Most of us take great pride in being seen as ethical. Ethics, and more specifically the Virtues (such as trust, compassion, kindness, care, and courage), form a large part of our identities – how we view ourselves and how we wish to be viewed by others. Being seen as on the side of good, right, and just is important for most of us, notwithstanding that good, right, and just can be highly subjective and contested between people, communities, religions, politics, philosophies, and cultures.

We also derive a sense of happiness, contentment, or satisfaction when we think, speak, and act ethically, and when we are seen by others in the same light. That is the power of virtue. As Aristotle claimed, ethics are virtues, and virtues are excellences that lead to a deep sense of human happiness and flourishing over the course of a lifetime. The Buddha said similar things.

For most of us, being seen as ethical or virtuous is important, however being seen as ethical does not necessarily translate into being ethical. As Niccolò Machiavelli wrote “the great majority of [hu]mankind are satisfied with appearances, as if they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are”. For some of us, being seen as ethical is so important that we will rigorously defend ourselves if we feel in any way slighted by the criticisms of others. As history has shown, sometimes this defence is taken to extremis – the taking of a life or lives. Fortunately, most of us do not become that obsessed, but we can certainly head in that direction of wanting to punish others when affronted, at least in our minds.

But on what basis do we claim the high standards of our ethics or virtues? And what or who determines that those standards are better than others? Well, it turns out that we are afflicted with what is known in philosophy as moral hypocrisy! Ouch you might say! That is a bit harsh! Harsh it may be, but unfortunately, true it is.

In essence, moral hypocrisy arises when we seek to find the moral faults of others without accepting our own moral faults. In Christianity, there is a biblical passage that says “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but you do not notice the log in your own eye? … You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye”. Likewise, in Buddhist teaching, “It is easy to see the faults of others, but difficult to see one’s own faults. One shows the faults of others like chaff winnowed in the wind, but one conceals one’s own faults as a cunning gambler conceals his dice”. “Though you see the seven defects of others, we do not see our own ten defects” – Japanese Proverb.

Unfortunately, according to Author Jonathan Haidt and his book The Happiness Hypothesis, stories about the moral failings of others form the basis of most of our gossip. We hear it play out every day in mainstream and social media, and it is often the most popular topic in the workplace, especially when talking about our leaders, or those people who might have contrary views to our own. Ironically, when we condemn another’s hypocrisy, we compound our own.

Condemning others usually leads to destructive moralism and divisive self-righteousness. For example, numerous studies have shown that when we overstate our morality, we will only do the right thing if it accords with our self-interest. If doing the right thing appears to be to our detriment, many of us will not do it. Interestingly, when we can see our own image, either in a mirror or on camera, we are far less likely to do the wrong thing.

In seeking to justify our perceived moral actions, many of us deludedly think that we are fundamentally good people, and our actions are always motivated by good reasons. We then attempt to seek out pseudo-evidence to justify our moral decisions and to support our preferred belief or action. The metaphor that can be used to describe this phenomenon is to be our own “inner lawyer”. That is, we use a part of our minds to find evidence that justifies our position, rather than acting as the “inner judge” that seeks to weigh up all of the available evidence on both sides of the argument before coming to a decision. Relatedly, we see our own virtues as self-perceived strengths and seek evidence to reinforce that same view of ourselves.

Of course, all of this justification, analysis, and defence goes on inside of our minds, whereas when we judge others, we do so by judging their exhibited behaviour. We cannot get inside their head to see what is really going on for them that may be causing them distress – often the very same distress that we suffer, but in which we mentally seek to find the evidence to justify. Also, we can be very open to any information that will predict the behaviour of others, but often refuse to adjust our own behaviour when that same information is presented to us – preferring instead to defend and justify our character rather than change behaviour. All of this can lead to hypocritical indignation.

Lastly, we can also get caught up in mental notions of good versus evil. ‘I am on the side of good, they are on the side of evil’. Much of this affliction emanates from a perception that we can see the world as it really is and that our view is the correct view. This affliction has also been the biggest obstacle to world peace and social harmony. ‘My group is right because we see things as they really are whereas those who disagree are afflicted by their religion, ideology, or self-interest’. This attitude has often galvanised thousands or even millions of people to take a side and pursue a perceived pure good against a perceived pure evil.

History is full of such examples, and without exception they have resulted in much human misery and suffering, often spanning millennia as a result of being handed down from generation to generation. Sadly, people usually have reasons for committing violence. Often those reasons involve retaliation for a perceived injustice or in self-defence. However, it is also true that people turn to violence when they are morally affronted driven by their moral idealism and morally righteous indignation. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote, “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun”.

So, how do we get out of this potential trap? How do we avoid these pitfalls that are common to all of humanity?

Firstly, we should not take ourselves so seriously. Yes there are atrocities in the world that should be taken very seriously indeed! The war in the Ukraine is but one contemporary example. But, at the same time, most of us will not have to experience such distress. Our distress will be much more mundane, even banal, for the majority of the time in our day to day lives. Seeing the silliness of our hypocrisy and moral indignation is a great way to ease our distress and access our humility.

Secondly, it helps to see the world as both Hindu’s and Buddhist’s view it. That is, we have a role to play in the function of the universe. The god Krishna said, “I love the [hu]man who hates not nor exults, mourns not nor desires… who is the same to friend and foe, [the same] whether he be respected or despised, the same in heat and cold, in pleasure and in pain, who has put away attachment and remains unmoved by praise or blame… contented with whatever comes his way”. Buddhists further advocate the practice of non-judgment, for judgmentalism is indeed a disease of the mind that leads to anger, torment, and conflict. Practicing non-judgment through meditation and mindfulness settles the mind, helps us see through delusion, and refines our judgments of what is truly valuable. And for most of us, what is valuable is our virtue and the virtue of others.

Finally, returning to the Christian scriptures, the Buddhist Lam Rim, and the Japanese Proverb, we must take the log out of our own eye first before attending to the speck of our colleague or neighbour. Realise that, apart from the rarest and most exceptional of circumstances, our hypocrisy plays a major role in setting up the causes for our own suffering. It contributes towards the very circumstances that we find so unpleasurable. Removing the log will feel unpleasant at first, but it will then be followed with relief. Relief because we come to realise that there is something we can do about our circumstances, something to learn for next time, and something in which we can both seek and offer forgiveness.

Right and wrong then becomes only partly right or partly wrong. In so doing, it does not require us to surrender our ethos. Instead, it allows us to become less moralistic, less angry, less aggressive, and less righteous. It also makes room for more compassion, patience, kindness, and wisdom about any given circumstance. That is, we become more virtuous, but this time without the hypocrisy. We become more authentically identified with the way we wish to be and to be seen, and a genuine sense of happiness emerges – the very same happiness that liberates us from the bonds of our suffering that we so ardently wish to free ourselves from.

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