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In light of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and Utah Senator John Ensign’s recent scandals, Christopher O. Tollefsen takes a philosophical look at the problem of hypocrisy:

La Rochefoucauld famously said that “hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue.” This is often understood to mean that the hypocrite who says one thing but does another, says what he says because he knows it is right. The hypocrite possesses the knowledge that his behavior is wrong or sinful, and so speaks the truth, even while not living it.

There is something to this. A person’s failure to live up to his stated moral code need not call either the validity of that code nor his belief in the code in question. In fact, given the inevitability of moral failure in our lives, it is similarly inevitable that those with strong moral convictions will sometimes fail to act in the way they publicly identify as morally appropriate.

But is hypocrisy really nothing more than the inability of persons to live up to their own moral code? No. Hypocrisy does not just involve disconnect between word and deed; it involves dissimulation, falsity in how one acts. The hypocrite does not merely make assertions he believes to be true about morality while failing to abide by them. He also makes false assertions, often by his deeds. He deceives others by creating the appearance of virtue while succumbing to vice. Creating this appearance may, of course, take a great deal of work; consider what is involved in maintaining the illusion—to one’s spouse, one’s children, and others—that one is being faithful in marriage, if one is actually having an affair

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