is effectively cheer-leading for theft.

2) Could make the world more fair on the margin by donating more of his money to the government.

A libertarian on food stamps while pushing for the program to be abolish is morally ahead of a billionaire advocating tax hikes on others without being willing to donate voluntarily, in my view.

rpl said:

Whether Buffett is a stand-up guy, a schmuck, or anything in-between has zero (0) bearing on the soundness of his tax proposal.

Indeed, although when someone says some behaviour is a good idea but refuses to engage in it themselves without a gun being put to their head, it seems prudent to re-evaluate one's assessment about the advocate's beliefs in their own proposal.

It's like saying you know something for certain and then refusing to bet on it.

Greg G writes:

Got it Kevin. All taxation is theft. Failing to pay a tax that has not yet been enacted is hypocrisy if you favor such a tax. Because you define it that way. You should have started there. Could have saved us a lot of time.

Kevin writes:

Greg G wrote:

Got it Kevin. All taxation is theft. Failing to pay a tax that has not yet been enacted is hypocrisy if you favor such a tax. Because you define it that way. You should have started there. Could have saved us a lot of time.

By my reading, that's basically where Bryan's original post did start.

Greg G writes:

Wow. I am interested to see if Bryan agrees with that.

Lemmy Caution writes:

This is like calling Krauthammer a hypocrite for not invading Iran by himself.

Mark_H writes:

"society would be better off if taxpayers saved their money, students spent fewer years in school, and sheltered academics like me finally entered the Real World and found a real job."
- Bryan Caplan

How do you reconcile that post with this one?

That quote is found here:
http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2011/11/the_magic_of_ed.html

andy writes:

Greg, I think Kevin is mostly right - Buffest is saying giving money to government (which he certainly could do) is good; he doesn't do it, therefore he is hypocritical. I am really not sure what goal he could have as to not paying voluntarily, yet trying to persuade others to pay more. It's like saying people 'like you' should help the poor, yet you don't.

I would say that the libertarian receiving money in excess of paid taxes is significantly less hypocritical - libertarians oppose taxation; by refusing government money, you likely won't reduce taxation even on the margin. The hypocrisy would be the same, if there was a direct link between taxation and benefits and you asked for the money.

The other point is, that the government has crowded out lot of charity. If you are in a position to ask others to help you, I wonder how hypocritical is to ask the government - when the government stopped others from providing you one.

Saturos writes:

@Mark_H read this
and this.

Saturos writes:

@rpl, you haven't shown the conclusion doesn't follow from the premises, you've simply rebutted premises (2), (2.1) and (2.2).

[Taking "X" as "large numbers of rich people not paying taxes, but not unilateral non-payment", then this vitiaties (2).]


the word you're looking for is "heuristic"

No, it's a philosophical argument. (I've read Polya, I know what a heuristic is.) Bryan will be only too happy to point you to the relevant Michael Huemer references.


If you're rich and you favor higher taxes on the rich, you're a hypocrite

No, you're a hypocrite if you're not paying those taxes voluntarily already. The exception is for actual public goods - in that case you just want to steal from others, for the collective good. Whether that's justified is a separate question.

Saturos writes:

@rpl, you may want to read this.

Greg G writes:

@ andy & Saturos

You argue that Buffett is a hypocrite because his position requires him to spend more of his own money on the poor than current tax law requires him to. In fact he is one of the biggest philanthropists in human history!

In the current political environment, if he donated to the government that money might well be used to fund the kind of tax cuts he is opposed to.

Time to move the goalposts again.

rpl writes:
you haven't shown the conclusion doesn't follow from the premises, you've simply rebutted premises (2), (2.1) and (2.2).
Really? That's how you're going to play this, by quibbling over the difference between "invalid" and "unsound"? I'll take that as a concession.
No, it's a philosophical argument. (I've read Polya, I know what a heuristic is.)
Um, good for you, I guess? I'm beginning to see a pattern here. You have a remarkable knack for talking about anything but the issue being contended. Let's not talk about tax policy; let's talk instead about the people who advocate tax policy. Let's not talk about whether hypocrisy is a good indicator of whether a proposition is false; let's talk instead about what word we should use to describe such an indicator.
No, you're a hypocrite if you're not paying those taxes voluntarily already.
Two responses:
  1. Not true, as shown by several counterexamples above.
  2. Still an argument ad hominem; still irrelevant to the question of whether the taxes are good policy, and still beneath Bryan's dignity to make such a feeble argument.

