In this long post, I begin by explaining Plato’s formulation of the concept of a noble lie for those unfamiliar with it and then I explain in detail numerous problems I see with employing noble lies and with attempts to persuade people through “theological” arguments. I think all theology is either an explicit or an implicit attempt at a noble lying and that anything true or good which a theology conveys to people is capable of a literal, philosophical, social scientific, or natural scientific account which is preferable rationally, morally, and politically. I will explain all these views in what follows. Feel free to skip the first section if you do not need, or are not interested in, or do not have the time to read my primer on noble lies which opens things up.
What Noble Lies Are And How Plato Suggests They Might Be Justified
Plato thinks, reasonably enough, that a polity should be ruled by those who are most knowledgeable. Those who know the most about the truths of morality and the essences of things would be able to implement laws that led to the greatest flourishing of all people, according to the most just laws.
But such expertise is difficult to attain. Plato assumes that not everyone has either the patience or the aptitude for the rigorous reasoning required to figure out what is truest and what is best for themselves, or to understand when others teach them about it. This could cause a serious problem of legitimacy for the wise rulers. The mass of people, though incorrigibly ignorant and on that account unqualified to rule, might nonetheless think themselves fit to rule or to question the judgments of those who know better than they do.
Plato does not seem to think that the wisest should, in such cases, just make their appeal to the people the best they can and then defer to the authority of democratic opinion. Nor should they cede their power to democratically elected rulers. He flirts with the idea that the solution is not to let the ignorant people, or their comparably foolish representatives, take charge, but rather instead to placate the people by teaching them not to question their proper intellectual rulers.
To accomplish this goal he proposes the idea that the knowing rulers would create a religious myth to convince the average people that they have no choice but to defer to their wise guardians because to do so they would be going against the will of the gods and the inherent limitations that the gods gave them.
The hypothetical myth Plato suggests is one in which the gods made the people of the city from the ground on which they live and that when the gods made their souls, the metals of the earth got mixed in with their souls. As a result some people were born with gold in their souls, others with silver, others with bronze or copper or iron, etc. Those the gods made with gold in their souls were the ones who are naturally fit to rule, those with silver in their souls were made to protect the city as warriors, and those with lesser metals in their souls were made to engage in all the economic activities through which the people’s appetites were satisfied—farmers were to grow food, smiths and carpenters, etc., were to make things, merchants were to sell things, etc.
The members of each group would accept their place in the social order and not presume to overthrow the proper, most rationally equipped rulers because their place was determined by the very natures of their souls, i.e., their own very natures themselves. Believing in this myth, it would not make sense to them that someone born with the soul for being in the working class should even think about joining the ruling class and so they would feel no resentment or frustration at being subjected to the rule of those whose souls actually were suited for governing.
And there can be upward mobility based on talent. Even though Plato hypothesized that the classes should live and be educated separately from each other, and that the people should be taught only to breed with those with natures like their own, nonetheless young people of great intellectual ability discovered among the working classes would be “discovered” to have gold souls and brought into their rightful class and power. And, even more urgently, those born to the wise rulers who nonetheless proved themselves unwise and incapable of adequate rational investigation for ruling would, of the greatest necessity, be kicked out of that the powerful class for having the wrong kind of nature.
Plato speculates that teaching this religious myth to the people about why they are where they are in society would be justifiable because even though it was false—since, as the philosophers would know, no one would literally have had metals put into their souls by literal gods—if the people were to accept these myths they would actually be more receptive to living according to the actual philosophical truth, i.e., that the most knowledgeable about the morality and the essences of things should rule and all else should fulfill the other tasks at which they are best suited. If the people were left to think for themselves about literal truths, they might be led by their ignorance or selfish vanity into false beliefs—such that they were fit to rule or that their own ill-informed judgments were superior to those in the wise guardian class.
So, in a way, the false belief about gods and metaled souls becomes a way of expressing a literal truth about how nature has bequeathed different people with different capabilities which justly should place them in different stations in life. And not giving them the mythic falsehood about metaled souls would most likely wind up with them developing with beliefs which are entirely false. And that is worse than having mythic false beliefs which are only false when taken literally but which are true in other philosophical, and practically beneficial, ways.
By saying “I have an iron soul, therefore I am meant to be a blacksmith and not a ruler” the person who truly is best suited to being a being a blacksmith would be effectively saying and believing something true, “I was born with a nature that makes me a good blacksmith but would make me a bad ruler” even if there is a literal falsehood involved in the way he says this or imagines it in literal terms.
If there is no way to be upfront with people and get them to grasp the truth and if, rather, being upfront with people only leads to them winding up with greater falsehoods than they would have with certain mythic, non-literal, but philosophically accurate beliefs, then both commitment to truth and the best outcomes requires teaching the people to accept noble lies as the literal truth so that they might at least indirectly have the most essential, deeper truth and live the best lives they could according to it.
Noble Lies, Theology, and Religion
Leading religious authority figures have probably always used a combination of deliberate and inadvertent noble lies in order to guide their flocks. From a truth perspective, theology always is either an intentional or inadvertent form of either noble or ignoble lying. Self-aware religious thinkers may sincerely believe that they grasp (at least to some extent) the “real”, rationally most sophisticated and truthful inner meaning of their religions’ myths, and they may to one degree or another approve of the literally false, superstitious, and mythical confused beliefs of the average adherent to their religion insofar as those beliefs are those average believers’ limited minds’ categories for understanding those same essential truths that the thinkers understand more rigorously and abstractly.
