This is a chapter from the book:
Psychology of the Private Individual

Chapter 3: Hypocrisy and complaining about the world

As the world is rather sparing with its opportunities, and self-control does not pay off, the moral self continually tries to have his claims honored, for this is the form his rejected interests take so as to be maintained. Because he is committed to making his own materialism match the principles of what is permitted, he refers to these principles whenever he wants to succeed with his own concerns. He stages every purpose and every act as a right of his subjective will, continually pleads and swears that his deeds conform to the standards he acknowledges — and represents his individual success as the public interest: hypocrisy, moral materialism, by which he criticizes other people as egoists for “only” thinking about themselves.

Power, the actual, forcefully imposed restrictions of everyday life, appears to the moral subject, who insists on his rightful interests, neither as class antagonism (i.e., as competition based on private property) nor as submission to the state’s monopoly on force. If one’s own interest is legitimate, but nevertheless comes off badly, then the bourgeois world must be a heap of injustices, not adhering to its own lofty standards; therefore, it is particularly a decent person who is “forced” to constantly consider violating these standards in practice, however much he may hold to them in theory. At the same time, he feels as if he were restoring their validity when he employs the pathetic ruse that constitutes the habit of hypocrisy. Whenever there is a collision of interests, he seeks to exploit the general respect for law and morals by claiming the reason for his conduct is to realize rights and duties, setting himself up as the keeper of ethical standards, because “this is the only way” the world allows him to get by. And for the sake of the credibility of his hypocrisy, he constantly exhibits his decency, and is a master of good conduct, which of course he also demands of other people.

3.1. Striving for success in the name of the Good

The moral personality demonstrates his regret that decency in no way guarantees success, but he doesn’t mean this as a notice to withdraw his consent. Although it is common wisdom that nice guys finish last, this does not form the prelude to opposing the permitting authorities, but rather to practicing the foolish technique of self-assertion that poses as materialistic: “The world wants to be deceived.”[1] The whole deception, though, consists in the bourgeois paragon of virtue giving all his intentions the appearance of the Good: by pointing out that his actions are important not only for him but above all for others, therefore rather well-intentioned and consequently in line with what everyone would surely agree to be his duty, he justifies the advantage he has his sights on, i.e., his interest. Hypocrisy thus keeps to decency as a means of success, albeit as one that has to be separated from practice and employed as legitimation for one’s own materialism.

3.2 The one-sided benefit of hypocrisy: must, should, can, may

But at the same time, this attitude also justifies power, crediting it with permitting a breezy life to those individuals who are cognizant of the discord between the two maxims and display the proper skill in handling them. This skill in dealing with others, however, doesn’t just meet worthy equals, who hold one to one’s pretended sense of duty and affectation of righteousness; it quite obviously fails when more tangible means are lacking, so that the trick of hypocrisy, cultivated by all classes, only works in the hands of the rich and powerful. It doesn’t even seem to require any special effort on their part, being rather just their ordinary self-assurance displayed in public. People who’ve made it to the top ranks of public service are never doing what they actually do, rather always just doing their duty; and when someone like this chalks up another advance in his career, he is never increasing his power, just his responsibility. When other people complain, a real superior and office bearer notes the consequences of the decisions and measures he takes with an “unfortunately” — by which he would have the necessity of his actions proven; when criticized, he asks for alternative possibilities, which he can’t see anywhere in sight — especially as he must not order anything other than what he personally doesn’t want to order. No wonder that modal verbs, which express the will’s position toward the subject’s action, have become the preferred aid for hypocrisy in everyday dealings.

3.3. Separation of the theory and the practice of decency

But in his habitual hypocrisy, the lesser subject, the “little guy,” also thinks he is pretty free because enormously smart and crafty; although he demeans himself by fawning on higher-ups and mastering all sorts of pretense, he really thinks he is only pursuing his materialism. In the process, he readily forgets how unsuitable a means it is for him — so that many a ridiculous thing is to be heard from the mouth of an average Joe. When someone like this wants to push through a matter of concern to him with the help of the obligatory “us,” it just doesn’t sound the same coming from him as it does from the boss. Some people then make up for this in areas where they have something to say, readily tormenting the kids, whose good behavior they demand, with the weighty words, “I’m doing it for your own good.” And when someone is reminded that he himself is not sticking to the standards he always upholds, he actually comes up with the idea behind all this fuss: what’s demanded of him is all right “in theory,” but hardly works “in practice” — this being how he alludes to both his real and his hoped-for advantage. The separation, expressed in this way, between principles one approves and the mean life that prevents one from keeping to them, is anything but a secret in bourgeois society — someone attracts attention at best when he fails to separate them: Freudian slips and worse are normal when self-control on the field of public pretense doesn’t go right.

