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Lies & Disasters

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Plato, or so it is claimed, advanced the idea of the noble lie: an untruth knowingly propagated for the good of society. In Plato’s Republic the noble lie was a myth presented as the parable of the metals and was intended to help maintain the ideal social order of that state.  Given Plato’s opposition to the sophists and his praise of virtue, the noble lie can be jarring to some readers of his work. Detractors of philosophy will, naturally enough, regard most philosophers as engaged in less-than-noble lies. But, of course, philosophy is supposed to be a search for wisdom and this presumably includes a devotion to the truth. Politicians, who are supposed to be far more pragmatic than philosophers, would seem more inclined to embrace the noble lie. Or the ignoble lie. This does raise the enduring question of whether it is morally acceptable for leaders to lie for what they think is the good of society.

The easy and obvious way to argue this issue is to approach it on utilitarian grounds. On this moral view, if telling a lie would create more good than harm for those who matter morally, then lying would be morally correct. If the lie would create more harm than good, it would be wrong. There is, as always, an important distinction between what those lying think will result and the actual outcome—as such, there is also a distinction between the ethics of intention and the ethics of the actual consequences. History shows that good intentions do not always lead to good consequences.

There are also moral views, such as the rule-based deontological ethics put forth by Immanuel Kant. For Kant, morality is not a matter of consequences but a matter of following the rules. As Kant saw it, his categorical imperative entailed that lying was always wrong—so Kant and his fellows would be opposed to such a lie.

There is also the notion that truth and falsity do not matter. While some might think that this notion is something that emerged on the public stage in 2016, it has a much older pedigree. The sophists of ancient Greece embraced this view and contended that what mattered was success. Jumping ahead centuries, the idea was also advanced during the administration of Woodrow Wilson. When Wilson led the United States into World War I, he insisted that “the spirit of ruthless brutality…enter into the very fibre of national life.” As part of this approach, he created the Committee on Public Information. He was apparently inspired by an advisor who wrote that “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms….The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”

On the one hand, this approach to the truth can be regarded as hard-headed pragmatism of the sort often praised by practical folks: what matters is the effectiveness of an idea in achieving the desired goal. To use a contemporary illustration, the successful “First Social Media War” waged by the Russians against the United States in 2016 illustrated that false claims served far better than true claims in achieving their goals. Trump and his people also effectively employed this approach, even minting the term “alternative facts.” This approach can be morally justified by using a utilitarian argument of the sort presented above, with an explicit rejection of any preference for truth. It can also be justified on the grounds of ethical egoism—the moral theory that what maximizes value for the individual in question is good. For example, from Trump’s perspective what best serves his interest is what is good.

On the other hand, while lies can yield short term good or advance someone’s private advantage, they seem to prove damaging over the longer term and broader scale. Take, as an illustration, the consequences of the decisions to lie about the flu pandemic of 1918. Public officials elected to tell the public that the flu was not serious and elected to protect the lie by not taking sensible medical approaches to the flu. For example, deciding to not cancel the Liberty Loan parade helped contribute to the epidemic in Philadelphia. The easy and obvious reason that such lies tend to have bad results is that operating in a way that does not match reality tends to lead to bad decision making and this tends to lead to negative consequences.

A good contemporary example of this is the matter of climate change. While most experts believe that climate change is occurring and has been influenced by human action, there are still political figures who deny this. While it is possible that the political figures are operating in sincere ignorance rather that lying, this is a case in which it is all but certain that one side is lying. If the climate change deniers are lying, they are acting like the lying officials did in 1918 and will be complicit in worldwide suffering and countless deaths. If the climate change believers are lying, the consequences will be far less bad—more regulations, deployment of more green energy technology, and perhaps some negative impact on economic growth. Being rational, I side with the majority of qualified experts—I am confident that the climate scientists are not lying. However, I am open to compelling arguments and evidence from climate experts who deny climate change.

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Of Bans & BS

As this is being written, Trump’s travel ban remains suspended by  the courts. The poor wording and implementation of the ban indicates that amateurs are now in charge. Or, alternatively, that Trump’s strategists are intentionally trying to exhaust the opposition. As such, either the ban has been a setback for Trump or a small victory.

