Skip to content

More on the difficulty of “preaching what you practice”

A couple months ago, in discussing Charles Murray’s argument that America’s social leaders should “preach what they practice” (Murray argues that they—we!—tend to lead good lives of hard work and moderation but are all too tolerant of antisocial and unproductive behavior among the lower classes), I wrote:

Murray does not consider the case of Joe Paterno, but in many ways the Penn State football coach fits his story well. Paterno was said to live an exemplary personal and professional life, combining traditional morality with football success—but, by his actions, he showed little concern about the morality of his players and coaches. At a professional level, Paterno rose higher and higher, and in his personal life he was a responsible adult. But he had an increasing disconnect with the real world, to the extent that horrible crimes were occurring nearby (in the physical and social senses) but he was completely insulated from the consequences for many years. Paterno’s story is symbolic of upper-income America: you can live an ordinary life in an ordinary house and still feel like a regular guy but still live in a bubble. . . .

Joe Paterno is an extreme example, but I think his story is relevant, to explain the difficulty of the “preach what you practice” guideline. My claim is that “preaching,” to make a difference, requires actions as well as words. While Paterno did not espouse a nonjudgmental stance on rape, assault, etc., in his actions he expressed a hands-off policy. I see no reason to think that Paterno believed these crimes committed by his coach and players were OK, he just didn’t seem to think it was his role to do anything about it. I don’t place myself above Paterno in any moral sense—I certainly don’t monitor the after-hours activities of my own students and employees—I just see it as an example of the social distance that Murray writes about, that an authority figure such as Paterno can feel it’s acceptable to be so isolated in this way.

In response, Murray wrote, “the Paterno case is utterly inapropos for illustrating my argument.”

One complication was that Paterno was a small-town icon and outspoken conservative Republican. Perhaps this was a bit too close to Murray’s ideal.

So here’s another example that I read about: Charles Hynes, a NYC district attorney who has been colluding with local orthodox Jewish religious leaders to allow child molesters to avoid prosecution. What this story has in common with the Paterno case is not just the crime but also active coverup, with accusers being attacked for reporting the crimes. From the outside, this is hard for me to understand—Who’s out there protecting child abusers? Don’t any of these people have children of their own?—but, yes, it seems like it happens for real, and it’s not just about Catholic priests.

Here’s Charles Hynes, a Democrat from Brooklyn, and he has the same problem that Joe Paterno’s colleagues had at Penn State: they went easy on child molesters, thus directly letting them abuse more kids.

What does this tell me? Not that Hynes and Paterno are eeeeeeeeeevil—I have not idea how I would act in such a situation, and I don’t see it as my place to judge—but rather that “preaching what you practice” isn’t free. It comes with a cost. The crew at Penn State had a squeaky-clean reputation to protect, and I suppose they talked themselves into believing that the molester in their midst would not offend again. The politicos at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office presumably had an elaborate chain of argument as to why political deals were necessary, the opposition is worse, etc etc. Sure, they could’ve prosecuted a bunch of child abusers but they would’ve had to pay politically.

Of course I think (based on what I’ve read in the papers) that, in all these cases, openness would’ve been the best policy, rather than shielding the criminals and letting them do more harm. My only point is that, evidently, taking this seemingly obvious step has some cost. In the context of Paterno’s and Hynes’s day-to-day lives, it was easier to do nothing.


  1. Ely Spears says:

    It’s not a perfect analogy (since there is not really an element of cover up), but most middle- to upper-class Americans can also lead an ordinary life in an ordinary house without interfacing with the vast poverty in other parts of the world. How defensible is it really to fail to donate lots of money to low-overhead, high-impact charities like Deworm the World or Against Malaria Foundation? Or even to do some diligent research to see whether there are low-overhead charities by examining the work of GiveWell or Giving What We Can?

    I liked Robin Hanson’s recent Hunger-Games-referencing post declaring that “you [current wealthy first-worlders] are Panem’s Capitol” ( ). If we become upset when authority figures overlook obviously salient moral problems that occur when their institutions affect defenseless others, why do we seem basically unbothered by suffering that we could mitigate? I’m sure many rationalizations for not donating jump to mind, but how defensible are they really?

    This seems like a preaching what we practice issue to me, though perhaps too different from your other examples to merit more discussion; I’m unsure.

