Larry Flynt vs. David Vitter: Examining the Difference Between Hypocrisy and Moral Inconsistency

“Hypocrisy makes a politician’s sex life fair game,” says Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, justifying his targeting of “hypocritical” politicians. Working in conjunction with the so-called “D.C. Madam”, Flynt recently exposed Louisiana Senator and “family values” advocate David Vitter as a customer of an escort service

By his own admission, Vitter is guilty of being an adulterer and a whore monger. But what he doesn’t appear to be is a hypocrite. As Jeremy Pierce notes, “A lot of people have been calling [Vitter] a hypocrite for being strong on family values politically while having an adulterous relation with a prostitute. This sort of comment derives from ignorance about what hypocrisy is.”

Indeed, the American Heritage Dictionary defines hypocrisy as “The practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess; falseness.” The British literary critic William Hazlitt once explained, “He is a hypocrite who professes what he does not believe; not he who does not practice all he wishes or approves”

By all appearances Sen. Vitter does indeed believe in such “family values” as marital fidelity. Where he has failed is in behaving in a way that comports with those values; a matter not of hypocrisy but of moral inconsistency. Such consistency is essential–particularly for democratically elected representatives–for establishing and maintaining trust. This is why private behavior has such public implications. The marital infidelity of a legislator, for example, is strong signal that they are untrustworthy: If a man cannot be trusted to keep a sacred vow to an intimate, how can I trust him to keep his word to me, a stranger?

What we desire in a representative is that they be a person of integrity–that their character be a morally consistent whole. A person who is free of contradictory ethical impulses and actions is likely to behave in a manner that is trustworthy. Even if we disagree with their views, we can deduce how they will act and make our judgments about them accordingly.

This is why both Vitter and Flynt agree about the significance of integrity. What separates the two men (besides the fact that Vitter is a man of weak character while Flynt is a despicable pervert) is where they put the emphasis on this trait.

For instance, Vitter believes that there is an objective moral standard and that his “sin” (his word) was a result of his external actions being inconsistent with his internal beliefs. Flynt, on the other hand, believes that because all moral standards are subjective and internal, behavior can’t be objectively immoral, it can only be inconsistent. For Flynt, Vitter’s flaw is not that he acted immorally, but that he expected others to adhere to a standard that he himself failed to keep.

This view of integrity is regrettably common, particularly among elites and the media. The Vitter scandal is a prime example. I have yet to see a news story that described Vitter’s soliciting prostitutes as immoral or sinful. Nor have I seen him condemned for breaching the sacred bonds of marriage.

The reason, some would argue, is that journalists don’t use such morally loaded terms. This is true to a point. Journalists do tend to refrain from using objective moral terminology in favor of subjective standards of internal inconsistency. A libertarian who advocated for the legalization of prostitution would not be condemned for being caught in a brothel. A social conservative who claimed to stand for families, on the other hand, would be charged with committing the grave offense of “hypocrisy.”

The problem is not with pointing out moral inconsistency, which can aid a person in readjusting their level of integrity. The problem is that this approach rewards those with low-,Larry Flynt–low, moral standards. Anyone with high moral standards is likely to come up short, thus opening themselves to the charge of being morally inconsistent.

But this sets an unreasonable standard for politicians. The higher the person’s standards, the more likely they are to miss the mark. As Gary Bauer said when asked to comment on the Vitter scandal, “If a voter is looking for Jesus on the Republican ticket, they’re not going to find him. There was only one perfect man, and all others have fallen short. They should look at how a candidate dealt with his moral failures.”

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Joe Carter

Joe Carter founded Evangelical Outpost in 2005. He is the web editor for First Things and an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. A fifteen-year Marine Corps veteran, he previously served as the managing editor for the online magazine Culture11 and The East Texas Tribune. Joe has also served as the Director of Research and Rapid Response for the Mike Huckabee for President campaign and as a director of communications for both the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and Family Research Council. He is the co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicaton.