Lying, Deception, and “Playing the Game”

This is an area where there is considerable disagreement among philosophers and theologians.  Some have taken a highly rigorous position.  Paul Griffiths of Duke University contends that it would be wrong to lie even if that was the only means by which to prevent a pilot from dropping a nuclear bomb on a city and killing a million people.  Most of us would find it hard to go to such lengths.  And yet many ethicists over centuries have often treated those who are deceptive (even self-deceptive) with contempt.  Paradoxically, even philosophers who do not think there is such a thing as “the truth” (such as Derrida and Rorty) ridicule any recourse to deception.  One might wonder, too, if there is a slippery slope once you allow for some deception.  Nietzsche asks: “Why must we haves truth at any cost, anyway?”  Well, how much does the truth cost and when might it be permissible to not tell the truth?  Perhaps we should embrace Mark Twain’s position of simply accepting the fact that most of us will on some occasions be liars and make the best of it:

“Lying is universal–we all do it; we all must do it.  Therefore, the wise thing is for us diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully, judiciously; to lie with a good object, and not an evil one; to lie for others’ advantage, and not our own; to lie healingly, charitably, humanely, not cruelly, hurtfully, maliciously; to lie gracefully and graciously, not awkwardly and clumsily; to lie firmly, frankly, squarely, with head erect, not haltingly, tortuously, with pusillanimous mien, as being ashamed of our high calling.  Then shall we be rid of the rank and pestilent truth that is rotting the land; then shall we be great and good and beautiful, and worthy dwellers in a world where even benign Nature habitually lies, except when she promises execrable weather.”

Here are two questions to consider from Nyberg:

“Your two closest friends offer to tell you, with unchecked candor and without regard for your feelings, everything they think about you.  Would you want them to do it?

Should we give frank expression to every strong feeling of contempt, envy, lust, and self-pity?  Should we tell our friends the truth when we believe it would shatter their self-confidence?”

We cannot hope to settle matters here, but we offer an observation on the definition of lying, we comment on the difference between lying and not being forthcoming (or the need for privacy), and make an observation about deception in games.

What is it to lie?  Here is a standard definition that we have adjusted a bit:  by definition, Pat lies to another Chris when Pat does an act (e.g. making a statement or behaving in distinctive ways that are communicative or send a message) intended to lead Chris into thinking that Pat believes/assumes/feels something that Pat does not believe/assumes/feels.

This may be acceptable though it may be too broad.  For example, on this definition, would stage or film actors be lying?  Maybe we can avoid that implication by noting that when one goes to the theater or film, one is agreeing to be at a site in which persons will simulate or seek to excite emotions artificially (through artifacts).  Maybe the same strategy can be taken to avoid claiming that athletes are engaged in lying when playing (for example) baseball and a pitcher misleads the batter into thinking that he will throw a fastball when he plans to do something else.

We are inclined to defend a view of lying that is very unpopular.  Roughly, you lie to another person when they deserve the truth and you lead them to think something you believe to be false.

On lying and not being fully forthcoming, we are inclined to think that honesty, integrity, and authenticity do not require that a person be fully forthcoming about her views.  We agree with Thomas Nagel when he writes:  “Just as social life would be impossible if we expressed all our lustful, aggressive, greedy, anxious, or self-obsessed feelings in ordinary public encounters, so would inner life be impossible if we tried to become wholly persons whose thoughts, feelings, and private behavior could be safely expressed to the public.”  Not being forthcoming in some circumstances can be commendable (in our view).

On “playing the game”:  an area of difficulty is cases when being misleading or not telling the truth is expected or quite common.  Imagine you are applying to graduate school.  You only wish to get a masters, not a Ph.D., but if you indicate that you only intend to earn a masters, you will not get any funding.  Should you simply check the box on the application that you wish to get a Ph.D.?  Maybe one reasons:  “Everybody else is doing it.”

We believe that in cases of ambiguity, one should not mislead.  The cost of being misleading can be quite high.  Nietzsche once observed that the problem with being lied to is “not that you lied to me, but I no longer believe you.”  In other words, the real cost is a loss of trust.  Imagine you get accepted into the Ph.D. program and get funding.  After a year or two you have earned a masters degree and indicate you are withdrawing from graduate school.  Will professors be able to write recommendations for you indicating that you are trustworthy?

Test your moral judgments!  Consider this thought experiment from Steven Cahn:

“Joan earned a doctoral degree from a first-rate university and sought appointment to a tenure-track position in which she could teach and pursue her research.  Unfortunately, she received no offers and reluctantly was about to accept non-academic appointment when an unexpected call came inviting her for an interview at a highly attractive school.  During her visit she was told by the Dean that the job was hers, subject to one condition:  she was expected to teach a particular course each year in which numerous varsity athletes would enroll, and she would be required to award them all passing grades even if their work was in every respect unsatisfactory.  Only the Dean would know of this special arrangement.

Joan rejected the position on moral grounds and continued trying to obtain a suitable opportunity in academic life.  However, never again was she offered a faculty position, and she was forced to pursue a career path that gave her little satisfaction.  Her potential as a teacher went unfulfilled, and her planned research was left undone.  Throughout her life she remained embittered.

Marie also earned a doctoral degree from a first-rate university and sought appointment to a tenure-track position in which she could teach and pursue her research.  She, too, received no offers and reluctantly was about to accept non-academic employment when an unexpected call came inviting her for an interview at the school that Joan had visited.  The Dean made Marie the same offer that had been made to Joan, and Marie, after weighing her options, decided to accept the appointment, even though she recognized that doing so would require her to act unethically.

Marie went on to a highly successful academic career, became a popular teacher and renowned researcher, moved to one of the nation’s most prestigious universities, and enjoyed all the perquisites attendant to her membership on that school’s renowned faculty.  When on rare occasions she recalled the conditions of her initial appointment, she viewed the actions she had taken as an unfortunate but necessary step on her path to a wonderful life.

Joan acted morally but lived unhappily ever after, while Marie acted immorally but lived happily ever after. So I ask you:  Which was the wiser?”

For a paper on academic honesty and dishonesty, click here.