Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Roll Cloud!


Ethics of Deception


What is a lie?

Possible answer:
To lie is knowingly saying something that you believe is false.
Some difficulties for the proposed definition:
o Is story hour at the local library an example of lying?
o If I knowingly state, “the earth is flat” in the course of teaching a grammar lesson during an English class, have I lied?
o Sarcastic statements often fit this definition, but do not seem to be lies. Consider a native Detroiter sarcastically saying to another, “The Detroit Lions will win the Super Bowl this year.”
o During “haggling” I purposefully understate what I can afford to pay for a car. Have I lied?

The definition of lying needs to take into account the context of the statement: The intention of the speaker, the expectations of the audience, and the social context of the statement (the social practice that the speech-act is a part of. Does that social context carry along with it a presumption of veracity or truth telling?)

Lying is knowingly saying something you believe is false within an appropriate social context (one that carries with it an expectation of veracity), with intent to (1) make the listener believe what you say, and (2) lead him/her to believe that you also believe what you say.
o Intent of storyteller is to amuse or engage audience. Audience and speaker know going in, that there is a suspension of normal “protocols” of declarative or narrative speech (the ‘presumption of veracity’).
o At a university, there is a presumption that teacher and students are informed as to the true shape of Earth. Context of use, in an English class as a sample sentence, serves to cancel the normal presumption of veracity.
o There are conventions with regard to sarcasm that competent English speakers have internalized from experience. (Body language, inflection, facial expressions, etc.) These are employed to indicate intent. In addition, in this particular example, there is a presumption on the speaking Detroiter’s part that he and his listener are informed about the Lions’ win/loss record, and history. These two features serve to cancel the normal presumption of veracity.
o Negotiations for automobile purchases are commonly known to involve purposeful understatement or overstatement as opening moves in a sort of game. Strictly speaking these are knowingly stated falsehoods, but due to context, not morally objectionable, so, not, by this definition, lies.

One can mislead without making statements.
Example: An investment banker adopts a cheery attitude with a client who has asked if his portfolio has hit the skids in the day’s trading. He tells the client not to worry, with a casual wave of the hand. The banker suspects the day’s results will not be good. He has not lied but deceived by his manner, in order to put the client at ease. Should this be counted as a lie? No doubt it is a deception, knowingly undertaken in a context that carries with it a presumption of veracity.


Is it morally permissible to lie? Most of us would say ‘it depends’. But there are those who disagree. The absolutist position is simple: No! (Kant is an example of an absolutist. At least with regard to fully competent adults, he makes the claim that we should never lie.)

Why would anyone take this position seriously, particularly in light of harms that can be prevented by lying? The reasons come in two varieties and can be categorized as broadly Kantian or consequentialist/utilitarian. Sissela Bok discusses both in Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life.

Kant’s Reasons:
o It is to use the listener as a means to the speaker’s end, without the listener’s consent. It is an affront to his autonomy, to his/her full person. The person being lied to may feel betrayed by the act if it is discovered.
o The practice of lying, even for good purposes, cannot be consistently willed as a universal law that all should follow. For, if it were a universal law, liars would not be believed, and could not do the good they intend. As a universal law, it is self-defeating.
o To lie is an affront to the liar’s dignity. Once a person lies it becomes easier to repeat. As instances multiply, this subtly degrades the liar, making him more prone to treat others with disregard for their person. The risk becomes greater the more often one lies. While one may first only tell lies concerning trivial matters, one may find it ‘easier’ to lie about things of greater import. As time passes, the mass of repeated instances begins to create a sort of inertia. The liar becomes someone entirely too comfortable with deceit as a regular feature of his interaction with other people. His character approaches that of a sociopath, someone with no regard for other persons, save as objects standing in the way of, or aiding his benefit. (This “Kantian” reason can also be seen as an Aristotelian reason as well. It involves concerns about the effects of lies on character of liars.)

Utilitarian Reason:

o A necessary condition of the fruits of social cooperation is the maintenance of a level of trust between members of society. To allow exceptions to the general rule “do not lie” would be to risk dissolution of the bonds of trust. Social utility would be severely compromised, perhaps beyond recovery. There is a relatively low threshold above which lying will have such effects, even if there is good short term utilitarian reason to do so. So, we should err on the side of caution in regard to exceptions, and simply not allow them, even when short term utility would be served.

Non-absolutist positions tend to accept a great deal of the claims in the Absolutist’s position, but do allow for exceptions to the general rule against lying: We must insure that the occasions for lying are few, and conditions are difficult to satisfy, so as to prevent any significant erosion of social trust, and minimize violations of dignity, autonomy and the corrosive effects upon character that the practice of lying causes. Rare exceptions would include the use of deception in military campaigns, or intelligence gathering.

