Philosopher Otto Snellman: “Hypocrisy can be useful and help achieve the sustainability transformation”

A politician forcefully advocates new wind power projects as a solution to the climate crisis. It is later revealed that their main motive was to reap more tax revenue from wind power into their electoral district. Was the politician hypocritical in their endeavours? If so, was their hypocrisy harmful? If it was harmful, to whom?

“I want to challenge the idea that hypocrisy related to environmental issues is always a bad thing. We should be able to recognise when hypocrisy is harmful, harmless or helpful, and what constitutes hypocrisy in the first place. I’m also interested in exploring whose hypocrisy matters,” researcher Otto Snellman says. The Nessling Foundation funded Snellman’s doctoral thesis project in the 2022 general grant call.

We may refer to hypocrisy as greenwashing or virtue signalling, for example. The kind of hypocrisy studied by Snellman could be summed up in the idea that a hypocrite tries to come across as better than they actually are. Hypocrisy can be compared to pretending or wearing a mask. Hypocrisy can be conscious, in which case you know you are pretending, or unconscious, in which case it can also be called self-deception. In addition to individuals, entities such as the state or a company can engage in hypocrisy.

Snellman has a very concrete measure for hypocrisy related to the ecological crisis. He points out that the sustainability transformation is fundamentally a physical issue: emissions and the consumption of natural resources must be reduced and biodiversity loss must be halted. These are concrete and measurable goals.

“We should always keep this physical change in mind when we’re claiming that we’re acting for the good of the environment. Otherwise, we can easily fall into symbolic and misleading action that won’t be reflected in emission or extinction wave figures – that is, being hypocritical in a bad way.”

He mentions forest-industry companies as an example. According to Snellman, these companies may have progressive and innovative initiatives, but they have not been willing to change their core business, which is harmful to carbon sinks and nature.

“No matter how great deeds are done and how good everything looks on the surface, we can’t achieve a sustainability transformation if we fail to reduce emissions or halt biodiversity loss.”

Since we are dealing with philosophy here, hypocrisy is, of course, not quite so straightforward. Particularly if we move to the level of individuals.

“Sometimes we may unintentionally drift into a situation that causes us dissonance or makes us feel hypocritical. This can happen, for example, if you want to reduce your own emissions, but your home is heated by district heating, and you can’t do anything about its production method. I don’t think that the person in this scenario is necessarily hypocritical. What is essential is to recognise that the inconsistency between our values and actions is caused by structures beyond the individual’s control. But here, too, lies a danger: we’re too easily tempted to give up responsibility for changing things.”

Combining hypocrisy with change as a solution

Snellman’s interest in hypocrisy was sparked at university. For the past four years, he has also been actively involved in the environmental movement, such as in the activities of the Finnish Nature League, Climate Move, Extinction Rebellion Finland and the Ilmastovaalit campaign team.

“I realised that I could use the theme of hypocrisy to bring together these two worlds, academia and activism. Experiences of dissonance and hypocrisy already play a big role in the environmental movement, and people are talking about them. These experiences affect how things are done in the environmental movement, and the topic hasn’t yet received much attention in the academic world.”

Snellman’s thesis is that different approaches to hypocrisy and dissonance can either strengthen or break down political movements that promote the sustainability transformation.

We can’t achieve a sustainability transformation if we fail to reduce emissions or halt biodiversity loss.

Snellman chose participatory philosophy as his research method because he wants to truly interact with his research subjects and utilise their input in refining his research questions, for example.

“I want to do research that benefits not only the academic world, but also the environmental movement. In addition to civic influencers, I also want to include in my research representatives of areas such as the business world and government and explore how hypocrisy manifests and affects the promotion of the sustainability transformation in them.”

Snellman thinks that acknowledging and admitting hypocrisy can actually be advantageous to various organisations and thereby contribute to the sustainability transformation. Humans are good at inventing rationales for their hypocritical and inconsistent behaviour. This is why hypocrisy is often unconscious. Snellman believes that focusing on identifying inconsistencies in our behaviour instead of coming up with excuses could lead to action that has greater benefits for the environment.

“Talking about painful experiences of dissonance can motivate people to pay attention to the things that cause them dissonance and help them focus their energy on changing those things. I think it’s possible that some experiences of dissonance can unite people and create solidarity. Such an experience could be the distress admitted today by an increasing number of Finnish activists from knowing that this system has benefited them at the expense of the lives of people in the Global South.”

Otto Snellman was photographed on his favourite rock in Helsinki’s Central Park.

In addition to philosophy, Snellman uses theories of social sciences and psychology in his research. He believes that, for example, social psychology can explain the mechanisms that we call hypocrisy in everyday life.

“Not enough links have been made between research in psychology and social sciences. Philosophy could be an effective tool to bridge this gap as it examines society and people from a wider perspective. At least that’s what I want to believe.”

In 2022, the Nessling Foundation granted a total of EUR 2.3 million in funding to 28 new projects. Otto Snellman’s doctoral thesis project “Hypocrisy in ethics and politics of sustainability transformation” is one of them.

You can follow Otto Snellman’s work on Instagram @dj_v_snellman and Twitter @OttoSnellman.

See the list of all funded projects.

Photos: Annukka Pakarinen