The most common way of thinking about hypocrisy is as a vice – that is, to take it for granted that it is always a bad thing to conceal whom one really is. But another way of thinking about hypocrisy is as a coping mechanism for the problem of vice itself, in which case it may be that hypocrisy is not a vice at all. One way to cope with vice is to seek to conceal it, or to dress it up as something it is not. This sort of act – the passing off of vice as virtue – makes it possible to consider hypocrisy in two very different lights. From one perspective the act of concealment makes things worse – it simply piles vice on top of vice, which is why hypocrites are often seen as wickeder than people who are simply, and openly, bad. But from another perspective the concealment turns out to be a form of amelioration – it is, in Rouchefoucald’s timeless phrase, “the tribute that vice pays to virtue.” Hypocrites who pretend to be better than they really are could also be said to be better than they might be, because they are at least pretending to be good.
- David Runciman, Political Hypocrisy (2008)