  2. kjetil halvorsen says:

    ” This seems like a preaching what we practice issue to me, though perhaps too different from your other examples to merit more discussion; “
    — But it is NOT, see:

    • Ely Spears says:

      I wholeheartedly agree that many (if not most) donations into regions with excessive political discord do little good. But smart people have started studying this problem and there definitely are many low-overhead, high-impact options for donation that avoid corruption problems.

      It’s unfortunate that many people choose not to donate because of corruption, instead of finding channels to donate that are more or less orthogonal to corruption… and I’m not sure it’s very justifiable. Arguments from corruption can be used for recommending that one avoids donating to some specific organization, but they are not useful for recommending that one avoids donating all together.

      My point is just that we hold Paterno accountable for failing to act in a morally salient situation (and, to some extent, for being viewed as a moral exemplar). Why do we not likewise hold the average American citizen accountable when she or he does virtually nothing to alleviate excessive poverty or preventable childhood diseases?

      A darkly humorous quote from Louis C.K. comes to my mind:

      “I drive an Infiniti. That’s really evil. There are people who just starve to death – that’s all they ever did. There’s people who are like, born and they go ‘Uh, I’m hungry’ then they just die, and that’s all they ever got to do. And meanwhile I’m in my car … having a great time, and I sleep like a baby.

      It’s totally my fault, ’cause I could trade my Infiniti for like a really good car, like a nice Ford Focus with like no miles on it… and I’d get back like twenty thousand dollars. And I could save hundreds of people from dying of starvation with that money. And every day I don’t do it. Every day I make them die with my car.” (link: )

      Why do we give ourselves a free pass on things like this? Is it because we’re not at the extreme tail of fame or fortune like Paterno? There really is an inconsistency here. Most average folks seem to believe they are moral and good, yet they feel comfortable literally ignoring vast quantities of suffering. I’m sure scope insensitivity and by-stander bias have something to do with it… but you would never hear anyone dare defend Paterno as being victim of totally human by-stander bias type foible. No, Paterno is cast as despicable (and I’m not disagreeing with that judgment).. but then why isn’t the average American despicable too by world standards?

      It’s sort of a Repugnant Conclusion kind of argument (well, population ethics anyway).

      • JR says:

        Because the amount of economic resources it would have taken Paterno to report his coaching assistant is somewhere close to zero. The “median” American household makes about 40000 a year, and half of the country is under it’s own poverty line. Increasing their donations could literally take bread out of their mouths. Joe Paterno would have suffered some shame and embarrassment had he immediately gone to the police, but likely his reputation and career would have remained intact.

        America is the largest charitable donator on the planet ( However, if we donate too much of our resources away from consumption, our growth stagnates, and thus our ability to give aid stagnates. To demand that every American give as much as possible to mitigate suffering in other corners of the globe would produce a morally evil result.

        • Ely Spears says:

          The Wikipedia article on Poverty in the U.S. claims that the poverty level was at 15.1% in 2010. What are you basing the “half of the country is under its own poverty line” claim upon? ( )

          Also, consider a household of 4, say, making $40,000 in the U.S. Further make the gross over estimation that the after-tax income is only $30,000. According to Giving What We Can, this family is among the richest 16% of the world population and earns 6.5 times as much as an average world citizen (that is, each of the 4 family members rank this way, not just the family taken as a single unit). ( )

          I don’t have much sympathy for someone in that situation who doesn’t take some time and become a little educated about optimal philanthropy and then give, say, 2% of their income in effective donations. That 2% won’t deprive them noticeably of standard of living in the U.S. but it can be used to provide a massive increase in others’ standards of living. And when you combine this with statistically ubiquitous bad purchases (fast food, impulse shopping) among the middle and lower-middle classes, it becomes even less justifiable to fail to donate.

          I’ve been a poor grad student for the past few years living in an expensive urban area and I’ve been able to manage donating a few hundred dollars here and there. I earn slightly more than the U.S. poverty line limit. Frankly I even feel bad about how *little* I have donated or studied the problem of optimal philanthropy. If someone earned at this level and had a family, then sure I can understand if they cannot afford to donate. But there’s a large base of Americans earning more than this with even fewer direct obligations.

          Of course, one can debate the numbers that Giving What We Can uses, but the ultimate conclusion (donating up to 3 percent, say, of income for a near-median American household) is robust to changes in their estimation procedure (my opinion).

