Friday, October 3, 2014

Lying and politics

Suppose lying were not wrong when great goods—goods at least of the order of magnitude of a human life—are at stake. Then many politicians running for high office would have—at least by their own lights—carte blanche on lying in order to get elected. For many politicians take their policies to be significantly better than those of their opponents' and once a policy concerns a large enough polity, the "order of magnitude of a human life" bar is surely very easy to meet (for instance, a policy that increases employment is likely to decrease suicide rates).

The conclusion that politicians have such carte blanche, however, is unacceptable.


Eric Steinhart said...

Most policy claims are about the future (e.g. my policy will cause unemployment to go down, my policy will protect us from our enemies, etc.). And most politicians, I think, sincerely believe that their policies will have the intended outcomes. On both points, it's hard to see how they're lying.

Jeremy Pierce said...

You would need more than just the greater effect if you lie. You would also need that there's no way to get that effect without lying (and that the effects will still be worth it if you get caught in the lie, as you're likely to be with all the fact-checking that goes on).

Alexander R Pruss said...


Good point there. Like you, I tend to be sceptical about claims that a politician has lied. I think that people in general move much too quickly from "x said p" and "p is false" to "x lied", expecially when x is a politician.

That said, my argument isn't about whether politicians do lie, but about whether they are permitted to.


That's a good point, too. So the "carte blanche" I talk about is limited by some consequentialist constraints. Agreed.

But, first, there is a "one word too much" objection to the suggestion that the reason a politician shouldn't lie because she might get caught. There is surely a deeper reason! Second, there will be cases which will pass the test. For instance, a politician may be able to bank on getting caught only after election. Sometimes, this will significantly decrease the chance of re-election, but if the politician is not going to get another term anyway, that might not be a big deal (though there may be some harm to the party--maybe not much, though, given the general level of cynicism about politicians), and even if the politician plans to run for re-election, she may be able to hope that the lie will be overshadowed by positive accomplishments in office. (I remember a non-US presidential candidate who lied that he had an MA degree--the country he was running in was one where the populace set great store by academic qualifications. He was caught just before the elections, but the country had a news blackout 24 hours before elections, so it didn't really affect the vote. And then next elections he was re-elected.)


I do want to say where I am going with this. There are three main views on the morality of lying:
1. Lying is always wrong.
2. It's wrong to lie to someone who has a right to the truth.
3. It's wrong to lie except when the consequences of lying are sufficiently good.

My argument tells against (3). This leaves (1) untouched. It doesn't affect (2) very much, either, since presumably the citizens of a democratic country have a right to the truth from people running for office (with at most something like "national security" kinds of exceptions).

I think (1) is true, of course.

Jeremy Pierce said...

I don't hold any of those views. A fourth view would be a sort of Rossian deontology without an absolute prohibition but where there's some stronger constraint than consequentialists would allow for. I agree with you about the deeper reasons, because I think the deontological constraint is pretty strong (but not as strong as for deliberately killing an innocent person, say), but I do think there are cases where lying is morally allowable, when enough is at stake.

SMatthewStolte said...

When I am speaking to more than one person, does the view (2) say that it is wrong to lie when all the people I am speaking to have a right to the truth or when some of the people I am speaking to have a right to the truth? Suppose the Nazi came to my door, while I was hiding Jews, but instead of asking me himself, he instructed me to tell another Jew (whom the Nazi had already captured) where the Jews were hiding. The Nazi of course, would be listening to my answer. If I’m only permitted to lie when all of the people I’m speaking to have a right to the truth, then I could permissibly lie directly to the Nazi but not indirectly. And that would be strange. (Maybe people hold that view, though. I don’t really know the literature.)

But if I only need some of the people to lack the right to the truth, then maybe I could lie to the people in an election sometimes.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Lying goes with politics like oats go with horses. A number of things happen when a horse eats too much oats.

Guess I'm just feeling my oats right now. :-)

Alexander R Pruss said...


Actually, in your very interesting example you're not talking to the Nazi at all. You're talking only to the other Jew. The Nazi happens to be overhearing it, but he's not the one you're talking to. In particular, in that situation, no matter what you say, you wouldn't be lying to the Nazi at all, since you're not speaking to him. (This has consequences such as this: If you think you'll be overheard, you can plan ahead with your conversation partner to say stuff that your overhearer will be led astray by, and no matter how far from the truth this goes, you're not lying, because you're not speaking *to* the overhearer.)

The answer now will presumably depend on the details of the right-to-the-truth view. I can imagine someone saying: The other Jew doesn't have a right to the truth because if he knew what was going on, he wouldn't even want to hear the truth.

That said, I think this business of a right to the truth is an odd one. I wonder whether "It's wrong to lie except to someone who has no right to the truth" doesn't just come down to: "It's wrong to lie except to someone to whom it's not wrong to lie about the matter at hand." I.e., it threatens vacuity.

Alexander R Pruss said...


That's what a lot of people think about politics, but I wouldn't be that cynical.

Actually, it's practically impossible that politicians be lying most of the time. If that were so, nobody would believe them, and the sentences coming out of their mouth would no longer count as assertions, just as the words coming out of an on-stage actor's mouth are not assertions.