Sincerity and Poverty

[I am posting here an entry written by Tam Ho, a former student of mine who offers a refutation of the claims that John Edwards is a hypocrite whose stated concern for the poor is undermined by his rich lifestyle. -- Neil H. Buchanan]

As noted on several occasions in recent months, here, here, and here, hypocrisy is often used to attack one’s credibility. In a recent article in The Atlantic, “The Poverty Candidates,” Bill Schneider asks whether John Edwards “looks like a hypocrite because he got a $400 haircut and built a 28,000-square-foot mansion.” The question I want to explore is whether this attack has a valid substantive argument behind it, or if it is simply an ad hominem attack: one that seeks to refute a position by assaulting the character of the speaker.

Schneider reports that Edwards responds, “Not really . . . because he was not born to wealth and privilege: ‘I come from a fairly modest beginning, but I've lived the American Dream.’” As I indicate below, Edwards gives other responses that I do think are better (which Schneider fails to report), but I want to discuss first why this response seems strange to me. Edwards’s reliance on “com[ing] from a fairly modest beginning” seems to imply that someone from a privileged background cannot take up the anti-poverty cause without being a hypocrite unless he renounces his wealth. This seems wrong; we don't think that doctors who have never been seriously sick and who treat AIDS patients are hypocrites for taking measures to avoid contracting HIV (i.e., for not renouncing their history of good health), or that radiologists working on cancer patients are hypocrites for wearing lead vests to shield themselves from x-ray radiation.

Perhaps the distinction here, though, is that being HIV- and cancer-free are necessities, not luxuries. But a 28,000-sq-ft mansion and a $400 haircut, the argument may go, are sinfully excessive in light of the fact that people live in poverty, and so someone who indulges in the former cannot possibly be serious about having a lifelong mission to eradicate the latter. But consider the hypothetical of a billionaire philanthropist who's donated billions to fighting world hunger. Is he a hypocrite if he has three industrial kitchens in his mansion and a personal team of professional chefs? No. But this analogy isn't perfect, either, because the billionaire's sincerity is demonstrated independent of his saying so (i.e., by his philanthropy), whereas Edwards has not given a significant portion of his wealth away (as far as I know). I can buy that distinction, too.

Let’s consider, then, the argument, as I can best make it out:

(1) Edwards claims to want to end poverty in
(2) Edwards enjoys the excesses of wealth.
(3) A desire to end poverty must be motivated by sympathy for the poor.
(4) Someone sympathetic to the poor would feel guilty about spending money so excessively; or, alternatively, someone who is sympathetic to the poor would feel guilty about wasting money (this is the old "finish your food; there are kids starving in
Ethiopia" argument).
(5) Someone who feels guilty about doing something would not do that thing.
(6) Therefore, Edwards's mansion and haircut demonstrates that he doesn't feel guilty about it, which demonstrates that he doesn't care about the poor, which demonstrates that he doesn't desire to end poverty.

Conclusion: Edwards is a hypocrite. Q.E.D.

If this is the argument, then Edwards's statement seems not to engage it. Edwards’s argument is that his sympathy for the poor is genuine because he grew up modestly and knows what it's like to be poor. This counterargument does not engage the argument above because one can still apply the syllogism of (4) and (5) to refute Edwards’s conclusion that he is sympathetic to the poor. More importantly, though, Edwards’s counterargument seems weak even on its own terms, because it’s highly plausible that people's attitudes change with their circumstances and their allegiances are susceptible to realignment. His opponents could retort, "Whatever your roots were, Senator, you are certainly no longer in touch with them." It would seem difficult for him to furnish a response to demonstrate that he is still in touch. (What would he say? "That's not true. I still have to put on my pants one leg at a time?") By conceding the tacit assumption that one's belief hinges on personal identity and circumstances, I think he gives up the game. (And as a matter of human psychology, reliance on circumstances and background as a determinative factor for establishing the sincerity of one’s views seems weak, for similar reasons to Mike Dorf's argument here last week that a precedent’s age, by itself, is no reason either to uphold or overturn it; witness, for example, that John Rawls was born into privilege, whereas Robert Nozick came from a poor family, contrary to what one might expect, given their positions on distributive justice.)

Two alternative lines of reasoning seem more logically tenable to me: either deny premise (4) or deny premise (5). As I alluded to above, Edwards in fact does both (though his denials are not reported by Schneider).

The denial of premise (4) is that one can be genuinely sympathetic to the plight of the impoverished without feeling guilty about spending money on luxuries for oneself. As reported in a recent AP article, Edwards makes this argument when he says that people want to come to America " because people like me can come from nowhere, the son of a mill worker ... and now be running for the president of the United States and pay $400 for a haircut." That is, he shouldn’t be embarrassed about his excesses because the ability to get to a point where such excesses are possible, from a starting point of zero, is the very thing that makes this country great. So there is no contradiction in caring about poverty but not feeling guilty about excessive spending.

Indeed, the billionaire philanthropist hypo demonstrates this point. The distinction making that analogy useless for Edwards’s purposes is not a metaphysical one, but an epistemological one. Edwards can’t use that hypo not because it has a disanalogy in principle, but because it doesn’t help him prove his case. It’s an evidentiary flaw.

The denial of premise (5) is that one can feel guilty about something but still do it, just as one can know that smoking is bad for one’s health, genuinely desire to have good health, but still smoke. Edwards also makes a form of this argument. As the AP article reports, he says that he is “actually embarrassed by it” but that it “doesn’t change who I am, what I believe in,” citing to his record of “standing up for people who have no voice.” That is, he felt guilty about it, but still did it, but it shouldn’t bring into question his sincerity.

But Edwards does not assert an all-out denial of premise (4) or (5). Instead, he still maintains that “[h]opefully, [he’ll] have enough sense not to [get a $400 hair cut] again.” But as matter of pure reason, it is far more logical to counter the argument by denying premise (4) and/or (5), and it wouldn’t require a promise not to do it again. After all, that is not a promise he can extend to his mansion. But that leaves Edwards in a hard place because even if he bought the logic of my argument, it wouldn’t be politically viable for him to assert it unabashedly.

There are two great ironies in this. The first irony is that even though Americans are all too personally well-acquainted with guilty pleasures, especially in the realm of materialistic consumption (and I include myself in that indictment), we are apparently unwilling to accept that excuse when it comes to others. The second irony is that many of those who have seized upon this opportunity to label Edwards a hypocrite, essentially because of his wealth, are the same ones who oppose policies that limit the accumulation of wealth because they think that obscene concentrations at the top help those at the bottom. Some might even call that hypocritical.