Hypocrisy almost never should be surprising. The only surprising thing about it occurs when people realize they themselves are guilty of it (as opposed to others), something they rarely do. For it is of the nature of hypocrisy that it is bound up with ignorance, usually of a selfish kind. By definition, hypocrisy tends to go unperceived. No wonder that in the vast history of human thought, there has been relatively little written on this complex subject (not, anyway, as much as we might expect), which is still always prevalent, like some poison in the air most of us cannot smell, though we breathe it in nonetheless.

As for why we are so prone to hypocrisy, the reason is quite clear: because of our natural selfishness, we are vexed more by others’ failings than our own, especially when we are the victim. Everybody is happy to condemn the politician for his latest blunder. That person is rare who is equally severe on himself. Where we condemn another, we easily give ourselves a pass, especially if it is only others, not ourselves, who suffer from our actions. Further, when others reproach us, matters may be interpreted in terms of our own interests; in other words, we may misinterpret, and so get off the hook.

This is also where the unthoughtful tend to excuse themselves via comforting platitudes, whose purpose is to get rid of responsibility altogether: “Well, I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.” Since both disinterestedness—crucially, an affair of the will and the intellect—and the analytical ability to make sense of the enormous complexity of things are uncommon, while bias and downright perversity are not at all, such trite unaccountability is easily reinforced by our friends and family, who, as such, will readily incline to our own distorted perception. For much of what is called love and friendship is really nothing more than the mutual support of sustaining illusions and delusions. And it is in the nature of things for human beings to huddle together in blankets of rationalizations.

Then there is the common tendency to consider ourselves victims when it is actually we who are guilty. How often does it happen that rather than recognizing his own culpability, a person believes the other has done him wrong. In fact, in countless romantic relationships this happens on both sides; each person has harmed the other in some way, but each sees only his own suffering, not his wrongdoing. The back-and-forth is incoherent, and therefore fruitless. Quite amusing! Yet also sad. For how much suffering results from our selfish blindness.

Many people say about dating and relationships that they are “tired of all the games.” Still, their deep selfishness and limited perceptions persist. So they will continue to play games, though again, it will usually be thought that the other is to blame. Nietzsche said that all life is a dispute about taste. It may be said similarly that all life is a dispute about interpretation.

It is our sensible wariness of hypocrisy that makes us so quick to say things like “don’t judge me” and “I’m not judging you.” And yet, to live a just life we require the criticisms—and hence the judgments—of others. This is especially true in secular societies like our own, where there is so much conduct which implies that virtually anything one does is all right or permissible so long as it doesn’t harm others. When it comes to the difficulty duty of making moral criticisms, the immense challenge is to be consistent. We must not give ourselves or others a free pass (forgiveness is something else, of course). In this sense, it may be said that the most moral people are the least hypocritical.

How should we deal with the knowledge of our own hypocrisy? What should be our response here? On this subject I agree with Spinoza, who says that guilt is a hindrance, a source of suffering without a rational solution. So he recommends that we take care not to subject ourselves to overmuch guilt, but simply learn from our mistakes then move on. This is wise. Once we understand that we are guilty of hypocrisy (or for that matter, any failing), we should resolve to be more careful in our conduct and honest with ourselves in the future.

Beyond this, it would seem pointless and unhealthy to wallow in guilt: doing so will not make us any better, and it is surely wasteful since, after all, it is only through rational judgment—the firm decision to do the right thing and not take refuge in self-delusion—that we can improve our character. “Listen to your heart” is a popular saying, but to do that is an uncertain and dangerous activity. Human beings, indeed, are less rational than they tend to believe. Still, without rational judgment we are terribly blind.