A Philosopher's Blog

Why Paul Ryan is Not a Hypocrite

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 26, 2015

Paul Ryan acted quite rationally in imposing conditions on the Republicans of the House in return for running for the position of Speaker. After all, they wanted him to take the job far more than he wanted it, thus putting him into a strong bargaining position.

A devoted family man who returns home from Washington every weekend to spend time with his wife and children, it is no surprise that one of his conditions is that he will not give up his family time. Despite the fact that his condition seems to exemplify traditional family values, he has drawn criticism from the right. The more vocal attacks have, of course, come from the left. The main accusation is that Ryan is a hypocrite because his insistence of maintaining a work-family balance starkly contrast with his voting record. To be specific, Ryan has relentlessly voted against bills that would assist working Americans to have a better work-family balance of the sort he insists on having.

On the face of it, the charge of hypocrisy would seem to stick since Ryan seems to be acting inconsistent with his professed values. Interestingly, the hypocrisy could be seen in at least two ways. One is that Ryan’s action of insisting on a work-family balance is inconsistent with his stated beliefs about bills that would allow improved work-family balance for employees. A second is that Ryan’s actions of voting against such bills is inconsistent with the values implied by his action of insisting that his “employer” grant him the desired work-family balance.

While it is certainly tempting to say Ryan is in error when he opposes improving the work-family balance for others while insisting on it himself, this would be a case of the ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or what a person says is inconsistent with his actions. The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with his actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite. But being a hypocrite is different from being in error. For example, a heroin user who says that using heroin is unhealthy does not thus prove that using heroin is actually healthy. As such, showing that Ryan is in error would require more than just pointing to an alleged inconsistency between how he votes and what he insists as a condition of taking the job of speaker. That said, an accusation of inconsistency does have some moral weight.

One legitimate way to criticize Ryan is to argue that he is not consistently applying a principle. A principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. Inconsistent application is a problem because it violates the principle of relevant difference. This is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences.

Criticizing someone on the basis of inconsistent application involves showing that a principle or standard has been applied differently in situations whose differences do not warrant the different application.  In the case at hand, it is generally assumed that Ryan’s principle is that people should have a work-family balance. He applies this principle to himself by insisting that being Speaker of the House will allow him his family time. But, he is inconsistent because he does not apply the same principle to other workers—as shown by his consistently voting against bills that would ensure that employees had more family time.

When a charge of inconsistent application is made, there are various responses. One is for a person to change her actions so they are consistent. So, for example, Ryan could start voting in favor of bills that allow more family time to employees. This seems rather unlikely.

A second way is to dissolve the inconsistency by showing that the alleged inconsistency is merely apparent.  One way to do this is by showing that there is a relevant difference between the situations. In the case of Ryan, if it could be shown that there is a relevant difference between him and other people that entitles him to be granted the work-family balance that he has voted to deny others. And to get that balance from other people who have also voted to deny it to others. It could, for example, be argued that the Speaker of the House position, like other high positions, should come with benefits denied to those of lesser status. To use an analogy, a university might have a principle that employees who perform their jobs well get a bonus. If there is a shortage of funds, the university might grant bonuses only to administrators and justify this by arguing for a relevant difference between administrators and everyone else. It is clearly possible to disagree with such claims of relevant difference and other employees would be likely to do so.

If being Speaker of the House grants a relevant difference that warrants the difference in treatment, then Ryan is no more a hypocrite than a university president would be for handing out bonuses to administrators on the basis of a relevant difference—even if she denied bonuses and raises to the faculty. The challenge is, of course, to justify the alleged relevant difference.

A third approach is to eliminate the apparent inconsistency by arguing the attributed principle is not the person’s actual principle.  For Ryan to be a hypocrite in this case, he must hold the principle that explicitly states or at least entails that employees are entitled to the sort of work-family balance he wants. However, Ryan does not seem to hold to such a principle. Rather, he has espoused what can be regarded as an explicitly selfish value system. As Amanda Marcotte contends,  Ryan seems to be acting in accord with his values which are largely those argued for by the philosopher Ayn Rand. This view was laid out quite clearly in her Virtue of Selfishness  in which she argues in favor of the moral theory of ethical egoism. This is the view each person should act in his or her own self-interest and is contrasted against moral altruism, which is the view that a person should at least consider the interests of others. Altruism is also exemplified by the injunction to love thy neighbor as thyself and the Golden Rule.

It is in Ryan’s self-interest to have the family time he wants, so his principle would simply be that he should receive this family time. Under ethical egoism of the sort explicitly embraced by Ryan, he would be acting in a moral manner—by attempting to maximize what is of value for him.  This principle does not entail that other people should receive a guarantee of an improved work-family balance. So, when he votes against bills to allow employees a better work-family balance, he is not being a hypocrite. He is being perfectly consistent with his value system.

