Everyone agrees that hypocrisy is something to be avoided. And pointing out that your opponent is a hypocrite can often weaken their position, because we recognize that if someone endorses some action but then fails to act that way themselves it often indicates that they aren’t telling us the whole story. Clearly there must be more compelling reasons not to act that way if they themselves, fully aware of the reasons to act that way, choose not to; and that it is likely that they are withholding these reasons from us because they are trying to manipulate us. This is not the kind of hypocrisy under discussion here. The kind of hypocrisy I have in mind is the kind where person X points out something unethical about person Y’s behavior, and then Y responds by claiming that X since engages in that kind of behavior themselves that they are a hypocrite, and thus their claim that Y is acting unethically can be ignored. Is this a valid way for Y to defend their actions, or is it simply rhetorical misdirection?
Let me start by examining a case similar to ethical hypocrisy, intellectual hypocrisy. In this context intellectual hypocrisy would be pointing out a certain kind of intellectual mistake made by others while you make that same mistake yourself. For example, one philosopher might critique the argument of another by pointing out that they have made the mistake of affirming the consequent, even though they have made that same mistake in some of their past papers. Clearly this intellectual hypocrisy isn’t a problem. There is nothing preventing someone from accurately seeing a mistake in someone else’s work while being blind to that same mistake in their own work; indeed it happens all the time. The only valid way to evaluate an intellectual criticism is by itself; the nature of the person who makes that criticism is only important when you only have a limited amount of time to consider such criticisms, at which point you probably want to consider the criticisms of the most intelligent people first.
So if hypocrisy is to be a valid response to an ethical criticism it must be because intellectual hypocrisy is different from ethical hypocrisy in some significant way. If there is a difference it must be because ethical evaluation is not like intellectual evaluation; meaning that not everyone has the ability to evaluate ethical matters. Or it could be the case that, unlike intellectual matters, there are no objective facts about ethics. The first response finds its natural home in virtue ethics. Virtue ethics holds that the right thing to do in a particular situation is determined by what a person with the proper character traits would do. Thus ethical evaluation does not proceed through a set of principles equally accessible to all, and so, unlike intellectual evaluation, only certain people have the ability to accurately evaluate ethical situations. And if they do something that they themselves consider wrong one of two things can be shown about the criticizer. Either they fail at least partially to be virtuous, and hence reveal themselves to be a flawed judge, or they are virtuous but in error about this matter. In either case the criticism can be safely ignored. So under virtue ethics it does indeed seem like ethical hypocrisy may be reason to reject someone’s ethical judgment.
The other way to defend this response to ethical criticism is to adopt a relativistic view of ethics. Actually a relativistic approach to ethics pretty much seems to shut down ethical criticism from other people altogether, whether they are hypocrites or not. You might say “sure it is wrong for you (and you know, because you do it so often) but it isn’t wrong for me, different standards govern the two of us”. But this may actually strengthen the position of the critic. They might claim that their ethical criticism was in terms of standards of the person being criticized. And since these aren’t their standards there is no contradiction in their engaging in this kind of behavior. Of course we might wonder how they could know what the standards of the person being criticized are. Given a relativistic view of ethics the most common method is to show that the person being criticized is a hypocrite. And so the tables are turned, the person making the criticism turns out not to be hypocrite because they must be judged by different standards. And the person being criticized turns out to be the real hypocrite, allegedly, a conclusion that is often strengthened by the fact that they call their critics hypocrites (by providing a list of similar “wrongs” that their critics engage in they may reveal the fact that they see those things as wrong, and thus that by their own standards they are doing the wrong thing). So, unlike virtue ethics, adopting a relativistic approach to ethics does not make it possible to ignore an ethical condemnation by accusing the critic of being a hypocrite.
However neither relativistic ethics nor virtue ethics is a good approach to ethics, in my opinion. As I see things the most promising approaches to ethics is to treat ethical facts as basically objective and discoverable by objective investigation, either because they follow from certain principles of rationality in the context of society (ethics with an a priori foundations) or because they are facts that we can discover by observing how people interact (ethics with an a posteriori foundation). In either case ethical facts become simply one specific kind of intellectual facts. And this means that, like in the case of intellectual facts, whether your critic is a hypocrite has no relevance to the validity of their criticisms.
Given that accusing your critic of hypocrisy isn’t a valid response to an ethical criticism it is natural to wonder why so many people rely on it. I suspect it comes from the following bible passage:
Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye.
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
But, as has been shown here, that is simply bad advice. No one is perfect, but if we never criticized each other then we wouldn’t make any progress (or at least not much). Often we need other people to point out our errors to us, which they can do even if they aren’t completely free from error themselves, as I have argued. Of course it is good advice not to focus exclusively on criticizing others, it is important to correct your own mistakes as well, but this doesn’t need to prevent you from ever pointing out where someone else goes wrong.