top of page
  • Writer's pictureKartik Upadhyaya

Pandemic Hypocrisy

Let me start with a semi-rant. Political discourse is littered with hypocrisy, and with charges of hypocrisy. But our practices of invoking hypocrisy are a bit of a mess. When political opponents charge each other with hypocrisy, attention often shifts away from criticisms levelled against them and towards the failings of others. It is tempting to think that if only we could abandon hypocrisy norms – if only charges of hypocrisy didn't 'stick' – these diversion tactics would be less successful. The views and policies of public officials could then be subjected to more focussed and sustained public scrutiny, in turn strengthening public accountability and enhancing the quality of normative debates about the urgent issues of our times.

Many colleagues and friends of mine have expressed something like this rant. It has some truth to it, but is not entirely right. I agree that we tend to overegg hypocrisy. But things wouldn’t be better if we stopped caring about it altogether. What we need is a better understanding of the moral fault of hypocrisy. A better understanding of the fault would enhance, rather than worsen, the quality of public political discourse. The recent outcry about the UK Government’s hypocrisy illustrates this more general point.

From January 2022, evidence spread that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other public officials had broken lockdown guidelines at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, through a series of parties hosted at No. 10 Downing Street between May 2020 and April 2021. Senior Civil Servant Sue Gray’s investigation into the events prompted resignation by several of Johnson’s aides, and a further police inquiry which is ongoing at the time of writing. Meanwhile, public pressure intensifies on the PM to resign. On 21 January, Labour leader Keir Starmer addressed Johnson in the House of Commons. He voiced many grievances, two of which are relevant here:

In breaking the rules he set, the Prime Minister …showed himself unfit for office. His desperate denials since he was exposed have only made matters worse….

To govern this country is an honour. Not a birth-right. It’s an act of service to the British people. Not the keys to a court to parade to your friends. It requires honesty. Integrity. And moral authority.

I won’t ask whether governing a country requires moral authority, or whether a public official or representative ought to resign because they acted wrongly. I am more confident that Johnson did act wrongly, and is, if nothing else, responsible for a permissive culture on lockdown rules among colleagues. But that isn’t the only reason for furore about partygate. People have been particularly responsive to the hypocrisy involved in officials breaking rules which they have set, exhorted citizens to comply with, and penalised citizens for not complying with.

A better understanding of the fault [of hypocrisy] would enhance, rather than worsen, the quality of public political discourse.

How much of a role, then, does hypocrisy ultimately play in the wrongdoing? And does it, as Starmer suggests, have any implications for the PM’s moral authority? I think hypocrisy plays a role; though not for some of the commonly cited reasons. But I doubt hypocrisy affects authority.

1. Hypocrisy & Rule-setting

Grant that evidence against No. 10 employees is accurate. Here are some of the more obvious reasons why their behaviour was wrong. Keeping to lockdown rules is a sacrifice, but is part of a collective sacrifice that benefits everyone. Choosing to forego those sacrifices is unfairly self-preferential, as this leaves others to bear the costs for our benefit. Also, where it risks a worse spread of the virus, breaking lockdown rules risks harming others, including others who would rather not face those risks. Notice that those reasons would apply to any Jack the Lad who breeches lockdown, though: anyone is open to complaints of fairness and recklessness. It’s one thing to break the rules by partying. It’s another thing to do so if you’re the Prime Minister! That instance seems particularly bad, and it seems particularly bad in virtue of being hypocritical. Let us consider how to explain this view.

One popular argument is that in breaking the rules, partygaters acted as if it’s ‘one rule for them; another for everyone else’. They think they are exempt from rules that apply to ordinary citizens, which is to regard those citizens as less than equal.[1] However, this wouldn’t fully explain why breaking a rule is worse for a political representative than it is for a citizen. It may be true that some politicians view ordinary citizens as inferior. That is a wrongful attitude to hold whether or not the person who holds it is a rule-breaker. A politician who observes lockdown all the while believing in their superiority seems no better than a rule-breaker in this respect. And a politician who breaks the rules may not do it with that attitude – some, such as those who resign, might be ready to accept that they like anyone else are liable to penalties for flouting the standards that apply to everyone. As I will argue below, those who are not ready to accept liability are wrong not to. But to condemn the fault of self-impunity for wrongdoing, we needn’t hold that self-impunity makes the wrongdoing itself worse.

A second popular way to distinguish partygaters from ordinary rule-breakers is more plausible: that the Prime Minister is responsible for ‘breaking the rules he set’ (my emphasis). In democracies, ordinary citizens might also play a part in setting rules since they have a say over who gets to govern. But the incumbent government participates more directly in setting lockdown rules. It seems especially wrong, and hypocritical, for a person to break rules they are involved in setting.

