On hypocrisy: Tackling climate change one tank of jet fuel at a time.

Emma Thompson recently flew from Los Angeles to take part in the Extinction Rebellion (XR) occupation of Oxford Circus, London. XR’s occupation of Oxford Circus and elsewhere was an act of civil disobedience with the aim of shutting down very busy London roads, thereby drawing public and media attention to the crisis of global warming, and so forcing the government to address their demands. All else being equal, a celebrity lending attention to a worthy cause is beneficial. But apparently all else is not equal in this case. If you type “emma thompson extinction rebellion” into Google’s search bar, the very first autocomplete suggestion is “emma thompson extinction rebellion hypocrite.”[1]

In general, I find purity tests distracting nonsense and I have defended Thompson’s actions to my friends. But then I remember that I’m not so forgiving of one of my favourite philosophers. As a committed egalitarian in principle, much of G. A. Cohen’s published work could be used to defend extremely high marginal tax rates for the richest in practice. So far so good, in my view. I am disappointed because when asked (by himself, as the title of one of his books) ‘if you’re an egalitarian, how come you’re so rich’ his answer was that it is very hard to give up one’s money voluntarily, but that the government should take it from him and he would vote for a party promising as much.[2] Cohen’s reply has always left a bitter taste in my mouth. But shouldn’t the same be true of Thompson? She, like Cohen, is imploring the UK government to act without taking on voluntary action. What could justify these differing reactions? Ultimately, I cannot find reason to evaluate them differently.

One way to distinguish the cases would be to say that Cohen devoted his career to a socialist philosophy and so we should hold him to a higher standard than Thompson who has less connection to her cause. But this is not how moral demands work: the injunction not to steal applies equally to the magistrate and the thief. Another way to distinguish the two is to say that Cohen is fully aware of the demands of his arguments whereas Thomson’s professional competence is as an actor. But this seems to expect too much of Cohen and too little of Thompson. While philosophers know the content of their arguments in greater detail, they are no less susceptible to weakness of the will. Likewise, although actors are less likely to have the professional competency to understand intricate ethical details, this does not mean they are unaware of the plainer implications of their views.

A more promising argument to distinguish the cases is that Thompson’s emissions might be offset by the reduction brought about by her protest. But even if this is true, I doubt this vindicates her. Suppose Cohen kept his wealth for vast philanthropic projects later in life. And assume that a great deal of money at once might make a bigger positive impact than the total positive impact of a higher rate of tax paid over many years. This would make Cohen’s behaviour like Thompson’s. The problem with this justification is that it allows a person to take on a disproportionate share of the responsibility for tackling important problems to the (partial) exclusion of alternative solutions. Failure to give voluntarily over time withholds finances from existing solutions to important problems such as poverty and raises the stakes for the ultimate success of the philanthropic project. Similarly, failing to reduce personal emissions continues to contribute to the problem—and further normalises emission-intensive behaviour—raising the stakes for action on climate change. Even in cases where the ultimate goal is realised, there are grounds to criticise this behaviour. This is because the philanthropist and the high-emitting activist make those struggling and exposed to risk overly reliant upon their own strategy for success. In effect, they move too many eggs to a single basket without consulting the owners of the eggs!

So, I cannot find reason to be harsher on Cohen than Thompson after consideration. Should I be less harsh on Cohen? No, I should have been harsher on Thompson. But that is not to say it is very important that she is something of a hypocrite. Ultimately, we should separate hypocrisy from the worthiness of the broader project. Once we have done this we should see that the broader project is considerably more important. Only then should we address the bitterness of hypocrisy. Once we see how relatively unimportant hypocrisy is, however, we should see this as a cue to work to reduce hypocrisy, rather than wasting time vilifying hypocrites.

[1] True at date of search: Friday 31 May, 2019.

[2] Listen to Cohen’s discussion of these matters on the Philosophy Bites podcast: https://philosophybites.com/2007/12/ga-cohen-on-ine.html.

Adam Pearce, PhD Scholar.