While the actual experts on national security (from both parties) have generally expressed opposition to the Trump ban, Trump’s surrogates and some Republican politicians have endeavored to defend it. The fountain of falsehoods, Kellyanne Conway, has been extremely active in defense of the ban. Her zeal in its defense has led her to uncover terrorist attacks beyond our own reality, such as the Bowling Green Massacre that occurred in some other timeline. In that alternative timeline, the Trump ban might be effectively addressing a real problem; but not in the actual world.

More reasonable defenders of the ban endeavor to use at least some facts from this world when making their case. For example, Republican representative Mike Johnson recently defended the ban by making reference to a report by Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security. He claimed that “They determined that nearly 20 percent of alleged facilitators in ISIS prosecutions, in our country, do involve refugees and asylees. I mean, those kinds of facts are not as widely publicized, but they should be. I think the American people have a right to know that.” This approach employs four rather effective rhetorical techniques which I will address in reverse order of use.

By saying “the American people have a right to know”, Johnson seems to be employing innuendo to suggest that the rights of Americans are being violated—that is, there is some sort of conspiracy against the American people afoot. This conspiracy is, of course, that the (presumably liberal) media is not publicizing certain facts. This rhetorical tool is rather clever, for it not only suggests the media is up to something nefarious, but that there are secret facts out there that support the ban. At the very least, this can incline people to think that there are other facts backing Trump that are being intentionally kept secret. This can make people more vulnerable to untrue claims purporting to offer such facts.

Johnson’s lead techniques are, coincidentally enough, rhetorical methods I recently covered in my critical thinking class. One technique is what is often called a “weasler” in which a person protects a claim by weakening it. In this case, the weasel word is “nearly.” If Johnson were called on the correct percentage, which is 18%, he can reply that 18% is nearly 20%, which is true. However, “nearly 20%” certainly creates the impression that it is more than 18%, which is misleading. Why not just say “18%”?  Since the exaggeration is relatively small, it does not qualify as hyperbole. Naturally, a reasonable reply would be that this is nitpicking— “nearly 20%” is close enough to “18%” and Johnson might have simply failed to recall the exact number during the interview. This is certainly a fair point.

Another technique involves presenting numerical claims without proper context, thus creating a misleading impression. In this case, Johnson claims, correctly, that “nearly 20 percent of alleged facilitators in ISIS prosecutions, in our country, do involve refugees and asylees.” The main problem is that no context is given for the “nearly 20%.” Without context, one does not know whether this is a significant matter or not. For example, if I claimed that sales of one of my books increased 20% last year, then you would have no idea how significant my book sales were. If I sold 10 of those books in 2015 and 12 in 2016, then my sales did increase 20%, but my sales would be utterly insignificant in the context of book sales.

In the case of the facilitators Johnson mentioned, the Fordham report includes 19 facilitators and 3 of these (18%) were as Johnson described. So, of the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers the United States took in, there have been three people who were involved in this facilitation. This mostly involved encouraging people to go overseas to fight—these three people were (obviously) not involved in terrorist attacks in the United States. Such a microscopic threat level does not justify the travel ban under any rational threat assessment and response analysis.

The United States does, of course, face some danger from terrorist attacks. However, the most likely source of these attacks is from US born citizens. While the threat from foreigners is not zero, an American is 253 times more likely to be a victim of a “normal” homicide rather than killed in a foreigner engaged in a terrorist attack in the United States. And the odds of being the victim of a homicide are very low. As such, trying to justify the ban with accurate information is all but impossible, which presumably explains why the Republicans are resorting to lies and rhetoric.

While there are clear political advantages to stoking the fear of ill-informed Americans, there are plenty of real problems that Trump and the Republicans could be addressing—responsible leaders would be focusing on these problems, rather than weaving fictions and feeding unfounded fears.

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The Murder of Truth

“When a man lies, he murders some part of the world.”