If he is a proper ethical egoist, he would also accept that other people should act in their own self-interest—this is what distinguishes the moral theory of ethical egoism from simple selfishness (which is not a moral system). As such, he should accept that other people should try to get the work-family balance they desire. But he should help them only on the condition that doing so would be in his self-interest, which he clearly thinks it is not. As such, if he is an ethical egoist, he is not a hypocrite—under that moral system he would be acting morally. If, however, he subscribed to a more altruistic moral system (such as the sort advocated by Pope Francis), then he would seem to be a hypocrite. After all, he is not loving his neighbor as he loves himself.


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  1. TJB said, on October 26, 2015 at 10:37 pm

    Paul Ryan is perfectly consistent in that he believes the agreement between the employer and employee is an agreement between two parties entered into willingly to the benefit of both. Family time is important to him, but he is not legislating that it be important to everyone.

    If the Dems really wanted to help low income people they would not support unrestricted immigration. This is why Bernie Sanders wants restrictions on immigration–he knows that flooding the labor markets with unskilled labor hurts poor Americans.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 27, 2015 at 11:22 am

      Quite right-he is an ethical egoist who believes that each person should act in her self-interest. Those who lack the power to negotiate a good contract must suffer the fate of their weakness. After all, what is good is what is good for him. Not what is good for the people. Only a fool would think that laws should aim at the good of the people rather than the individual good of those with enough power to make their will the law.

  2. TJB said, on October 26, 2015 at 10:39 pm

    Mike’s view: “nothing says I care like a government mandate.”

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 27, 2015 at 11:25 am

      It is a matter of the proper role of the state. I think an important role of the state is to impose restrictions on the harms citizens can impose on each other. So, just as I should not be allowed to steal from a business and a business should enjoy the protection of things like patent laws, businesses are also obligated to hold up their part of the social contract. As people on the right like to point out, you need to earn all those entitlements. Businesses get some sweet deals and in return they need to be good citizens as well.

      • T. J. Babson said, on October 27, 2015 at 8:00 pm

        “I think an important role of the state is to impose restrictions on the harms citizens can impose on each other.”

        OK, so you are classifying unpaid family leave as a “harm.” What about firing somebody or laying them off? Is this not a greater harm? Do you want the government to try to legislate against every possible bad decision a person can make?

        Actually, your position is internally inconsistent. On the one hand you are arguing that government knows better than the individual what is best for him or her. On the other hand you feel that these same people should vote and choose the people running the government. If the people do not know what is good for them, why should they be trusted to vote?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 28, 2015 at 1:06 pm

          You raise an excellent point. There are harms we inflict on each other that are not the business of the state and some that are. For example, if Sally gets tired of Sam and breaks up with him and thus breaks his heart, that is not the state’s business. If Sally decides that she will off Sam for the insurance money, then that becomes the state’s business.

          Sorting out what limits employers should follow is certainly a complex matter. I’m sure you’d agree there needs to be some limits. Where we no doubt disagree is the extent to which employers should be required to treat employees well. If we think that family leave is a social good, then it makes sense that it should be required. If it is not a social good and the wants of the employer outweighs that of the employee, then it should not be required.

          I don’t think the state always knows better-after all, the state is just us. Maybe with suits.

          • TJB said, on October 29, 2015 at 7:45 am

            The point you are missing is that for every benefit the state mandates there is a cost. If you mandate paid family leave, wages will go down.

            If paid family leave is important to an employee, the employee should find an employer who offers it. On the other hand, a teenager working at McDonald’s may prefer the higher wages.

            It is exceedingly arrogant for the government to feel that it knows what is best for each individual.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 29, 2015 at 12:44 pm

              I am well aware that each mandate has a cost. My uncle is a successful businessman and I have friends who run various small businesses (if you ever want to buy a house in Tallahassee or need any work done, I can hook you up). I have certainly heard them talk about the costs of complying with the various laws.

              Likewise, each of us bear a cost with each limit placed on us by law. For example, I am the treasurer for the HOA and I’m in charge of keeping the pool and grounds up to code-I’ve had to meet with the city to go over this and staying in compliance costs us money. But, having a safe pool and proper drainage for the grounds are reasonable impositions. In the case of family leave, the question is whether this social good is worth the cost. There is also the question about whether the harms that arise from not having it are worth the cost.

              If you can lay out a cogent argument that shows that mandated family leave will create more harm for employers, employees and their families than not having it, then I will certainly accept your claim.

            • TJB said, on October 30, 2015 at 10:12 am

              Mike, you are not alone in your disdain for economic freedom.