Speaking of which, I'm guessing Bryan himself has long since checked out, but on the off chance he's still reading, I'd like to ask a serious question. As others have pointed out above, some of your proposals on the subject of education are susceptible to the "Argument from Hypocrisy" as you've presented it. Would you be satisfied if someone raised that argument against you on those issues? Would you consider your arguments for those proposals refuted by it?

jva writes:

Imagine you are living under a repressive regime that routinely jails/murders dissidents, alleged dissidents and basically anyone under suspicion or related to someone under suspicion. As far as you know everyone hates the regime and wants it to be overthrown, because everyone you know has said that to you in private. Yet everybody goes about their business as if everything was fine.

By AfH logic there is a significant probability that people actually don't think the regime should be overthrown, and therefore it would not be overthrown. And that would probably be right. Until it wouldn't. But don't worry, after some time you could rationalize it with hindsight and keep on believing the same thing as before. (See any revolution in history)

Saturos writes:

jva wrote:

By AfH logic there is a significant probability that people actually don't think the regime should be overthrown

No, because most people wouldn't regard it as a moral failure to fail to fight bad guys. It's strongly recommended, but you're not a bad person if you don't. AfH says that if you think it is morally wrong not to resist the oppressor, but you don't do it yourself, then you don't really believe it's wrong.

@Greg G, I don't know if Buffett in particular is a hypocrite, I was making a general argument. But if Buffett thinks people are morally obliged to give x% of their wealth to charity, then he had better be giving at least x% of their wealth - such that if his recommended tax were actually passed, you would actually expect to see him reduce his charitable giving, to offset. This is assuming that he's calling for redistributional spending, not actual public goods.

@rpl, I'm sorry if I'm coming across as a troll; that was not my intention, so I apologize if I've degraded the quality of discourse for you. But I don't think I've said anything incorrect. To respond to your last post:

I do think that hypocrisy in a person's behavior is a good indicator that that person does not regard that proposition as true, or rather (not to get bogged down in meta-ethics) that the moral obligation is not real. In this I agree with Bryan.

The only counter-example I regard as binding is Greg's one of the person addicted to eating. As I acknowledged, you could try and argue that people are to addicted too their own wealth to hand it over to the government voluntarily, though I found this implausible. But as for your argument that people are too "tempted" to give to the government, what is such "temptation" other than a rational evaluation that keeping the money for oneself is more worthwhile than giving it to the government?

still irrelevant to the question of whether the taxes are good policy
That was your question, not Bryan's.


I actually think you're the one who's not addressing the relevant argument. You talk about whether it is hypocritical for Buffett not to pay his advocated taxes voluntarily, when the post doesn't mention taxes at all. It mentions the "minuscule level of donations" but that's about the US govt. competing in the market for social welfare services (redistribution), not actual public goods which obviously can only be provided by government. (Actually public goods are sometimes provided by charity, but let's grant that Buffett isn't a hypocrite for advocating higher taxes to finance more actual public goods).

What it does mention is what I addressed, the tendency of people to assert that income ought to be redistributed to those who have the least, whilst the same people don't give their surplus wealth to the poor. Are they addicted, or merely "tempted" or "seduced"? That really does seem like a poor philosophical defense of their actions to me. In fact this is more relevant to the actual issue regarding Buffett. You see, Buffett isn't just advocating higher taxes in general, to provide more public goods in general. He specifically wants a greater share of the tax burden to be borne by rich people, because it's "fairer". But in this case, there is nothing stopping him from either personally financing more government spending himself, or else sending a few hundred dollars to every taxpayer in the country, in the proportions which he thinks the burden of taxpaying ought to be redistributed. He isn't calling for more public goods (I agree it's not hypocritical to want a bridge to be built, but not paying unless everyone else agrees to it as well - though it is hypocritical to advocate higher taxes, but then refuse to pay voluntarily once others have already agreed - which a free rider would do) - he's calling for redistribution. Well that is perfectly possible on a unilateral margin - there's nothing to stop him partially addressing that problem by voluntary means himself.


