EthicsPhilosophy

Are We Hypocrites or Antiheroes?

A fundamental component of every worldview is story. That’s something I’ve been reading in N. T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God.1

Given our current political state (here in the US), however, it’s tough to see stories as anything but propaganda. When I hear the term, “story,” I immediately think, “God save us from stories. People will fall for anything these days—and it’s destroying our world.”

To save us all from the abyss, don’t we need facts, not stories? Don’t we want reality, not myth?

If Wright is right, however, there’s no escaping stories. Even a scientist will need stories to make sense of the world. And that’s not a bad thing. Stories needn’t hide reality from us. Stories can be windows rather than walls. Stories can be (more or less) true.

Not all stories are true, however, so it is important to ask what stories we are telling ourselves and each other.

A Conservative Christian Story

I grew up in conservative American Protestantism, where the story was one of decline. America, though born in glory, is on a long slide into European-style secularism and immorality. At the end of the slide we can expect the kind of punishment God periodically unleashes on Israel in the Old Testament. Either that, or we’ll jump straight to the coming of Antichrist and the Tribulation.

But what of revival and repentance? Couldn’t that save us?

Alas, no. Even if we avoid the punishment option, the Tribulation is still on its way.

So, I grew up with a metanarrative of tragedy.2 The story, however, is far from ad hoc. Study after study shows that Americans are becoming less religious as time goes on.3 And liberals—whom conservative Christians see as immoral—do seem to be winning the culture wars.4 My conservative Protestant siblings-in-Christ are rational to believe they are fighting a losing battle.

A Brief Excursion into Politics

I have to wonder, therefore, how our current President fits into the story. White American evangelicals seem to have adopted him with a level of enthusiasm we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan.5 But he—for reasons too well-known to need rehearsing here—does not make a comfortable hero for a conservative Christian story, even if white evangelicals don’t think he’s the villain of the tale.

What options are left, therefore? He did get a conservative justice onto the Supreme Court. While liberals will likely call him a hypocrite, therefore, perhaps conservatives would argue that he is a morally-complex antihero. And people like morally-complex antiheroes.

But what makes a hypocrite different from an antihero? Why can we love antiheroes while nevertheless despising hypocrites?

A Turn to Philosophy

You will forgive me if I allow these questions to distract me from politics. There’s not much, after all, that you and I can do about America’s current political leader. There is something we can do about ourselves, however, and philosophy can help with that.

Philosophy’s primary tool for clarification is the careful drawing of distinctions.6 So, let’s explore the distinction between hypocrites and antiheroes.

To do that, however, we need to start with some background on Aristotelian ethical theory.

Virtue Ethics

Humans have a vast range of capacities for action and passion. That is, we can do and feel a ton of different things.7

For most of these, there’s such a thing as over- or under-doing it. Take fear, for example. If you feel too much fear, you become a coward. If you feel too little fear, you become reckless.

Or take eating. If you eat too much food, you become a glutton, while if you eat too little, you become malnourished.

And the issue for Aristotle is what you become. It’s not one-off emotions and actions that matter, so much as character. It’s not individual feelings or deeds that make you a bad or good person; it’s your habits of feeling and doing.

So, if you’re in the habit of always drinking the right amount of alcohol (for the situation, and given your particular metabolism), you have the virtue of temperance. But if you habitually drink too much, you have the vice of intemperance. And if you are like me—I don’t drink at all, because of my conservative Protestant upbringing—you have the opposite vice. Let’s call it “teetotalism.”

That’s the basic structure of Aristotle’s virtue ethics. For most actions and passions in human life, there’s a too much, a too little, and a just right. For each of these actions and passions, therefore, there are two vices and one virtue. There’s the habit of doing/feeling too much (the vice of excess), the habit of doing/feeling too little (the vice of deficiency), and the habit of doing/feeling just the right amount (the virtue).

Consider the Hypocrite

Now, consider the hypocrite. A hypocrite is a person who pretends to be what she or he is not, especially if the person says one thing, but does another. A person who says people ought to give to the poor, but actually gives nothing to the poor, is a hypocrite. A person who lauds the truth, but habitually lies, is a hypocrite. A person who condemns adultery, but engages in affairs, is a hypocrite.

A hypocrite, in other words, is a person who tries to present him- or herself as having a virtue when the person actually has one of that virtue’s associated vices. The person presents himself as generous but is actually stingy, or as truthful but is actually a liar, or as chaste but is actually promiscuous. The person is a walking contradiction between appearance and reality.

A different incoherence plagues the antihero, however.

