Those conservative hypocrites! Here they oppose the individual mandate under the Affordable Care Act in the name of “freedom,” and yet then turn around and vote against a woman’s freedom to choose abortion. So argued a liberal professor on a discussion list I was on, and I’ve heard lots of liberals make the same arguments.

Those liberal hypocrites! Here they argue for sexual liberty in the name of “freedom,” and yet they support freedom-restricting gun controls. So argue plenty of conservatives (and some libertarians), including on this blog.

Those libertarian hypocrites! Here they talk about how people should have freedom, and yet they are just fine with big corporations constraining employees’ and consumers’ freedom. So argue still other people.

I’m quite skeptical of all these claims of hypocrisy, because they ignore the reality that many people sincerely and plausibly have different understandings of “freedom.”

No-one really thinks that everyone should be free to do whatever they please. To everyone, “freedom” means freedom to do those things that don’t sufficiently harm others (and often also means freedom from constraint imposed by particular actors, such as government using the threat of legal action, and not other actors, such as churches using moral or spiritual sanctions).

And that judgment necessarily requires making contested moral and pragmatic decisions:

What, as a moral matter, constitutes “harm”? For instance, does paying someone a low wage for their work count as harming them? How about discriminating against them in various transactions? Interfering with their business relations? Libeling them? Having sex with their spouses? Revealing information about them that they view as private?

What, as a practical matter, causes such “harm”? For instance, does legal private gun possession really cause more crime and injury than would be present if guns were prohibited?

When can avoiding some kinds of harm justify restrictions on people’s freedom? For instance, when can some behavior — e.g., the distribution of guns or alcohol — be properly restricted, for instance, when it is not itself harmful, but makes it possible for third parties to act harmfully?

Who counts as “others” who should be protected against “harm”? Fetuses? Animals?

Well-intentioned people can easily answer these questions differently than we would; and that they answer them differently doesn’t mean that they’re hypocrites.

Now one can certainly argue that people who believe in the freedom to do X should also believe in the freedom to do Y because of this-and-such similarity and because the supposed differences are actually overstated for this-and-such reason. But claims of hypocrisy are more than just claims of honest error. They are claims that people are consciously pretending to be for freedom when they know they are actually against it — claims of dishonesty.

Occasionally, such claims of conscious pretense are supported with actual evidence, but usually they aren’t: The view often seems to be “those people must be lying when they say they are for freedom,” even when there is no evidence for this beyond the fact that those people have a different understanding of the boundaries of freedom than the speaker does. Something similar happens with regard to constitutional debates, where people often claim that someone is hypocritical for interpreting two provisions differently, without at all considering the possibility that there is an honest disagreement about how the provisions are to be interpreted.

So such accusations of hypocrisy are factually unsupported. And such unsupported accusations of hypocrisy, as with all unsupported accusations that the other side is consciously dishonest or morally corrupt, are also destructive of helpful public debate.

They may energize one’s base, but they make it much harder to persuade people who are leaning toward the other side, and I suspect that they also alienate the middle as well. Instead of substantive discussion of how we should understand freedom, we get accusations of deception, accusations that don’t really advance understanding. I’d much rather see more arguments that recognize that they stem from honest disagreement and fewer claims that the other side is just a bunch of hypocrites.

So when you next hear someone argue, for instance, that someone is a hypocrite because he opposes most racial discrimination but not “affirmative action,” or because he thinks life begins at conception but would allow abortion in cases of rape, resist for a moment the h-word. Instead, ask yourself: Can I think of reasons why decent people might distinguish affirmative action from various other forms of discrimination, or abortion in rape cases from abortion in other cases (even if I don’t find those distinctions persuasive myself)? If not, can I think a little more, since there almost always are such reasonable distinctions (again, even if not fully persuasive ones)? And if I can think of those distinctions, why should we assume that our adversaries actually aren’t thinking of them, too, and are instead being hypocrites?