Why think this is especially hypocritical? A natural answer is that it is hypocritical to violate our public normative commitments, or commitments to which we hold others accountable. Setting rules publicly displays a commitment to those rules in a way that either explicitly or implicitly holds others accountable. However, this idea does not tell us what is distinctive about setting the rules. As an ordinary citizen, I can likewise express a public commitment to the rules, criticising people who break them, while breaking them myself.[2] But I am not a rule-setter.

I think being a rule-setter matters for a different reason. Through setting rules, political representatives involve themselves in a broader agential project: a project of shaping, jointly with the rest of their political community, the standards for living together to which they are all subject.[3] This sort of normative community is a democratic ideal. The ability to combine our agency to jointly shape the standards we are governed by is part of what makes democracy a valuable form of government. As representatives have special duties to advance democracy, they have special reason not to undermine this ideal.

[T]he problem of hypocrisy is not so much about breaking rules we set while holding other rule-breakers accountable. It is about doing these things while failing to open ourselves to accountability through openly acknowledging our mistakes.

This explains why representatives face stringent demands not to break rules they set – to do so is to undermine a collaborative project of which they have made themselves a special part. True, citizens are also involved in this project, and likewise have reason to uphold it. It is just that this reason is more significant for representatives given their special responsibilities.

However, in itself, having a special reason to keep to the rules they set does not necessarily make it hypocritical for elected representatives to break them. Suppose that you and I together with others make a valuable plan. I was more involved in devising the plan than you, but both of us undermined it in a similar way. Suppose I hold you accountable for undermining the plan – this seems hypocritical at first glance. But now suppose that in holding you accountable, I fully and openly acknowledge my own failure to live up to the plan as well. When I do this, I am no longer hypocritical. Nor do I exclude myself from our project. The opposite: I make myself available for mutual scrutiny as an involved agent, albeit one who failed.

So, the problem of hypocrisy is not so much about breaking rules we set while holding other rule-breakers accountable. It is about doing these things while failing to open ourselves to accountability through openly acknowledging our mistakes. That failure is what it takes for a person to wrongly exclude themselves from a collaborative project with others. And it is the hypocrisy that I find partygaters like the Prime Minister to be most guilty of. These people have special duties to be accountable for breaking the rules, and, as far as I can tell, remain unwilling fully to acknowledge having done so.

2. Hypocrisy and Authority

I have suggested that partygaters did wrong and that some have responded hypocritically to their wrongdoing. Those who agree may be inclined to infer that the PM has now lost authority: citizens are permitted to take lockdown rules less seriously where the PM refuses to be accountable for breaking them. This would be a convenient view, but there is no good rationale for it that I can think of.

As mentioned above, our general duties to stick to lockdown – fairness, risking harm to others, etc. – are the same for ordinary citizens as they are for politicians. While a politician’s reasons to observe rules they set can be more powerful, citizens don’t lack these reasons entirely. Even if we end up thinking that citizens have completely different reasons whether to party in lockdown, ‘The PM said so’ is not among them. (Nor are these the sorts of reasons ruling politicians intend to give. If the PM offered, ‘I said so’, as a reason to convince people to observe lockdown, that would be odd.) Our reasons to do what’s right are not authority-based in the first place: their force is not affected by what others say, and whether those others are good people.[4] Therefore, the failure of politicians to do what’s right does not affect authority.

Some might retort that duties to bear costs in response to our failure to do what’s right are an exception – these duties are more stringent where a government has authority, and less stringent where a government lacks authority.[5] This idea does not pull me intuitively. Imagine, for example, that the only difference between two people who act unjustly is that one does so under a good government and another under a bad one – those people’s moral situations strike me as the same. More relevantly, imagine that both wrongdoers are under a decent government, but one person’s government is saintly, whereas some agents in the other’s government have done the same injustice. Their moral situations strike me as clearly the same.

The fact that a person acted wrongly is no particular reason to think that their pronouncement is wrong. If anything, it’s the other way around: knowing that they acted wrongly is the same as recognising that their pronouncement is right.

So, I lean towards the view that our duties to bear costs for acting wrongly are set entirely by the nature and gravity of the wrongs we do. Maybe this relies on scepticism about political authority. I’m too ignorant about this issue to say anything useful about how costly an implication that is. But even if there is political authority, I doubt a government would lose it just because some of its agents do wrong.

A different view about authority is that normally, when a politician says that we ought to do something, we can trust what they say, as we can presume that they are a morally committed person. But where it’s revealed that they acted wrongly, we discover that they are a morally dubious person, and this undermines the credibility of what they say. Thus, the politician loses authority in the sense that citizens now have less reason to believe their pronouncements are right.[6] This is also a strange argument. The fact that a person acted wrongly is no particular reason to think that their pronouncement is wrong. If anything, it’s the other way around: knowing that they acted wrongly is the same as recognising that their pronouncement is right. Same for the PM’s pronouncement about keeping to the rules.