Regarding your criticism of Bryan, perhaps you too should take a look at the links I recommended to Mark_H.

rpl writes:
I'm sorry if I'm coming across as a troll; that was not my intention
I don't think you're a troll. I just think you're so addicted to certain logical fallacies that you don't even realize when you're using them.
[Tax policy] was your question, not Bryan's.
Is that so? Here's what Bryan wrote:
I think Will Wilkinson failed to understand Matt Zwolinski's argument about the significance of the miniscule level of voluntary donations to the U.S. government.
So, evidently the people who are being called hypocrites are people who are advocating higher taxes but not currently making voluntary payments to government. The Argument from Hypocrisy is manifestly intended to attack a proposition advanced by the (alleged) hypocrites, and in this case it seems pretty clear that the proposition is some sort of proposal for a tax hike. If not that, then what, pray tell, might it be?

I suppose you could argue that Bryan was merely citing someone else's use of the AfH, rather than endorsing it himself. But if he doesn't endorse the use of the AfH in this context, then he has in fact brought up an exception to the AfH, which seems an odd thing to do without further comment. If that's what you're claiming, then where, if anywhere, should I conclude Bryan thinks it's reasonable to use the AfH?

Buffett isn't just advocating higher taxes in general, to provide more public goods in general. He specifically wants a greater share of the tax burden to be borne by rich people, because it's "fairer"
You're assuming that a world in which Buffett pays more while other rich people don't is closer to Buffett's idea of a "more just" world than the status quo. It's not obvious that that's true, and you have given no support for the claim. Clearly, Buffett doesn't believe that to be the case, but as he never claimed to believe that, it doesn't make him a hypocrite. He becomes a hypocrite by failing to live by his professed beliefs, not by failing to live by the beliefs that you choose to ascribe to him.

What people who sling charges of hypocrisy in policy debates fail to understand is that any policy choice has both good consequences and bad consequences. People advocate for the policy they believe has, on net, the most good in it. The people who cry "hypocrite" are demanding that advocates of the policy change agree to accept the negative consequences of both the proposed policy and the status quo, while getting the positive consequences of neither. It's no surprise that the supposed "hypocrites" regard this as an unreasonable expectation. You are expecting them to live by a policy that is neither the one they advocated, nor the status quo and is demonstrably inferior to both. There is nothing hypocritical about them refusing to do so.

So, the "Argument from Hypocrisy" as presented here is doubly specious. Once because attempts to argue from the (alleged) hypocrisy of the advocate to the invalidity of the proposition, and again because in a policy context the charges of hypocrisy are often bogus in the first place.

Regarding your criticism of Bryan, perhaps you too should take a look at the links I recommended to Mark_H.
One of those posts appears to support the argument I've been making above. I endorse that post wholeheartedly. The other one draws a distinction between Bryan and Buffett that I reject, for the reasons I gave a few paragraphs ago.
Bob Robertson writes:

I cornered a co-worker with this yesterday.

I was arguing that "copying isn't theft", due to "theft" being defined as "depriving the rightful owner of the thing". A copy, while defined as illegal under Copyright or Patent, is not "theft".

He went up one side of me and down the other about how the law, no matter what it is, must be obeyed. That the only "right" thing to do is try to get the law repealed, while obeying it in the mean time.

So I asked him, "Tell me you're the only person on these highways going 55mph?" Because he must be, traffic usually moves along at 65-70. Someone going 55 would create a horrible snarling mess.

He muttered something like, "Sometimes I think I am", but has not brought up the subject again.

Saturos writes:

@rpl, so you're saying that Buffett believes that rich people should pay a greater share of taxes, but no individual rich person, including himself, should pay more, if the others don't? I find this position hard to understand. This seems related to the link I recommended to you earlier.

Where you say, Buffet is being made to accept the negatives of both his position and the status quo, but the positives of neither, I would say that the "positive" of his position is the fact that some more income would be transferred to the poor, which can be accomplished to a meaningful extent unilaterally by Buffett. The "negative" of the status quo is the fact that poor people aren't getting enough money. He can remedy this unilaterally. Of course, he still has to accept the "negative" of all the money of the other rich people not given to the poor, but this is counterbalanced by the fact that they get to keep it for themselves. Of course, being a non-hypocrite, once he has given his own wealth he can advocate the government transfer the wealth of others to increase social welfare. Meanwhile, he accepts the negative of giving up his own money, and gets the positive of the increase in the welfare of the poor from his own money. Again, perhaps Buffett is not a hypocrite and is doing this already - in that case, you would expect to see his voluntary contributions fall as his tax liabilities rose.

Please explain exactly why you think Bryan is a hypocrite, and I will tell you why he's not.

Saturos writes:

@rpl, and please do tell which logical fallacy I've committed, formal or otherwise, in my previous posts. I'd be very interested to know.

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