Principled hypocrisy

Moving towards more optimal levels of guilt and morality

Summary: if you consider yourself an ethical person, yet you don't do everything you can to alleviate poverty and suffering, then you are a hypocrite. You should accept this, set an uncomfortable yet achievable rule for how you will help, achieve it, and forgive yourself.

You are a hypocrite and so am I

Just like most people, I believe that suffering of conscious beings is bad, that humans all equally deserve to flourish and avoid suffering, and that we are morally obliged to help one another when we can. Yet I am not vegan, and I do not donate all my non-subsistence-level income to charity. That's because I am a hypocrite. So are you.

Given the amount of suffering by at least somewhat conscious animals in the food industry, almost any amount of empathy for animals should justify a tendency towards believing that Vegetaranism and beyond is morally preferable to Carnivorism. And whether or not you agree with that, given the amount of avoidable human suffering currently occurring in the world, a simple belief in "human suffering is bad" should lead you to think that you are probably not donating as much to charity as you could and morally ought to.

The moral problems that we have in the world are massive. And we know we have an obligation to contribute to solutions. But the problems are too big to be solved by a single act or donation. So we end up in a loop:

ignore -> feel guilty -> randomly do something good -> ignore

Relying on a gradual build up of guilt to force moral action is extremely suboptimal. Here's why:

  • The actions are random in time: a one-off donation to Greenpeace because a volunteer makes you feel guilty on the street, a random vegetarian meal because you watched a documentary about the meat industry.
  • The actions are random in magnitude: you give $5 to a homeless person outside a store because they look sad, and then spend $50 on a pair of pants you wear once.
  • The actions are random in effectiveness: you donate $50 to a cat shelter which buys comfortable bedding for ~5 cats in a major US city, while the same amount could stop 3 children from starving for a month in Ethiopia.

Not only will these random actions not do very much good, but you are also likely to continue feeling guilty every time you encounter the immense amounts of moral wrongs happening in the world right now. Depending on your level of empathy and engagement with this, it can really materially impact the quality your well-being  — setting aside the horrors of the moral wrongs themselves.

Principled Hypocrisy

Here's what I suggest you do instead:

Accept that you are a hypocrite and buy yourself peace of mind

For each issue you encounter that you feel guilty about not contributing to, make a rule for how you will contribute going forward and commit to it. The rule must be realistic and achievable, but also feel like it's a significant sacrifice for you. This could be "I don't eat meat on X&Y days of the week" or "I donate X% of my income to charity each year" or even "I can't afford to do anything for other people right now, but I will help out in the future when I can".

Once you have done this, allow yourself to not feel guilty about that issue. If you find this hard, try to increase the scale of your rule. If that still doesn't work, congrats, you are less of a hypocrite than most, and you will likely not feel truly free of guilt until we solve the moral wrongs themselves. I'd recommend cutting out the middlemen and working in healthcare or for a charity of your choosing.

If you on the other hand feel that you don't end up following your rule, make it less ambitious until you actually do start following it. Once youre in the habit of doing it, you can increase the scope of it later.


I know that this sounds like a crude, capitalist way of buying yourself out of guilt, but please hear me out.

The way I see it, we're stuck in an equilibrium where the rate of improvement on key moral issues is slower than most people feel it should be, and definitely slower than it could be. Simultaneously, most people feel guilty because they could be "doing more". I think, at heart, this is because guilt is not a good motivator to change. Guilt makes people feel bad, so they'll try to avoid that feeling, even if that means not even thinking about the problem at all. The problem is, without many people acting at the same time, the problems remain unfixed. Small numbers of people helping is not enough.

The strength of Principled Hypocrisy lies in what each person feels is a "significant undertaking" for them. For people whose friends and family donate a lot to charity and are mostly vegetarian, the % donation of their income is going to be much higher and their eating lifestyle change much bigger in order to feel significant. For people whose friends and family don't have a culture of donating to charity, a $10/mth donation is going to feel significant. The important thing here is that they are shifting the norms of their local environment in a positive direction. That is very powerful when compounded over time and across groups.

If you are seen as a normal, averagely moral person, and you decide to be vegetarian on weekdays for moral reasons, you provide a convincing piece of evidence for your friends and family that the meat industry has problems and that we need to act on climate change. Much more so than an angry vegetarian yelling at you about the meat industry.

Similarly, a regular person with regular means committing to donate 5% of their income to poverty alleviation in poor countries sets a much more powerful and relatable example to their colleagues and friends than Bill Gates donating 99% of his wealth does (but please keep donating Bill!).

Please don't take this as an argument against doing your utmost to help alleviate the world's suffering. If you are already committed, or are considering committing to ending poverty, illness and cruelty through your work or donations, please do it. You're doing the right thing. This post is aimed at people for whom the alternative to what I suggest here is doing little while also feeling guilty about it. Doing little is worse than doing more and feeling guilty just adds to the world's suffering (albeit in a insignificantly small quantity on the individual level).