In the following summary of Bok’s discussion, you will notice that things are arranged under some familiar headings. This is done to show that there are similarities between Just War tradition, and Bok’s views about deception, similar judgments as to the grave moral nature of violence on the one hand, and deception on the other.

The harms incurred during wartime are so significant that one should not consider warfare except in extreme circumstances where no other options are available. Bok argues that the radiating social harms caused by lying are similar in their effects, if it is allowed to spread to areas of human life not usually tolerant of deception. According to Bok, tolerance for even a low level of what we might call ‘lie-creep’, has a highly corrosive effect on the liar and on social cohesion, which is essentially based on trust. Neither of these effects is easily repaired. So, (at least within single communities of fellows, or within spheres of activity that do not expect it), lying should rarely if ever be used.

The presumption is that, like warfare, lying should not be taken lightly, and only employed in carefully circumscribed (and rare) circumstances, such as warfare. We may need to resort to it in such extreme circumstances in order to preserve lives or the very social cohesion that prohibits lying in most circumstances. Otherwise that great social good (or rather the trust that under girds it) tends to dissolve. So, below is a clumsy attempt to fit a discussion of lying into the rubric of Just War theory. The ‘just lying’ criteria are intended to achieve the goal of giving us a tool with which we can rationally determine when deception is morally permissible, a tool with which we can also defend use if the occasion arises.

“Jus ad fallum” (Conditions that must be met before resort to deception is morally defensible)

1. In order for lying to be considered as an option in any given situation, there must be a good case for an exception to the general rule against lying.

A. One obvious sort of exceptional case would be one of what we can label consequential or utilitarian extremity. In such instances, the consequences of abstaining from deceit are so serious, when weighed against the harms of lying, that the abstention would be justifiably described as morally suspect. Some instances:
o When significant harms are preventable only via the lie (killer at door case. Sorry Kant.)
o When negative effects of the lie are trivial when compared to the harms prevented by using the lie (undercover cop lies to a child killer in order to set him up for arrest by compatriots)
o When honesty would cause considerable harm to a person’s feeling, and the lie would have no other negative effects (white lies to very young children are examples of this.)


B. Another sort of case that allows for lying is when the ‘target’ of the lie forfeits his ‘right’ to the truth by his actions. When this has occurred, others may lie to him if it is necessary to prevent him from harming, or if it is necessary in order to apprehend him. (This is a condition that allows for more extensive use of deception in times of war, and in law-enforcement activities, than are allowable in normal circumstances. This is why those spheres of human activity already allow such behavior. Note too that the fact that this sort of behavior has existed in these spheres for quite some time, and has not spread, is a good indicator that at some fundamental level we all recognize that it should be so circumscribed.)

Think of this first criterion as describing the triggering condition that must be in place in order for lying to be considered. This is a necessary condition, but not sufficient. Alone, it does not justify lying. Other things need to obtain, according to Bok.

All of the following conditions must be met before you can resort to deception:

2. Lying must be a last resort, or it must be an only resort, no other realistic non-deceptive alternatives being available.

3. The lie must be likely to succeed in its objective, and more likely to succeed than any non-deceptive alternative.

4. In order to be undertaken a lie must survive a public justification, if reasonably possible. If not possible, it must survive a justification that is as close as possible to the sort of public justification described in this condition:

o This is something like an appeal to the authority of the community of reasonable moral agents, (Kant’s kingdom of ends, Mill’s competent judges or Hume’s disinterested judges). Can you publicly defend a practice that allows lying in circumstances such as those you are considering now? Has this practice or something like it, been defended and accepted before?
o This ‘tribunal’ must include: Representatives of “all allegiances” including people representative of the deceived
o Must be undertaken before the deception is to occur, if possible.

“Jus in fallo” (Conditions that must be observed while in the act of deceiving)

5. Proportionality: The just objective you seek by means of deception must bear a reasonable relation to the harms you cause by deceiving. The objective must be important enough to justify harm the deception will introduce. When comparing the two, you do not find that the harm caused by the deception is too great for a reasonable person to accept as concomitant to achieving the good end. What is more, you must deceive to no greater a degree than is necessary to bring about the desired effect.

6. Discrimination: Utmost effort must be made to discriminate between legitimate targets of deception and others as is compatible with bringing about the just end.
o Any deception involving innocents should be strongly defensible as unavoidable if the just end is to be attained.