-Merlin

There is an old joke that asks “how do you know a politician is lying?” The answer is, of course, “you can see his lips moving.” This bit of grim humor illustrates the negative view people generally have of politicians—they are expected to lie relentlessly. However, people still condemn politicians for lying. Or when they believe the politician is lying. At least when the politician is on the other side.

In the case of their own side, people often suffer from what seems to be a cognitive malfunction: they believe politicians lie, but generally accept that their side is telling it like it is. This sort of malfunction also extends to the media and other sources of information: it is commonly claimed that the media lies and that sources are biased. That is, when media and sources express views one disagrees with. What matches a person’s world view is embraced, often without any critical consideration. This sort of thing presumably goes back to the invention of politics; but it also ebbs and flows over time.

In the United States, the 2016 election has created a high tide of lies. While there is a rough justice in saying Hillary and Trump are both liars, it is trivially true that we are all liars. As such, it is important to consider the number and severity of the lies people tell when assessing them rather than merely pointing out the obvious truth that everyone has lied. On the face of it, Trump has a commanding lead in the realm of untruth. This should not be a surprise, given that the ghostwriter of “Trump’s” Art of the Deal attributed to Trump the tactic of the “truthful hyperbole.” As I have argued before, truthful hyperbole is an impossibility because hyperbole, by definition, is not true. While Trump has told many spectacular untruths, one of his most impressive is the narrative that he was the one who finally settled the birther movement and that Hillary started it. Given Trump’s role as the point man for the birther movement, this assertion is beyond absurd; but it merely assaults truth in general, rather than being aimed at undermining institutions that are supposed to committed to the truth. Unfortunately, Trump has also engaged in such undermining. Being in a field dedicated to the truth, I find the attacks on truth and the casual acceptance of lies anathema. As should anyone who values truth and condemns lies.

While it is tempting to some to place all the blame into Trump’s hands, Trump is merely following a well-worn path to the battle against truth. A key part of this battle is the sustained attack on the media, broadly construed. In the United States, attacking the media for an alleged liberal bias goes back at least to the time of Nixon. While it is reasonable to be critical of the news media, a sweeping rejection based on alleged bias is hardly a rational approach by someone who wants to think critically.

Trump has, however, added some new twists to the attack on the media. One is that he expanded his attacks beyond the allegedly liberal media to engage any reporter who dares to be critical of him—even people normally beloved by conservatives. In this regard, he has broken outside of the usual ideological boundaries. However, this seems to be the result of his personality rather than an ideological commitment on his part—he cannot not respond to any criticism that gets his attention.

It could be replied that Trump is merely engaging a dishonest, lying media—a media that has crossed ideological lines to join forces against him. This would require accepting that these reporters are liars and that they are manufacturing the evidence they use in their reporting—such as videos of Trump saying and doing the things they claim he does and says. While this is not beyond the realm of possibility (we could, after all, be in a Twilight Zone episode in which the twist is that Trump is the only honest man facing a vast conspiracy of liars of all political stripes), the more plausible explanation is that Trump is the one saying the untrue things.

Another concern is that he has engaged in a level of vitriol against the media that has not been seen in recent presidential politics. In general, he seems to have two main tactics for dealing with claims made about him that he dislikes. The first is to simply deny the claim. The second is to engage in intense ad hominem attacks on the source. Since fact checkers like Politifact expose Trump’s untruths, he has accused them of being biased and part of the conspiracy against him. While he is willing to engage in name-calling against specific people, he also engages in sweeping insults against the press in general. His attacks are taken quite seriously, so much so that Committee to Protect Journalists has issued a statement that Trump is a threat to the freedom of the press.

It could be replied that Trump is merely giving the media what it deserves and his attacks are true—the reporters are “nasty”, “sleazy” and “not good people.” It could also be claimed that it is true the press is engaged in a conspiracy against him.

While there are no doubt some “not good” reporters, they do not seem to be as awful as Trump claims. Of course, Trump is known for his hyperbole and saying untrue things, so this should not be surprising. In fact, it would be out of character for Trump to describe things as they are. He seems to be locked permanently in hyperbole mode: everything is great or garbage, with little or nothing in between.

