Why do serpents devour their own tails? I speak not of literal serpents here, of course, but rather of human beings. Let us begin with some examples. Yesterday night I read Ambrose Bierce’s much-feted book The Devil’s Dictionary (review forthcoming) and in the book the author reveals himself to be witty but also a complete hypocrite, by seeking to simultaneously criticize Christians for being hypocrites but also for showing the same sort of moralizing pose he scorns others for. Nor is this an isolated situation. It is not even the only book I read last night where the same hypocritical problem reared its ugly head, as I read a short but torturous book on a theory of influence in poetry by noted textual critic Harold Bloom where he too manages to accuse C.S. Lewis of moralizing tendencies as a critic while also praising the critic himself as godlike–a bit blasphemous mayhaps?
What do these two examples have in common? For one, the author finds themselves engaging in behavior they criticize others for. Ambrose Bierce, from his writing, clearly hates the moralizing tone that many religious people have with regards to drinking, but when it comes to addressing the problems of corrupt politicians he cannot help but strike a similarly moralizing pose. This sort of blatant double standard is not limited to him. In our own time many people consider Christians to be synonymous with haters for their hostility to various forms of moral decay but few are greater haters themselves against others for possessing moral fiber as those self-professed tolerant souls. Similarly, Harold Bloom may have been hostile to moralizing when it came from someone who was a talented Christian apologist like C.S. Lewis, but he could not himself refrain from engaging in the same sorts of activities in order to defend his beloved aesthetic position and the privileged position of the critic vis-a-vis the author. And again, examples of this can multiply. Self-knowledge is hard to obtain and hard to maintain in the face of constant pressures to justify oneself and to criticize others. Our desire for self-justification and the competitive nature of worldviews means that people are seldom aware of the double standards that they are engaged in, and not particularly polite to those who point it out to them.
In many ways, this amounts to the serpent devouring its own tail on at least two grounds. For one, we engage in behavior against others that we criticize others doing against us or against people who think and act and believe as we do. When people insult armies and police forces that seek to protect innocent civilians (like, say, the Israelis) but simultaneously praise terrorists of one stripe or another, they set up a situation where their own advocacy for violence against others undercuts their critique of violence others commit against those they support. If violence can be legitimately directed at Israelis or Americans by virtue of their identity, it can be legitimately used by such people in self-defense. Those who are the targets of legal hostility, rhetorical abuse, or physical violence have the right to defend themselves in kind by virtue of being targeted. Few of us are reasonable enough to admit the justice of this. I am by no means immune to this sort of hypocrisy or double standard. I rejoice in being a book critic (and in occasionally critiquing other artifacts that cross my path) but I hate being the target of criticism, even in the formal aspects of, say, employee evaluations at work. Not everyone who loves dishing it out loves taking it, although few of us are prone to admitting the gap between our own behavior and the sort of behavior we appreciate from others.
This hypocrisy undercuts our own position in another way. People moralize because they believe their own views to be right. But what is glaringly obvious and self-evident to one person or one group of people is damnable folly and error to someone else. There is a deep asymmetry that appears to be inherent in the way that human beings behave because of our knowledge and information. We are all beings with a complex and rich interior life that we are continually aware of and that shapes our thoughts and feelings and behaviors. Yet while we are intellectually aware of the interior life of others, we seldom act on this knowledge when it comes to granting others the same legitimacy of their own interior life that we demand for ourselves. We judge ourselves and our allies by our intentions, which we know to be good, and judge our enemies and rivals by their actions, which we know to be bad. Yet they justify themselves by their own supposed good intentions and judge us by our evil actions. The end result is a cycle of endless recrimination and violence and hostility.
Yet this is not the only asymmetry that exists in such situations where hypocrisy is seen as a problem. There are people who defend standards of behavior and conduct that are far higher than they themselves attain. In the popular use of the term, these people are labeled as hypocrites. Yet not everyone who wishes to defend or endorse a high moral standard of behavior and practice but who falls short of it does so because they wish to be viewed as having attained that standard. That would, after all, be legitimately labeled as hypocritical. But there are honest and struggling sinners who admit their failings, have aimed at a high standard of behavior and honestly struggle as best as they can and with whatever help they can receive from exterior sources to reach that standard as closely as they can. These people are not hypocrites, because they strive to close the gap between their actions and their intentions and wishes and because they are open and honest about their struggles. In general, these people are too busy at seeking to correct their own behavior and live the best lives possible to look down at other people.
Indeed, it is such people who are responsible for any moral progress that exists in any time or any place. There is no way any of us are going to live better unless we aim at a standard higher than our current practice or the general level that we see around us. And aiming at a higher mark and a harder level means we are not always (or perhaps even often) going to be successful at it. And yet we cannot improve any other way. Getting better is going to require that we do what we are not comfortable at and not very good at and that we may fail at often and conspicuously. If we must do things perfectly to be able to do them at all, we will never do anything at all. We may as well tell babies that they cannot attempt to walk and talk until they can walk elegantly and speak in Shakespearean blank verse. We may as well tell farmers that they cannot plant anything in the ground until and unless they are sure that the harvest will be not only bountiful but also immensely profitable. To the extent that we demand perfection from others we justify no one doing anything else, and to the extent that we demand such perfection of ourselves we prevent ourselves from acting out for fear of failure. For it is only by risking failure that we accomplish anything, anything at all. We can no more stop moralizing or stop seeking to justify ourselves and the legitimacy of our imperfect achievements than we can stop eating and drinking and breathing. We may as well be honest and charitable about such efforts if we desire people to be honest and charitable with us, for the world will never be made a better place while we condemn others so that we may justify ourselves. Until we stop devouring our own tails we cannot prosper in this life we have been given.