Bok’s recommended steps for deciding whether to lie:

1. Seek alternatives that do not involve deception. If there is one, use it. Otherwise, go to (2)
2. Weigh reasons for and against the particular lie you are considering, using the usual moral paradigms, common sense, and your considered judgment. While doing so, take into account all people effected, including the liar and the would be dupe. Does the proposed deception pass the utilitarian or forfeiture criteria? If no, stop. If yes, go to (3).
3. Weigh reasons for and against the practice of lying in like circumstances, with an eye toward the implications for society as a whole. Does it pass this test? Would such a practice dissolve society? Would the practice make lying for the very purpose or others like it unlikely to succeed or impossible? If yes to these, stop. If no, move to (4).
4. Take the problem to an imaginary court of reasonable and representative judges (as outlined above). Would all or most agree with your findings on (1), (2), and (3)? If no, stop. If yes, move to (5).
5. Actually consult such a court of reasonable and representative judges if possible. If it is not possible, move to (6). If it is indeed possible, do they agree with your findings on (1), (2), and (3)? If no, stop. If yes, move to (6).
6. If all of these steps are satisfied, you are morally permitted to lie.

Now, let’s run some hypothetical cases through this procedure. Note, you may not agree with my results!

An interrogator is considering deception with a very hardened and uncooperative detained terrorist, in order to extract information from him that will result in thwarting of terror attacks that could be similar to the London 7-7 attacks in scale. He will tell the detainee that he (the interrogator) will have no choice but to extradite the man to Pakistan, his home country, if he doesn’t cooperate. He will claim the Pakistanis are pressuring him. In fact the Pakistanis have no idea the man is being held by the U.S. The interrogator knows the man fears for his life if he were to be extradited. So, he tells him:
“Khalid. I don’t have all the time in the world to debate with you, but if you tell us the truth, the Pakistanis won’t get you. If you refuse, or tell me yet another story, I’ll find out and I’ll make sure they get you. Why? I have a job to do, and they have promised to extract the information for us using, how shall I put this?.. different methods. You are not in a position to be able to lie to me with impunity. So, it would be to your benefit to fully cooperate. Just think about it, your family would also be greatly relieved to know you are not headed to the ISS, correct? So your choice is simple my friend: Tell the truth, we keep you here, well fed and safe. Lie and it’s off to Pakistan.”

Should the interrogator make this claim? The situation does satisfy the first triggering condition. The consequences of refraining are large, and the man has clearly forfeited his right to veracity. What is more, the context within which the act will occur is one (wartime or perhaps law enforcement) within which deception is “part of the game’, it is expected. So the possible socially corrosive effects of the lie are less than they would be if the context within which the lie were to occur were one that carried with it an expectation of veracity. Next, deception does seem to be the only resort with this man and success seems likely, given his fears. The public justification criterion is the one most likely to trip up implementation of the deception. The man obviously would not approve the act himself if fully informed, but the proposed deception would be more likely to survive the nearest approach to letting him in on the deception, if we allow that a representative of the detainee, or a representative of those like him, would approve similar deceptions in similar circumstances if the roles were reversed. Protection of innocent lives amongst ones fellows is universally allowed as a justification for war, and for deception. Furthermore, most cultures do believe the principle of forfeiture, i.e., that one can lie to someone who has forfeited his right to the truth in order to prevent harm he or others may cause. Given that representatives of his allegiance would likely agree to these general principles, we can say (in a Rawlsean fashion) that our man actually approves of the act in general, if not in his particular case. Assuming this line of argument is sound, it looks like this lie is permissible.

In terms of proportionality, the harm to him or civil society does not appear to come close to outweighing the carnage prevented, primarily because the wartime context within which the deception is to occur does not cause the same corrosive effects that a similar lie would have outside of wartime contexts. With regard to discrimination, no innocents are involved. Our interrogator might run afoul of this criterion if he were to personally contact the man’s family and tell his story to them in the hopes of getting them to pressure the man into accepting the deal. This would be to cause more harm than is absolutely necessary for bringing about the hoped behavior. So this violation of the discrimination criteria is also a violation of the proportionality criteria.

Next case: Your best friend’s family (you’ve known them for years), has invited you over for a steak dinner. The food is quite frankly awful. Overcooked, you find that eating the meat is a bit like chewing on a leather shoe. You figure that this must be a bad day for the cook. The others seem to be enjoying the meal. Your friend’s elderly father (the cook) asks how you like the steak. You know that he easily gets his feelings hurt, and he has put a lot of planning and work into the meal, buying a new grill, splurging for the best cut of meat, quality adult beverages, etc.. Do you tell the truth, or do you say that it is very good?