As someone who writes horror adventures for games, I like a good conspiracy theory and routinely work them into my fiction. However, if the media is engaged in a conspiracy to elect Hillary and defeat Trump, they would seem to need to go back to conspiracy school. The fact checkers check her and the media relentlessly cover stories that are harmful to her chances, such as the undying email scandal. The media, via its massive and free coverage of Trump, helped him win the candidacy and they unceasingly keep him in the spotlight. Ironically, this excessive coverage of Trump is a frightening sign of the media’s role in the erosion of truth—the focus on what is spectacle, rather than what is significant. There are also those in the media who do manufacture claims or present things in ways that cast shadows over the truth—they, too, should be held accountable for their role in murdering the truth. Be they on the left or the right.

Interestingly, it could also be argued that worries about the erosion of truth are overblown: while Trump seems to be going for a gold medal in untruths, this will have no real impact on the world. This claim does have some appeal. After all, doomsayers predict that so many things will lead to dire consequences and very often they are quite wrong. I certainly hope this is the case, that in the 2020 election cycle we will be back to our normal levels of untruths and the attacks on the media will be back to being a matter of rote rather than rage.

 

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Truth & Lies, Politico & Carson

Two of Dr. Ben Carson’s strengths as a Republican Presidential are his compelling backstory and perceived authenticity.  A key part of his narrative, as laid out in Gifted Hands and other writings, is that he met with General William Westmoreland and was offered a “full scholarship” to West Point when he was a teenager.

In November of 2015 Politico challenged this part of Carson’s backstory, noting that there is no evidence that Carson ever applied to West Point and that there are, in fact, no scholarships for West Point (those accepted attend at no cost). Politico also questioned the claimed timeline regarding Carson’s meeting with Westmoreland. Put on the defensive, Carson conceded that he did not apply to West Point and endeavored to retroactively modify certain aspects of his backstory. As should be expected, some on the right have stepped in to defend Carson and accuse Politico of being driven by liberal bias. The minds behind American conservatism have conducted a very effective campaign against the mainstream media, thus allowing an easy appeal to media bias as an almost perfect defense. Some of the folks on the left accept this as more evidence of Carson’s duplicity.

As a practical matter, the accusation by Politico will only strengthen the resolve of Carson’s supporters and the folks on the left would not support him even if his backstory were entirely true. That said, the matter of lying is certainly philosophically interesting. Before turning to the specific issue of Carson’s alleged duplicity, it is necessary to consider the more general matter of lying.

While there are numerous philosophical examinations of lying, I will keep it relatively simple and consider four intuitively plausible factors. These are truth, belief, intent and motivation. Truth is whether the claim made is true or not. Belief is whether or not the alleged liar believes the claim being made (which is distinct from the claim being true or not). Intent is the purpose or objective of the claim. Motivation is why the person is making the claim. This includes both making the claim itself as well as the decision to claim what is or is not believed to be true.

To illustrate these factors, consider the following tale of deceit, honesty and marijuana. The married coupled of Dick and Jane have four children. Larry, Theodora, Hannah and Bob. Alerted by the telltale evidence of a lingering odor and an abnormal number of empty Dorito bags, Dick and Jane suspect at least one of their kids has marijuana in the house. They gather the kids in the living room and ask “do you have any marijuana in your room?” To try to scare their kids straight, Dick and Jane also add that “you know, smoking marijuana will kill you.”

Larry, who had been smoking marijuana in the house, believes that he still has some hidden in his room. Unknown to him, Theodora found his stash and hid it most of it in Hannah’s room because she thinks her parents would never suspect honest Hannah. Worried that she might not be able to get a smoke when she needs one, she hides two joints in her room. Bob, who has been baking his brain for some years, has forgotten about a secret stash of marijuana in his room. As such, he honestly believes he has none.

All the children answer “no.” Larry’s claim is true—he has no marijuana in his room. However, he believes he does.  His intent is to deceive his parents and his motivation is to avoid being grounded. Giving that he made a true statement, it might be tempting to claim that Larry is not lying. However, Larry believes his claim is false and he intends to deceive to avoid a presumably just punishment. As such, it seems reasonable to accept that Larry is lying—the fact that he is ignorant of Theodora’s thievery does not seem to be adequate as a moral excuse.

