What follows is an insightful quote from Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, where a few neo-Victorians from the future discuss the morality of our age. We enter the conversation in medias res…
“You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It was all because of moral relativism.You see, in that sort of a climate, you are not allowed to criticise others-after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism?”
Finkle-McGraw paused, knowing that he had the full attention of his audience, and began to withdraw a calabash pipe and various related supplies and implements from his pockets. As he continued, he charged the calabash with a blend of leather-brown tobacco so redolent that it made Hackworth’s mouth water. He was tempted to spoon some of it into his mouth.
“Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others’ shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour-you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.“
“You wouldn’t believe the things they said about the original Victorians. Calling someone a Victorian in those days was almost like calling them a fascist or a Nazi.”
Both Hackworth and Major Napier were dumbfounded. “Your Grace!” Napier exclaimed. “I was naturally aware that their moral stance was radically different from ours- but I am astonished to be informed that they actually condemned the first Victorians.”
“Of course they did,” Finkle-McGraw said.
“Because the first Victorians were hypocrites,” Hackworth said, getting it.
Finkle-McGraw beamed upon Hackworth like a master upon his favored pupil. “As you can see, Major Napier, my estimate of Mr. Hackworth’s mental acuity was not ill-founded.”
“While I would never have supposed otherwise, Your Grace,” Major Napier said, “it is nonetheless gratifying to have seen a demonstration.” Napier raised his glass in Hackworth’s direction.
“Because they were hypocrites,” Finkle-McGraw said, after igniting his calabash and shooting a few tremendous fountains of smoke into the air, “the Victorians were despised in the late twentieth century. Many of the persons who held such opinions were, of course, guilty of the most nefarious conduct themselves, and yet saw no paradox in holding such views because they were not hypocrites themselves-they took no moral stances and lived by none.“
“So they were morally superior to the Victorians-” Major Napier said, still a bit snowed under. “-even though-in fact, because-they had no morals at all.”
There was a moment of silent, bewildered head-shaking around the copper table.
The belief that hypocrisy is the only true vice is so ubiquitous that it often passes in the church as good law preaching. It is impossible for fallen man to keep the law, so any man who tries to keep the law is a hypocrite, and men need to repent of their hypocrisy. Therefore the problem with the opinio legis is no longer idolatry, but hypocrisy. This resonates with people because it is the cultural norm. Nobody minds being called a sinner. A sinner who admits he is a sinner is not a hypocrite and thus is free of the lone cardinal vice. He will keep or break whatever morality is necessary to not be a hypocrite. Those who only preach against hypocrisy prop themselves up by having no morals at all.