The Fictions of Moralists and Hypocrites

We lie to ourselves or to others, so fiction rules

Image by Aidan Roof, from

A hypocrite is known as someone who says one thing but does another. A glaring example would be a conservative politician who pretends to care about religion and “family values” even though he secretly cheats on his wife or is a closeted homosexual.

But if we try to explain how hypocrisy is psychologically possible, by looking at the opposite, scruples, a less familiar picture of morality emerges. The opposite of a hypocrite has integrity, since her actions align with her stated values. Her morality consists in her having principles, in that she follows rules of conduct such as “Be faithful to your spouse,” “Don’t steal,” or “Don’t lie.”

The Unworkability of Religious Principles

The rules typically derive from an idealistic view of how the world should work. That view is more or less utopian, meaning that it’s unworkable. For example, religious morality is based on the promise of a better life to come in a supernatural world. God’s realm is estranged from nature for a good reason, which is that we have no idea how gods or angels, heaven or hell could possibly work.

In the New Testament story, Jesus declared that we should establish the kingdom of God on earth by changing our mindset so we think of nothing apart from God and his commandments. Jesus railed against the “hypocritical” moderate Jews who cared more about their traditions than about those who suffered under the Roman authorities. Jesus didn’t compromise with his moral absolutes and for that very reason he failed to bring about God’s kingdom and to universalize a spiritual mindset.

Jesus was crucified by the Romans and Christians scrambled to make sense of that humiliation, that apparent triumph of the godless over the godly. Jesus would return to finish what he started, the Christians came to say. First he came in love, but next he’d come in judgment and the godless order would pass away. Such was the fervor of Jesus’s absolutism that early Christians thought he would return in their lifetimes.

But Jesus never did return, and to protect the Christian institution that nevertheless emerged, the Church had to be made workable, which meant Christians had to compromise with secular empires and standards and thus with natural reality. For example, the Church devised a Just War Theory, allowing Christians to slaughter Muslims in the Crusades. Jesus’s spiritual movement that had explored some implications of the earlier Axial Revolutions degenerated into Christendom.

The Fiction behind Moral Principles

So was Jesus a hypocrite because of his failure? To answer this, we need to distinguish between results and intentions. Jesus failed as a result of the unreality of his spiritual vision, but he seems to have believed in that vision, which is why he died for his religious convictions. Jesus tried to live by his spiritual principles, but he failed, of course, to turn those principles into laws of nature.

Assuming there was no gap between his intentions and his principles, Jesus wasn’t a hypocrite. But what’s interesting is that there was necessarily a gap between his principles and his actions and their results. Although his life and death did inspire his followers to create a religion that lasted for millennia and that spans the planet (assuming Jesus lived as an historical person), that achievement is as much secular as it is spiritual. If Jesus’s death itself was supposed to magically spiritualize the planet by shaming everyone into admitting they hate God enough to have killed him on the cross, no such miraculous transformation happened.

The reason that transformation didn’t happen is because the ideas that underlie moral principles in general are fictional. To see this, notice the difference between a rule and a goal. Jesus achieved certain goals, such as the goal of walking from one town to another or the goal of converting some people to his way of thinking. He achieved those goals with realistic plans: keep putting one foot in front of the other and you’ll get from here to there, and tell some wise parables in a charismatic fashion and you’ll gain some followers.

You don’t need principles to achieve realistic goals. You need only some knowledge of how the real world works. By contrast, the kind of spiritual or moral principles that can’t be perfectly applied, because they’re based on a utopian or counterfactual idea of how the world should have been but isn’t, are impractical because the underlying idea is fictional rather than reality-based. If your plans are based on your knowledge of the facts, those plans may be realistic and achievable. But if your plans are based on an idealistic vision of where the world as a whole has gone wrong, as dictated by some supposed higher reality which can’t be understood but only vaguely described with myths and cryptic, mystical remarks, your plans won’t come to pass.

There are two main fictions supporting moral principles: religious myths and secular ones. If you subscribe to the principle that human life is precious, because you think God created living things, your principle is misaligned with reality because it’s infused with the theological fiction.

Likewise, if you subscribe to secular humanism, your respect for human rights is based on faith that scientific and technological progress will redeem all our suffering as we work towards the founding of a secular version of utopia. The secular fantasies are most powerfully depicted in science fiction stories, including the superhero movies that have captured mass attention.

Some parts of this secular vision may be goals that are realistically achievable: genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology may one day give us superheroic powers. But the fantasy of transhumanism is its moral expectation: the notion that concentrated power ennobles rather than corrupts is fantastic, a disappointment played up by The Boys, a comic book series and television show that depict superheroes more realistically as the villains they’d have to be.

Hypocrisy and the Unleashing of Fiction

A moral person, then, has integrity in that she stays true to her principles, subjectively speaking, even as the world departs from those principles in being as it is rather than as it ought to be. Her principles, as opposed to her prudent goals, are based ultimately on fictions and thus are inapplicable at least in certain crucial respects. She’s not a hypocrite, since even though she’s bound to fail to realize her most idealistic daydream, she trusts in the importance of her fictions which makes her, at worst, a fool.

Returning to the hypocrite, what characterizes her is her lack of genuine principles. She only claims she believes that stealing is wrong, whereas in reality she’s a thief and doesn’t even try to avoid stealing. What this means is that she doesn’t trust in a vision of how the world should have been. She’s not a true believer in either a religious or a secular myth or fantasy.

Interestingly, the fiction that would have been confined to the core of her worldview spills into every corner of her daily life since the unprincipled hypocrite has to spin a web of lies to avoid being cast out of society as a fraud. Instead of bottling up the power of fictions, as it were, limiting her fictions to her religious or philosophical convictions or to her entertainments, she has to master the art of lying to preserve the appearance that’s she’s an upstanding member of the community.

We’re all familiar with the most egregious living example of the hypocritical — or to use the euphemism, “transactional” — individual, that being President Donald Trump. He pretends to care about Evangelical Christianity and about the lower-middle class that supports him, whereas as far as a neutral observer could tell, he subscribes to no ideology and his motives are primitive. And he’s infamous for bullshitting his way through the many awkward situations that reveal his frauds for what they are.

A fiction author’s job is to make stuff up, but when she’s done telling her story she returns to real life and defers to the facts. However, Trump’s shamelessness enables him to live in the fictional narrative he creates from moment to moment; he’s the quintessential postmodern reality TV star, since he doesn’t appear to break from character or recognize the difference between fact and fiction.

All of this is nicely illustrated in The Matrix. Neo and his band of heroes live in the horrific real world, having been unable to sustain for themselves the conventional fiction imposed in the virtual world. But to endure the horrors of natural reality, they have recourse to faith in another fiction, one that serves them rather than the evil AI: the heroes trust that Neo is the One who will liberate humanity. The heroes don’t have a step-by-step plan for achieving that desired end, which means it’s not a goal so much as a religious conviction inspired by a compelling fictional narrative. In the sequels, the Architect spoils the myth for Neo, but in the end the humans score a miraculous victory against the AI, and the two sides reach a temporary truce.

The Matrix is itself a Gnostic fiction that’s meant to encourage those who’ve liberated their mind from exploitative fictions. Beyond the disappointing real world and its indifferent facts, there may be an even higher world that somehow guarantees a redemptive endpoint. Either way, fiction, which is to say irrationality or dishonesty, is inescapable for us. We either comfort ourselves with myths and the moral task of maintaining our personal integrity, while suffering from the inevitable corruption of our moral agenda or we decline that comfort and monstrify ourselves with frauds and double-crosses and sordid reversions to selfishness, as we spend too long uninspired in natural reality.

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store