              “Intellectuals have always disdained commerce,” says Whole Foods Market co-founder John Mackey. They “have always sided with the aristocrats to maintain a society where the businesspeople were kept down.” Having helped create the global grocery chain intellectuals arguably like best, Mackey has evolved into one of capitalism’s most persuasive champions, making the moral, practical, and even spiritual case that free exchange ennobles all who participate.


            • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 3, 2015 at 7:12 pm

              I don’t have disdain for economic freedom; but I do have disdain for economic tyranny.

              I’m reasonably sure that you think that there should be limits on behavior, even in the economic realm. As such, our difference is not one of kind and is at most one of degree.

            • WTP said, on October 30, 2015 at 10:23 am

              Similarly, and most apt for much of what Mike is constantly banging on about in regard to economics:

              “Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

              This is known as “bad luck.”

              ― Robert A. Heinlein

  3. nailheadtom said, on October 26, 2015 at 10:42 pm

    Geez, Loueeze, Ryan goes home for the weekend because he can, he can’t get fired for doing what every other member of the Congress does, if they so wish. There isn’t any inconsistency in Ryan declining to endorse state control over the voluntary contract between employers and employees. That’s what freedom is all about. If the voters of his district don’t like it they can get rid of him in the next election.

    BHO, ineligible for another term, plays golf whenever he wants (his score is never revealed), jets around the country, and the world, on the taxpayer dime, generally for political campaign purposes. Not only that, his family flies to exotic locales for free as well. His visit to Alaska had an immediate cost of over half a million dollars to the city of Anchorage and the total isn’t in yet. The behavior of that par venu is a scandal that wouldn’t have been tolerated a century ago.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 27, 2015 at 11:31 am

      True, freedom is the state of nature: the strong doing as they will, the weak suffering as they must. Who would endorse putting any limits on what people can do? I mean, if I could hack and sack Facebook for its billions,I should have the freedom to do so. If I could harvest your organs to sell, who has the right to impose on my freedom? Profit is, after all, the measure of right. And who is right is best settled by the sword.

      Expecting employers to follow rules that limits their behavior is like expecting me to follow rules that limits my behavior. If I have the power to impose on the weak, the state should not impose on me to treat the weak decently.

      So, you are totally right. Back to the state of nature. No more rules. No more laws. Well, one law: do as thou will.

      • nailheadtom said, on October 27, 2015 at 10:59 pm

        Reading Hobbes and watching one of the cinema versions of “Lord of the Flies” has warped your view of homo sapiens.

      • WTP said, on October 28, 2015 at 5:58 am

        What a load of strawman bullshit. And quite possibly some projection thrown in.

        BTW NHT, did you know that Golding was a real asshole and a cruel SOB?

        was apparently no stranger to barbaric behavior: in an unpublished memoir composed for his wife, Mr. Golding wrote that he tried to rape a 15-year-old girl when he was a young man, The Times of London reported. The account of the incident written by Mr. Golding, who died in 1993, was discovered by John Carey, the chief book reviewer of The Sunday Times of London and an emeritus professor of English literature at Oxford University…

        Mr. Golding wrote that he had tried to rape a friend, whom he calls Dora, after he returned home at age 18 from his first year at Oxford. Mr. Golding also wrote that as a schoolteacher, he would pit his pupils against each other in “Lord of the Flies”-like experiments, to see what happened when he gave them more freedom.


        Kinda puts one of the more influential books used to help mould the impressionable minds of late 20th century school children in perspective.

  4. TJB said, on October 28, 2015 at 7:41 am

    In Mike’s ideal society critical thinking will not be needed because the government will make all the decisions for you.

    Actually, China is going there now. The Chinese government is creating a score for every person, much like a credit score, but based on political viewpoints. So if I were in China my score would drop every time I commented on Mike’s blog. Presumably once my score fell low enough I would need to spend some time on a work farm to re-learn my critical thinking skills.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 28, 2015 at 1:08 pm

      Hardly. The folks in government are not any better decision makers than the general population. However, we do try to put laws through some sort of evaluation process. I think the state should limit some behavior (theft, murder, etc.) but not impose in most other areas.

  5. TJB said, on October 28, 2015 at 7:49 am

    Mike, did you not learn in elementary school that Henry Ford figured out that he could make even more money by paying his employees enough so that they could buy cars, too?

    Economic freedom is what lifts people out of poverty. Every shackle on business makes us poorer. In some cases, like environmental regulations and other “tragedy of the commons” situations it is clearly worth it. In most other cases, like mandated paid family leave, it is clearly not worth the economic damage that would be done.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 28, 2015 at 1:10 pm

      If family leave does more harm than good, then it should not be required by law. Also, Paul Ryan should not get it-we don’t want him to be harmed. He seems like a good family man and it would be shame to see him suffer.

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