Brain with different color right & left hemisphere graphic (692 x 692 px)

An article in the Sept. 17 2007 issue of Time magazine piqued my interest. In it, the author, John Cloud, argues that the recent crop of Republican homosexual legislators deserves our understanding of their weakness, rather the opprobrium of hypocrisy. To quote Cloud, he is offering “a moistly liberal request: Can we have a moment of pity for moralizers who fall?”

His argument runs as follows:

“Hypocrisy is among the most universal and well-studied of psychological phenomena, and the research suggests that Craig, Haggard, and the others may be guilty not so much of moral hypocrisy as moral weakness. The distinction may sound trivial at first, but as a society, we tend to forgive the weak and shun the hypocritical.

Assume for a moment that Craig and Haggard actually believed what they said—that homosexuality is sin. They spent most of their lives fighting for the conservative cause. But in Craig’s case, the Idaho Statesman has published allegations that there were at least three other slipups involving men, beginning in 1967. What if, like the radio host who gets fat but commits to losing weight, the moralizers were trying through their “pro-family” endeavors to expiate their lustful sins? You may think they are wrong about homosexuality (I do), but that doesn’t make them hypocrites.

With all due respect, this argument is not “moistly liberal”, it is downright wrong on scientific and moral grounds.

What did Larry (wide stance) Craig actually say? Here is one quote: “It is important for us to stand up now and protect traditional marriage, which is under attack by a few unelected judges and litigious activists.” Here is a man who married a woman and for decades fought against equality for gays.

So that we are not accused of picking on one unfortunate soul, remember Mark Foley?

Here is what he said, “For those pedophiles and predators across this country that have harmed or are considering harming a child, let me tell you that you are on notice… Your days in the shadows are over.” How prophetic, and how poetically just. This is the stuff Greek tragedies are made of.

 

Is it classical hubris, or is it hypocrisy?

The classical Greeks did not have Freud to kick around. They attributed human failings to hubris, a cardinal sin in the eyes of the Olympian gods. And the retribution that followed was swift and merciless. No moistly liberal excuses for them.

Two thousand years later, Shakespeare took a more nuanced approach to human failing. The hubris of the proud and vain King Lear had to be paid for, and dearly. But the process of suffering cleansed him of his hubris and opened his heart to love. His tragic death broke the hearts of millions.

Enter Freud, about 300 years later. His original psychoanalytic theories have been largely discredited, but the psychobabble residue they have left behind is still with us. Hence the “psychological” and moral sleight of hand a la Cloud: These people are not hypocritical at all, they are just weak.

 

Neurobiology refutes this argument

A recent review in Science (“Social Decision-Making: Insights from Game Theory and Neuroscience”) makes the point that social decision-making is controlled by a complex network of centers in the brain. The middle area of the prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and the area just below it (the orbitofrontal cortex, or OFC) constitute the “executive center”, making final judgments that balance inputs from the anterior and posterior cingulate cortex (ACC and PCC) which are the reward areas, and from the amygdala and the insula (AMY and INS), which process the more primitive urges, such as fright, aggression, hatred, rage, etc. (Dr. Freud, is this the anatomical locus of your concept of the “subconscious”?).

 

Brain areas activated by decision making

What is important about this new research is showing the part of emotions in the overall mix of inputs into our decision-making. And this brings us to a potential explanation for what is called “cognitive dissonance”. What is meant by that is the nagging, and sometimes profound, discomfort we feel when our behaviors don’t align with our beliefs. Our prefrontal cortex will keep nagging us, disturbing our peace of mind, interfere with our sleep, afflict us with unpleasant dreams—until we bring our behavior into alignment with our beliefs, which in reality are the products of the judgments made in the prefrontal cortex.

 

I accept that if you say one thing and then do another, the cognitive dissonance you will suffer is a result of your weakness. But when you do one thing and then say another—this is no weakness, this is willful hypocrisy. Larry Craig did not become a homosexual last month or last year. He was probably gay before he was a senator. Science tells us that he probably was born a homosexual. Mark Foley didn’t discover children when he first saw a congressional intern. They were most likely the objects of his desire decades ago.

Which leads me to the most “unmoistly liberal” conclusion: These people are hypocritical. The excuse of weakness or “the devil made me do it” doesn’t wash: Your prefrontal cortex warned you time and again that your behavior is reprehensible; you chose to ignore it. You did one thing and then chose to say or do something antithetical, in order to advance your political career. If the consequences began and ended with you alone, nobody cares. But your decision-making had social consequences. Your words, votes, actions—they inflicted grave harm on innocent people who have done you no wrong.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.