Anyway, surely not many thought that the PM is a good moral guide in the first place, given a history of accusations and revelations of wrongdoing long preceding the pandemic.[7] But that is what makes this case peculiar. While partygate involved wrongful hypocrisy, it is not the first case; nor does it seem a much worse case of wrongdoing or hypocrisy than has emerged in the past. Yet, many are convinced that the PM’s resignation is a foregone conclusion – one piece in The New Yorker, for example, already describes ‘How Hypocrisy Undid Boris Johnson’. Why would this particular episode of hypocrisy be the final straw? I don’t know; maybe people are just generally fed up.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we are wrong to focus on hypocrisy. But it may encourage a rethink of hypocrisy norms. Johnson‘s reply to Starmer on Gray’s report exemplifies how hypocrisy norms can lead us astray. ‘This Leader of the Opposition’, Johnson said, ‘[…] although he spent most of his time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile […] chose to use this moment continually to prejudge a police inquiry.’ We might think that in making this move, Johnson is trading on hypocrisy – he is suggesting that due to past failings, Starmer has no authority to speak about partygate. Moves like this often work, and that is a shame. We should prefer that representatives are less able to escape responsibility by pointing out others’ faults.

But a plausible view of hypocrisy does not support this practice. Once we see that past faults don’t affect a speaker’s authority, we should be less impressed by challenges to such authority. We should also see that the worst kind of political hypocrisy involves self-exclusion from accountability practices that constitute a democratic community. Caring about hypocrisy, then, isn’t detrimental to healthy political discourse. Hypocrisy is part of the illness.[8]


[1] On the relationship between hypocrisy and equality, see e.g. Cristina Roadevin, Hypocritical Blame, Fairness, and Standing, Metaphilosophy 49(1-2):137-52; Kyle Fritz and Daniel Miller, Fritz, Kyle G. & Miller, Daniel. 2018. Hypocrisy and the Standing to Blame. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 99/2:118-39; Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen, Relational Egalitarianism: Living as Equals. Cambridge: CUP; Jay Wallace, 2010. Hypocrisy, Moral Address and the Equal Standing of Persons, Philosophy & Public Affairs 38/4:307-34; and Victor Tadros, 2009. Poverty and Criminal Responsibility. Journal of Value Enquiry 43/3:391-413.

[2] Of course, there is a difference between criticising and penalising: a PM has more power to sanction citizens than I do, in the sense that they have more power to penalise. But I’m not sure this captures the significance of setting the rules, since even for rules they are not involved in setting, a PM has greater power to penalise people (as they have more power to do this in general), and others who did not set lockdown rules, e.g. a judge, also has more power to penalise.

[3] This draws on a general view about hypocrisy and mutual deliberation that I develop in Upadhyaya, forthcoming, Hypocrisy: Good, but Wrong.

[4] I argue this at more length in Kartik Upadhyaya, forthcoming, Standing, On a Scale. For detailed explication of the idea that hypocrisy undermines critical authority, see Ori Herstein. J, 2020. Justifying Standing: Hypocrisy, Minding Your Own Business, and Knowing One's Place. Philosopher’s Imprint, and James Edwards, 2018, Standing to Hold Responsible. Journal of Moral Philosophy 16/4: 437-62.

[5] A different view is that hypocrisy undermines state legitimacy: wheres state agents are guilty of similar wrongdoing, states lose entitlement either to punish, or to take to trial, citizens who would have been legitimately tried had state agents not been guilty of similar wrongdoing. I don’t think this. States still ought to impose costs of wrongdoing in such cases, but would be wrong not to acknowledge its agents’ guilt, and to penalise those agents just as they penalise citizens. Compare Gustavo Beade, “Who Can Blame Whom? Moral Standing to Blame and Punish Deprived Citizens”. Criminal Law & Philosophy 13 (2019): 271-81; Tommy Shelby, Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), Gary Watson, “A Moral Predicament in the Criminal Law”, Inquiry 58 (2015): 168-88; Antony Duff, Blame, Moral Standing and the Legitimacy of the Criminal Trial. Ratio 23 (2010): 123-40; Tadros, ‘Poverty’, Derek Matravers, “Who’s Still Standing? A Comment on Antony Duff’s Preconditions of Criminal Liability”, Journal of Moral Philosophy 3 (2006): 320-30.

[6] Compare Jessica Isserow and Colin Klein, 2017, Hypocrisy and Moral Authority. Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy 12(1), pp. 191-222.

[7] One example: hypocrisy-uefa-president-aleksander-ceferin-a9230391.html

[8] Thanks to Romy Eskens for many brilliant suggestions!

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.


bottom of page