          • Ely Spears says:

            Also, regarding the misleading stat that the U.S. is the largest charity giver, this is certainly true, but most of it goes to local organizations, especially religious ones, which are very inefficient as charities (especially when measured with disability-adjusted life year metrics). There’s a big difference between donating so that the Met can have more fancy paintings, donating so your kid’s soccer team can travel to Florida, or donating so that some people who just need malaria nets get them. Not all charities are equal, but when we congratulate ourselves about donating, we pretend like they are.

          • JR says:

            50% statistic, from latest census data: Granded, it’s “poor or low-income”, so you’re right, I wasn’t completely correct. My apologies.

            “That 2% won’t deprive them noticeably of standard of living in the U.S. but it can be used to provide a massive increase in others’ standards of living.” Proof? Evidence? Your “standard of living” definition is nothing but an exercise in question-begging (then again, so are most complaints about “consumer culture). I remember Marxists in the 60s and 70s ranting about how we didn’t REALLY need more than 1 type of laundry detergent. Maybe when more of you benevolent central planners get together to form the Ultimate Absolute Metaphysical Truth of Authentic Human Needs, I’ll buy into your first-world white-guilt rubbish.

            The same goes for your assertion that fast-food and impulse shopping are “ubiquitously bad”. In the first instance, fast food tends to be cheaper than organic non-conflict free-range preservative-free alternatives, so in buying it, Americans actually have more disposable income to give to charities. As for “impulse shopping” – payment for those products supports a large network of jobs and industry which have been raising living standards all over the world (put down the Naomi Klein book). By creating jobs and infrastructure in developing nations, we de facto give them far more sustainable and longer-term prospects for better medical care.

            You assume that the aid formula is simple and straightforward: money + Certified Good Charity = positive results. Why should people trust those charity rating sites? Why should we trust that the charities themselves aren’t misleading those sites? How do we know the results are more efficient than say, using those resources to promote long-term growth via infrastructure and education funding? How many of those charities, operating thousands of miles away from the average American, have you personally, with your own eyes, verified as being 100% on the level? It’s not just corruption that people think about: It’s things like creating aid-dependent economies, that it might bolster local autocrats, that there may be a few bad apples in the aid organization, etc etc… There is a huge difference in uncertainty between that, and Joe Paterno alerting the proper authorities as to the existence of a possible sexual predator on his staff.

            The world is a complex place with many human beings trying to figure out how to get by day to day. The average American absolutely does deserve “sympathy” for how they do and do not use their resources (or at the very least, they don’t deserve self-congratulatory onanistic derision and/or comparisons to child molester enablers). It’s not surprising that you’re a grad student given your level of sanctimony. You’re just another power and authority fetishist who thinks they know how people should use their resources.

          • Ely Spears says:

            I’m specifically talking about the studies done by Giving What We Can and by GiveWell. These organizations measure the impact of charities on disability-adjusted life years in order to quantitatively assess which charities are most effective. I don’t doubt that their measures are imperfect, but you seem to think I am just willy-nilly insisting that the recipient of charity benefits. I’m not. That’s a straw man and an easy problem to avoid simply by picking some measure (disability-adjusted life years seems about as good as any) and then just going and measuring the effect of a charity.

            Take a look at the links (to charity assessment and studies) from this page: ( ).

            I’m not assuming charity is easy, I’m just saying that all of the excuses for not donating that have so far been listed here just fail. They’ve all been quantitatively addressed. (FWIW, I only care about the quantitative approach to charity effectiveness. Others can set up their preferences differently and therefore obtain different conclusions. But it’s just wrong of you to assert that this is some naive, wide-eyed grandstand for charity.)

          • Ely Spears says:

            Also, in the linked CBS article on poverty, they say “Many middle-class Americans are dropping below the low-income threshold — roughly $45,000 for a family of four — because of …”

            I just don’t find this level of income problematic in the grand scheme of world living condtions, and I specifically addressed this above. $45,000 for a family of four certainly leaves room to donate intelligently.

            Also, you ask, “Why should we trust that the charities themselves aren’t misleading those sites? How do we know the results are more efficient than say, using those resources to promote long-term growth via infrastructure and education funding? How many of those charities, operating thousands of miles away from the average American, have you personally, with your own eyes, verified as being 100% on the level?”

