Institutional Hypocrisy

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Institutional hypocrisy is a phenomenon in which an organization acts in a way that is in conflict with its supposed purposes.

Institutional hypocrisy is widespread in organized religion, and is one of the most common criticisms of organized religion, although it is an issue that also appears in a variety of other settings, including the military [1].

Institutional hypocrisy, and the ideal of overcoming it and creating a robust and powerful institution of organized religion that could consistently stay true to its original and publicly professed purpose, was one of the major motivating factors behind the founding of Why This Way.

Causes of institutional hypocrisy

There is no single cause of institutional hypocrisy, but rather, different factors which can lead to disconnects between the values and purposes a group outwardly professes to support and the way the group actually functions. These include:

  • The group's operation becoming more important than its purposes - Organizations function as systems, and they all need certain things to keep going. Organizations that persist in society are those that are effective at maintaining and/or growing their participation, resources (including money), and public image. In many organizations, the factors that lead towards the ongoing success or growth of a group become so powerful in shaping the organization that the original values and purpose of the group are pushed aside.
  • Seizing of power - Individuals or organizations can gain power and influence within organizations and use those organizations to advance their own interests, even when those interests go against the core values or original purposes of the group.
  • Design - In some cases, hypocrisy can be built into an organization from the very start. Examples of such organizations include businesses whose model for profit involves deceiving or scamming customers, or public relations organizations that masquerade as independent research or news organizations. In religion, such organizations include religious movements founded solely with an intent to profit, gain power, or advance a particular political agenda.
  • Saving face - The phenomenon of saving face, or attempting to maintain a public image either for a group, or for a specific authority figure in the group, explains one of the major sources of institutional hypocrisy. Because people and human institutions are inherently imperfect, organizations, and specific people people in organizations, will always make mistakes and act in ways which go against the purposes or values of an organization. Mistakes alone, however, do not constitute institutional hypocrisy; institutional hypocrisy involves a more serious problem, in which an organization covers up wrongdoings of its members, damage caused by the organization, or actions that go against the organization's values, rather than correcting them. One particularly serious example of how saving face can lead to institutional hypocrisy is when authority members in a church cover up incidents of sex abuse and fail to take action against the perpetrators of the abuse.

Preventing institutional hypocrisy

In order to prevent institutional hypocrisy, an institution must address all of the different ways in which an organization can become hypocritical.

Preventing the group's operation becoming more important than its purposes

The sort of hypocrisy caused by an organization's operation or growth becoming more important than its purposes or values can be particularly difficult to prevent, because it can arise out of the independent actions of a group of well-intentioned people.

Organizations that do not put enough energy or care into their operation and resource management can fall apart or fold, as they face financial problems or or other practical problems. Similarly, organizations that do not place enough energy or care into growing or at least maintaining a stable membership or level of participation can face dwindling numbers until the institution falls apart or ceases to exist. These realities can produce a pressure in organizations to help or protect the organization. This pressure can exist when people are passionate about an organization and want to see it grow or thrive (as in the case of religious evangelism) but it can become particularly strong when an organization's well-being is threatened.

In Why This Way we have adopted several different methods to address and hopefully prevent this problem from arising. These include:

  • A core belief that acting in accordance with our values is always more important than the growth, financial prosperity, and reputation of the organization. This belief drives and guides everything we do in the group, and can be a point that can be used to guide our actions in every aspect of the organization.
  • Our Principles for Handling Money involve restricting our spending to a small portion of the assets, and to avoid taking out loans for any purpose. These principles are designed to remove two of the major sources of financial pressure on organizations. They can allow the yearly functioning of the organization to remain unchanged in the short-term, even in response to major financial constraints placed on the group by changes in the economy.
  • Some of our other beliefs also relate to this issue, such as our view that, in a healthy state, when working towards a goal, people check to see that their actions are having the desired effect.

Preventing seizing of power

Organizations take many approaches to maintaining their integrity and preventing the seizing of power by individuals or groups wishing to manipulate the organization for their own ends. Using a democratic process, such as voting, is one such approach, but voting has numerous downsides: it can be inefficient, it can lead to a majority leaving the wishes of a minority unaddressed, and, most importantly in our current context, it does not fully address the problem of seizing power. As an example, wealthy individuals and organizations can manipulate the voting process by running a publicity campaign. People can also manipulate voting through exercising social power. The phenomenon of manipulating voting through power plays can occur in governmental elections, in proxy battles for control of corporations by shareholder votes, and in voting for positions in a labor union, or any number of smaller organizations.

Hierarchical organization can prevent the rapid turnover of power, but it can lead to problems if an individual high in the hierarchy starts acting in a way that conflicts with the purposes or values of the group.

We chose to base our group on a consensus process, and we designed our process and our rules of communication in part to prevent the seizing of power by people or groups who would act against the purposes of the group. Our process and rules are not only are designed to prevent some of the practical problems with consensus processes, but also to keep the conversation, discussion, and actions taken by the group within the bounds of the core values and purpose of the group. We also embrace openness and transparency as another means of preventing the seizing of power.

Preventing hypocrisy by design

It is easy for the founders of an organization to prevent hypocrisy by design, so the true issue when it comes to preventing hypocrisy by design in society is the question of how outsiders can identify organizations that are hypocritical by design, and avoid supporting these organizations. From the perspective of an organization founded by sincere participants, the challenge is making sure that people recognize that the group is founded with honest intentions.

We believe that the best way of achieving this is transparency. Organizations that are hypocritical by design are never truly transparent, as no one would support them if they were. Transparency is the most effective way of sending a public message that an organization is sincere about its intentions, and it also has the additional benefit of making it harder to seize power within the organization, and making it harder to cover up problems in the organization. From an outside perspective, looking for transparency is often one of the best ways to locate organizations that are founded with sincere intentions.

Preventing hypocrisy by cover-ups to save face

Preventing institutional hypocrisy in the form of covering up wrongdoings to save face can be a major challenge, because many people feel a strong motivating force to cover up wrongdoings in the interest of protecting the organization as a whole and protecting people they like and care about. Since caring about people and an organization is almost universally considered to be a good thing, preventing this type of hypocrisy can be subtle and challenging.

Transparency and openness can play a role in preventing cover-ups, but they do not completely prevent the problem. Another approach is to enact harsher punishments for cover-ups and conspiracy. This approach is widespread in law, in which additional charges, such as obstruction of justice, perjury, bribery, and conspiracy, can result in harsher punishments. This approach, however, is coercive, and is thus not ideal, as it does not encourage people to come clean of their own initiative.

A different approach, which is more in line with our beliefs, is to encourage people to take responsibility for their actions, and to be open and honest in their communications. People can also be encouraged by positive examples, in which an organization publicly demonstrates examples of people admitting their shortcomings and taking responsibility for their mistakes, and in which the organization recognizes people for the taking of responsibility. People can also be encouraged to take responsibility by emphasizing the ways in which this sort of behavior is actually best in the long-run for the organization, for themselves, and for any other people involved who may have made mistakes or acted in harmful ways. This approach addresses the primary reason that most people cover up mistakes, which is that they are afraid of negative consequences for themselves, for people they care about, or for the organization as a whole.


  • Bernard Yack ed., Liberalism Without Illusions: Essays on Liberal Theory and the Political, p. 176: "Institutional hypocrisy involves a disparity between the publicly avowed purposes of an institution and its actual performance or function."