Theodora’s claim is false, she believes it is false and she intends to deceive so as to avoid being grounded. As such, Theodora presents a paradigm example of lying: making an untrue claim that is known to be untrue with an intent to deceive out of a selfish motivation. So, she is totally lying.

Hannah’s claim is false, but she believes it is true. She has no intention to deceive and her motivation is, let it be assumed, to be a good daughter. While her claim is untrue, it would seem wrong to claim that she is lying. After all, her claim is only false because her sister (unknown to her) hid marijuana in her room and she is free from any malign intent. If she knew there was marijuana in her room, she would (let it be assumed) inform her parents even at the risk of punishment. As such, Hannah should not be considered a liar. The fact that she is ignorant of what Theodora has done is relevant to assessing her honesty.

Bob’s claim is not true, but he believes it is. He does not intend to deceive at this time, but he would do so if he was aware of the marijuana in his room. As such, his motivations are not exactly pure—he is saying what he believes is true because he thinks doing so will keep him out of trouble.  Given these factors, it would be an error to say that he is lying in this case, but he is not acting from any commitment to honesty.

Dick and Jane’s claim about marijuana is untrue and let it be assumed they know it is not true. But, if their intent is to protect their children from the real harms of marijuana and their motivation is good (love for their kids), then it would be reasonable to accept this as a form of noble lie. That is, a lie that can be justified on utilitarian grounds: it is morally acceptable because it does more good than harm. There are numerous moral views that do regard lying as wrong regardless of the utility. For example, Kant regards lying as wrong in and of itself. Similarly, the Ten Commandments is rather clear about lying.

In the case of Carson’s backstory, it turns out that some of his claims are not true. Assuming the above discussion yields plausible results, Carson should not be regarded as a liar merely for making untrue claims. So, the other factors need to be considered. I will begin with belief.

One important consideration is that Carson was writing or having a ghost writer write) inspirational books rather than creating a rigorous text (such as a history book). As such, it is reasonable to hold him to a lesser standard of research integrity. After all, writing an historical text requires proper research and due diligence. Recollecting events from one’s distant youth to inspire people would seem to require a lower level of diligence. As such, while Carson should have been more careful in his claims, the standard for diligence is rather lower here. As such, Carson could have been relying on his memory and if he was confident of his recollection, then he might have not bothered to confirm the details.

Human memory is quite fallible even over the short term and gets even worse as time goes on. If the details of an event are not recorded immediately, the mind starts losing bits and filling in other bits. As such, Carson could have believed that what he claimed was true. If so, he might be justly criticized for being a bit sloppy, but would certainly not be lying.

People also have a natural inclination to polish their backstories and this is often done unconsciously so that the better tale becomes accepted as the memory.  I will not defend this on the grounds that it is commonly done—that would be the fallacy of common practice. Rather, it is not note that if Carson forgot the actual facts and told the story based on his polished recollection, then he should not be singled out for special condemnation or regarded as lying in this case. To use another example, when Carson claimed that the pyramids of Egypt were built to be grain silos, he was wrong but almost certainly not lying. He seems to have really believed that.

It is also possible that Carson was well aware that he was making false claims. If so, then his intention and motivations become rather important.  If his intent was to inspire people and his motivations were laudable, then he could be regarded as engaging in a noble lie or perhaps an ethical exaggeration. He could be regarded as acting like writer of inspirational fiction: the claims are untrue, but truth is not the goal. Rather, the goal is to inspire and what matters is doing that well.  This is analogous to the situation of actors: they know they are engaged in untruths, but they are not liars because of their intentions and motivations. They are aiming at entertaining the audience through untruths rather than acting from infernal intents and malign motivations. As such, Carson could be a liar—but a noble liar. Or a teller of inspirational fictions.

If Carson’s intent and motivations were not laudable, then it becomes rather harder to morally justify the intentional untruths. If he exaggerated (or fabricated) to sell more books or from the desires of ego, then it would be reasonable to condemn these untruths as lies.