Consider the Antihero

Take the typical movie mob boss. He cares deeply for loyalty, he gives generously to people in his community, and he keeps his word. He has the virtues of friendship, generosity, and truth-telling. But when it comes to theft and murder aimed at those who are not “his own,” he is full of vice.

While a movie mob boss has the virtues of friendship, generosity, and truth-telling, therefore, he lacks the virtue of justice. If justice is giving everyone exactly what they deserve, he gives himself more than he deserves, and gives outsiders less—even to the point of depriving them of what they deserve.

Now, take the troubled detective or superhero who takes on that mob boss. She is tireless in her defense of the oppressed, no doubt. But perhaps she drinks too much, to deal with all the pain. And perhaps her rage at injustice leads to occasional “blow ups” where she hurts her own family.

Imagine, in other words, that we have a character with the virtues of justice and courage, but the vices of intemperance and bad temper. We are meant to root for her, but we know she’s not a traditional hero.

The problem with antiheroes like the mob boss and troubled detective is not that they present themselves as having a virtue, when actually they have one of the vices associated with that virtue. It’s that they have a mixture of virtues and vices. They have the appropriate virtues in some areas, while having vices in other areas. They are a moral patchwork.

How Antiheroes Are Like Hypocrites

It is easy to confuse antiheroes with hypocrites, however. This is because we experience antiheroes as good when we focus on their virtues, and as bad when we focus on their vices. While focused on their virtues, therefore, we might remember their vices and suddenly experience the hypocrite’s appearance/reality disjunction. We might say to ourselves, “Yeah, these virtues make him seem like a good person, but really he’s a bad person because of those vices.”

Later, however, we are likely to have the opposite experience. We’ll say to ourselves, “Yeah, these vices make him seem like a bad person, but really he’s a good person at heart because of those virtues.” We switch from experiencing the antihero as a hypocrite to experiencing her as whatever the flipside would be (a hypercrite?).

Why We Like Antiheroes, but Not Hypocrites

Both hypocrites and antiheroes involve incoherence, in other words. With hypocrites, there is a contradiction between reality and appearance. With antiheroes, there is a tension between virtue in one area and vice in another.

While the incoherence in hypocrites is static, however, in antiheroes it is protean. We know what the reality is with a hypocrite, but with the antihero we have a shifting mystery. What is he really?

Mysteries are fundamentally attractive to human beings. By hinting at something yet-to-be-discovered, they point beyond the surface and draw us deeper. And there is something of a mystery with both hypocrites and antiheroes. Hypocrites have a surface and a depth, after all.

However, once you’ve discovered a hypocrite’s inner reality, there is nothing further to see. With an antihero, in contrast, there is always the equal and opposite reality of vice or virtue, contradicting whatever aspect of character you are currently focused on. The tension and mystery won’t go away, and this makes the antihero endlessly fascinating.

Resolving Tensions

A discussion that Aristotelians had to have was this: how should we understand people who are virtuous in one area, but not in another?8 Could they be called virtuous people if they had vices? Could you even have a virtue in the fullest, truest sense, if you still had vices?

And while you won’t find a lot of Aristotle in the New Testament,9 a similar concern arises in response to what we might call the Pauline Virtues. It is often said, for example, that the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23) is singular. It is fruit, not fruits. But I’m sure we all know people who are spiritual antiheroes, with love but not joy, patience but not generosity, gentleness but not self-control.

How is this possible? How could a person indwelt by the Holy Spirit manifest only some fruits, while lacking others (or even having their opposites)? And doesn’t Jesus say that a single tree cannot bear both good and bad fruit (Matt. 7:17–18; 12:33)?

Aquinas had an answer to that question: it has to do with vestigial character traits.10 Just because a converted person now has the Spirit does not mean that all of the person’s bad habits have disappeared. You can be given a new life while still needing to work on your old character.

In the story told by one popular reading of the New Testament, this would make sense. In that story,11 we live in the Between Times; the Kingdom of Heaven is already, but not yet. Thus, the New Creation in us (2 Cor. 5:17) can be also already, but not yet.

We are still on the way to becoming coherent wholes, therefore. We are still on the way to being complete, as our heavenly father is complete (Matt. 5:48). We still have work to do in moving from antihero to hero.

But better that than being hypocrites, am I right?

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Micah Tillman

Micah Tillman

Micah is the host of the Top 40 Philosophy podcast. He has a B.A. in computer science (Messiah College), an M.A. in philosophy (West Chester University of Pennsylvania), and a Ph.D. in philosophy (The Catholic University of America). He taught philosophy at universities in the Washington, DC area for 9.5 years, and is now on what he thinks of as a sabbatical.