3.4. Decency as lived ideal: Politeness

Though an honest hypocrite readily admits the separation by accusing himself with the deepest of deep regrets of inconsistency in matters of morals, he practices it in all his dealings in the certainty that they won’t work out otherwise. As little as decency determines the way people deal with each other, all the more do they obey the hypocritical need for reciprocal recognition over and above the real purposes that bring them together. If decency as such cannot be kept up, it is lived as an ideal: since everyone thinks he can facilitate the success of his interests by proving he is entitled to everything he wants; since conversely everyone must be prepared for an examination of his concerns, and has to justify himself with respect to his claims — 1) Do they stay within permissible bounds? 2) Are they merited? In plain English: 3) Isn’t he getting in my way? — then under these circumstances there is no shortage of politeness. Every form of dependence, every opposition of interests turns into a question of manners, which decide whether someone is even granted a hearing out. In the techniques of good form, individuals grant each other recognition in principle, separate from everything they have to do with each other, are planning, and want from other people.

They expect the show of respect from others as a virtual promise not to be up to anything improper, and by keeping to and mastering the rules of deportment, they profess their own morality, self-control as a ritual; following this ritual appears to be the sine qua non for any success. Nevertheless, a little courtesy can by no means be relied on to go a long way. That politeness is made the condition for consideration of an interest does not mean that it replaces the usefulness of a service for others. What really matters is what someone actually has “to offer” after greetings have been made, besides appropriate clothes and a clean shave— a pearl of wisdom often pointed out by people who professionally treat others as material for their economic and political success. The institutionalization of calculatingly friendly dealing, which is already drilled into children like the times tables, includes not only the general suspicion that there might be nothing “behind” it, but also the freedom to insist on “protocol” to very different degrees according to one’s social position. While politicians and employers, but also teachers and instructors, attach enormous importance to their subordinates displaying impeccable behavior, they themselves can cultivate the rudest manners without meeting with criticism — except behind their back. If such people are in the mood, they can, on the basis of their position, even make themselves popular with an unconventional “style,” blithely disregarding “appearances” and advocating a casual atmosphere. The other way round it’s not so easy: many a breach in matters of “tact” has led very quickly, at universities or otherwise after the arrival of dignitaries, to the breaking off of diplomatic relations, if not in fact the deployment of police. In any case, it is advisable, even in the twentieth century, for those of lesser means, who depend on being useful, to keep to the original meaning of greetings like the Austrian “servus” (from Latin slave, servant) and “ciao” (from Medieval Latin sclavus slave) and strike the tone that behooves them. After all, they can use pamphlet distributors and waitstaff to obtain the compensation required by their otherwise greatly hampered materialism.

3.5. Moral materialism. Envy and Schadenfreude[2]

The bourgeois individual is a skilled hypocrite. Thus he knows from his own experience all about what is driving other people, what they mean when they’re being friendly — and he discovers without difficulty the divergence of decency, as it is proclaimed, from the calculating, i.e. conditional, handling of it. Therefore, he is also capable of carrying hypocrisy to extremes, convicting other people in the name of morality of an ambiguous morality. Actually, there is nothing at all ambiguous about moral standards: if they weren’t separate from practice they wouldn’t even exist. In “interpersonal relations,” though, it is not too advisable for bourgeois individuals to start criticizing their equals or “betters” for their conduct or their interpretation of it — with equals, the exposure of errors would be based on the interests of those criticized; the same goes for “betters,” with the one difference that it would result in a declaration of opposition. Rather, to show decency just means to play the faithful upholder of the appearances betrayed by the deeds of everyone putting them on. Then one can enjoy Schadenfreude, which arises as an exceedingly justified feeling whenever other people’s hypocrisy is crowned with failure. It is customary to condemn others in the name of decency: for their bogus and calculating display of morals as well as for simply offending them. The need for “information” about abortive attempts in both directions feeds an entire branch of mass culture that looks after documenting the aphorism, “Ill-gotten gains never prosper.” In this world, there are logically also good — while clever and warm-hearted — criminals, who cut a good figure along with completely law-abiding people who have run into some “bad luck through no fault of their own.” The idealistic use of a subordinate mind knows no bounds — unlike the material success of individuals who agree with bourgeois rules and intend to get something without having anything. A moral subject, who has banished his materialism to the conditional tense, would rather cultivate his interests in the form of envy, which demands that others get as little as one gets oneself, than reflect on the objective barriers that condemn his wishes to stay wishes. The experience of failure with the ruse of hypocrisy is, for such an individual, only cause for asserting himself without even scoring any runs.


[1]“Die wellt die will betrogen syn,” Sebastian Brant, Narrenschiff, 1494.

[2]Enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.