What alternatives exist? If you tell the truth, even tactfully, he will be hurt and offended, in the light of all his efforts, perhaps too sensitive, but that is the way he is. You will likely offend the rest of the family as well. If you lie though, he may continue to cook in this fashion. Others may have to suffer through eating warmed over shoe leather. At some point, someone may be honest with the family. At that point they may wonder why you, a supposed friend, had allowed the bad cooking to go on, when you could have been honest and prevented the social embarrassment. They might think that you should have shown enough respect for them to take the risk of their displeasure, in order to tell the truth. On the other hand, they may simply assume that you did like the meal, and the others didn’t for some reason or another. In that case, you would suffer no repercussions, but more importantly, neither would your best friend’s family. So, it’s hard to say in this case that you truly must lie, nor is it easy to say that you must refrain. The alternative of tactfully answering honestly may in the long run be the better course of action, but does seem to run the risk of creating long-term resentments that may simply not be worth it.

Even if none of this happens, Kant or Aristotle would have you consider the long-term effects on your own character. Perhaps if you do lie here, you may be more inclined to lie in similar circumstances, or those that are just a bit more serious, setting up a habit that may eventually lead you to serious lying. But, you feel confident that you can limit yourself to white lies.

Still, if it is discovered that you lied, people in this family may be less inclined to believe you, even if this lie is trivial. They may feel betrayed, condescended. But, since the practice of telling white lies is common, you doubt this. The family no doubt has done similar things themselves, and perhaps has even recognized when they have received white lies, and were not upset with it. Once again, things are ambivalent here. It is defensible to tactfully tell the truth. It looks defensible to tell the white lie.

Moving on to question 3, is the practice of telling white lies something that endangers social cohesion, and trust? Empirical evidence suggests not. We live with white lies all the time. In fact, it might be argued that a completely honest society would be one that would endanger social cohesion. (Gentlemen, think about those questions your wives ask you about their personal appearance!) If people really told folks what they thought, it might be the case that social bonds would dissolve, not so much because trust is lost, but because annoyance, anger and resentment would be at higher levels. So, all of this meditation on the social context of white lies, the practice of white lies, seems to favor telling the lie in our sample case.

Would an adequately representative court of reasonable judges find similarly? If we have reasoned fairly and objectively, we have reason to think so. Can we really appeal to such a board? Perhaps. We could discuss things with friends, family, co-workers etc.. But, in this case, it seems you are called upon to answer right then. It would be hard to call a huddle at that point! So, we have to rely on step (4). In doing so, we have to be on guard for the possibility that we are not capable of overcoming our own biases in our reasoning, so we should cast the hypothetical Rawlsian net fairly wide.

So, all in all, it looks like the preponderance of the evidence suggests that we should not go to the difficult effort of finding a tactful way to tell the sensitive father the truth. We could take him aside, tell the truth, and apologize for doing so, tell him we are really looking out after his future, protecting him from future embarrassment, but one can imagine that this will only deepen the embarrassment and hurt, not only for him, but perhaps for his family.

This case is ambiguous as might be a good number of cases. This shows the unfortunate fact that when it comes to ethics there is no flow chart of questions that will behave as an algorithm, rendering a definite conclusion. Every ethical system, every paradigm suffers from this shortcoming.

Sometimes, as can be seen in other theoretical contexts (Kant, Utilitarianism), even when a set of such questions do render definite decisions, they come into conflict with our common sense, our moral intuitions, even our considered judgment. We need to honestly admit these things even as we also admit that such quasi-algorithms are nevertheless useful in clarifying thought in ethical decision making.


Exit Case: You are a doctor with a terminally ill elderly patient, Fred. He has a cancer that has not incapacitated him, but which is advanced, and will kill him within four weeks. He is mentally competent, aware, and has no emotional issues. You have yet to speak to him about this. The family (wife and grown kids) approach you. They too know the truth. However, they do not want you to tell Fred that he has three weeks. They know, being the responsible and thorough guy he is, Fred will spend the entirety of the three weeks going over his will and other plans he has made for his demise. They know there are no left-over affairs he really needs to concern himself with. All family members have been informed by Fred of his wishes, and there are no objections. Lawyers have given the seal of approval as well. The family members do not want Fred to worry and stress himself over the three to four weeks he has left to live. They want him to live that three weeks outside a hospital or hospice setting. He can do this.

The family requests that you tell Fred he has about a year to live. They want to take Fred on a month long holiday trip to Hawaii, Fred’s favorite spot on Earth. He can use the time to visit Pearl Harbor one last time to say goodbye to lost shipmates. They ask that you tell Fred he should go, and that he can put off arranging his matters until he returns to CONUS. They assure you that this is overall, the best situation for Fred. They have the reservations made.

You think about it, “Fred might live a year..you never know. What harm could it do to go along with the family’s plan? It would really give Fred the best possible exit off this mortal coil” You realize that telling Fred the truth would jeopardize the trip, and Fred would worry himself instead of using the time to do more important things than rehash things he’s already settled.

So, do you go along with the family’s plan?

Tuesday Blues: Tampa Red

You missed a good man