            For one, it would be silly to require personal verification at the level of myself actually witnessing the charities operate. Do you personally go to the FDA and inspect their methods to ensure that your food is prepared up to certain safety standards? It would be far too expensive to demand that level of confirmation. So we can dismiss this right away. We rely on standards of evidence, peer reviewed articles, data collection, etc. These are not perfect institutions, but that’s what we’re working with. If you advocate operating way outside that realm, at extreme expense, that’s fine but I simply disagree that that is the standard required.

            But more importantly, I emphatically *do not* think you should just trust charity rating organizations. Not at all. I think we should demand that charity ratings be presented in a peer-reviewed way, and tied to agreed-upon quantitative metrics. No system is going to be perfect, but Giving What We Can, Charity Navigator, and GiveWell are huge steps in the right direction and they allow most individuals with an internet connection to get quantitative measures of charity efficacy. Not just someone’s opinions.

            If you’re not convinced by these organizations, then by all means do not donate according to their recommendations. I only want people to donate because they are convinced by the evidence that it’s the best thing to do (under an assumed common preference for mitigating human suffering). If you aren’t convinced, don’t donate. But it doesn’t make much sense to write off charity advice organizations without doing the legwork of studying their data and arguments. In your case, I would also advise to be careful to avoid confirmation bias. You seem to have some emotional hang-ups (i.e. calling me a power and authority fetishist because I advocate that average Americans are capable of donating and should be held morally accountable for doing so) about charity.

  3. Steve Sailer says:

    I really don’t understand the Joe Paterno argument. How many hundreds of thousands of pieces of prose denouncing Joe Paterno have been posted over the last year? Contrast the reaction of sports fans to say the Academy of Motion Pictures giving the Best Director Oscar for 2002 to fugitive child anal-rapist Roman Polanski.

    Widespread patterns of sexual exploitation of young people in the entertainment industry is a topic that the prestige press handles with kid gloves.

    • Andrew says:


      I picked Paterno and Hynes because these were people who one might think would “preach what they practice.” A football coach who is a well-known moral examplar and a public prosecutor: these are the sorts of people one would expect to take a hard line on child abuse, yet they didn’t. Again, my point here is not to condemn but rather to indicate the difficulty in the seemingly easy-to-follow-advice to preach what you practice.

      The anger people feel at Roman Polanski is of a different sort. People are mad at Paterno for having an image of probity while in reality he didn’t seem to care much about a nearby child molester. People are mad at Polanski for actually doing the crime and then, perhaps more so, for expressing no remorse.

  4. Situations exert pressures that keep people from saying or doing the right thing. It’s like the TV show “What Would You Do?” except that people who decide to shield child molesters have a lot more time to think about it and perhaps a lot more variables to consider.

    I haven’t read Murray, but just exactly how and when and where are we virtuous folks supposed to do our preaching to what used to be called the White trash?

  5. Nigel Goodwin says:

    I’ve read a little about Paterno, and think using him as an example is very inappropriate. From what I have read he followed all the good practices he should have done.

    The people in that case you should use as examples are the school officials who covered it up, and have since resigned or been sacked. I can’t remember the names or details, but those are the ones who deserve everything they got, not Paterno.

    Paterno did not express a hands off belief. He reported what he had heard (which was very little) to the appropriate authorities.

    I am curious why you are so cavalier with the facts?

    I love NUTS! Stick to maths, not social commentary. Russell had the same problem.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Ely Spears:

    ¿Did you read the book I referred to? Here is another, very relevant one:

    The argument is NOT that ins should avoid aid because some organizations are corrupt! If it were so, one could indeed check the organizations and only give to non-corrupt ones.

    The argument is that the aid DOES A LOT OF HARM, in part because of the sheer size of this industry. The organizations does harm just by being there, even if their projects, in isolations, seems good. I guess the point is that true development must come from within, and aid can do harm th the necessary processes to get that starting.

  7. Gary says:

    Well, according to research by Angela Duckworth at Harvard, it seems that if there is one trait to be
    taught (if it is possible to teach it at ill) , it is grit and perseverance:

    Which suggests that grit , defined as “stick-to-it-ness” , as the ability to continue working despite obstacles,

    correlates much better with success than natural talent , IQ , and other variables thought to be more important.