In other cases, religious leaders may be as deceived about the literal truths of their beliefs as their followers are. Where their mythic and superstitious categories nonetheless convey actual truths their teachings are only luckily and accidentally working like noble lies. The literally ignorant may strike accidental effective truth either by lucky coincidence or through the logic of concepts or through the genius of previous philosophical innovators within their tradition who created the symbolically loaded beliefs which the literalists are merely transmitting but not actually understanding.
So, in these ways, teachers of religiously believed lies may—whether wittingly or unwittingly, and to one extent or another—be conveying philosophical truths and leading to practical benefits in spite of the literal falsehood of what they teach. Of course, to the extent that the myths transmitted lead the people to think falsely even in philosophical terms, religions lead not only to literally false beliefs but to philosophically false ones as well. This could happen because the self-conscious noble liars are themselves to a certain extent philosophically wrong and so their myths wind up inculcating false morals to the people.
Or sometimes self-conscious noble liars may have good philosophical truths but they are bad at devising good myths for properly inculcating the right patterns of thought in the people.
Or noble lies might wind up philosophically false because they arose without any self-conscious noble liars who took any philosophical care but rather because they arose in a haphazard, unphilosophical historical process that too deeply ingrained misunderstandings in people’s minds rather than truths. The people’s literal errors guided their literal beliefs in ways that led to literal and philosophical falsehoods on nearly every level.
Or, finally and most insidiously, noble lies may be philosophically false because they were ignobly designed by ignoble liars who devised and disseminated them not for the people’s good that the people may indirectly have actual truths, but for their own benefit that they might deceive the people into submission.
The Great Dangers of Noble Lying in Theology and Politics
There are several great dangers to implementing noble lies, even when it is the wisest people creating them according to their best grasp of the truth and with the most morally approvable of intentions.
The first problem is that this approach deliberately cripples the critical thinking skills of the ordinary people. This may help make them compliant and comfortable in the social order but it also makes them inflexible and rationally atrophied. They may be good at assimilating the mythic stories they are taught and be disciplined and reliable at obeying each command which comes from their myth-givers through those stories, but they will be harmfully oblivious to seeing how some cases are exceptions to the rules they memorize and unthinkingly apply to every case. They also become fierce defenders of the eternal absoluteness of those myths and their morals, even as on the long term they become outdated, no longer useful, stagnating, and outright damaging to life. And this leads them to stubbornly reject new ideas (whether presented as myths or literal truths) from new generations of intellectual leaders with either improved or up-to-date knowledge so long as they conflict with those the myths taught by the earlier myth-givers. Using noble lies is a temporary solution for motivating the masses to accept a current state of knowledge which then makes getting the masses to accept inevitable changes to understanding a huge pain in the ass—and often even psychologically impossible. Damage people’s critical thinking skills for their short term good and you sew any number of seeds of their future self-destruction.
The second problem is that over the course of generations the rational, experimental, and pragmatic virtues of the original reasoners who gave the original myths might be lost. In subsequent generations, the leaders may be as literalistic as the common people, may be as deceived into not knowing the difference between myths and their philosophical justification, may no longer have any of the rational rigor or pragmatic judgment of the original generation of thinkers, but instead seek to apply the founding generation’s teachings, which were finely fit to their own time, couter-productively in an absolutist fashion to all times and places the same. This can lead to stagnation and regression when ideas which are growing obsolete are not continually adapted or replaced to account for new circumstances.
To me, this is clearly what happens in the case of the contemporary Tea Party which idolizes and wants to freeze in time the thought of America’s founding generation. America’s founding parents were political geniuses because they were not dogmatic worshipers of the past or tradition. They were iconoclasts who sought perpetual improvement and were open to frightening, unguaranteed experiments which sought radical change from everything that had gone before. They were not afraid of the future, clinging to inalterable beliefs like those who want to freeze their ideas in time are.
The Tea Partiers either have fallen for the last vestiges of noble lie that America’s founders were half-grudgingly still employing as they weaned the average person off of centuries of religious and political authoritarianism, still clinging to the founders’ passing references to the divine as absolute truth. Or to the extent that the Tea Partiers are more self-aware and cynical, they are trying to preserve the founders’ own uses of noble lies out of fear that true and complete philosophical honesty and openness would open the floodgates to immorality. Whenever someone says, in effect, “We must teach people to believe in God, despite the lack of good reason to believe in God, lest there be immorality” they are saying, “We must keep the noble lie about God alive lest there be immorality.” This causes me to suspect whether at least unconsciously anyone making that argument truly believes or is making a pragmatic calculus they need to believe and to perpetuate religious belief for the sake of order.
The third major problem with noble lies is the concentration of power they put in the class of those presumed to be smartest. This is faith in elites who make publicly unanalyzable decisions is foolish for at least several reasons.
1. The smartest people can still wind up in future generations being evil and self-serving, rather than just. Noble lies can be (and I would argue usually are) tools of self-interested power and not just benign.
2. The smartest people, even with the best intentions, may be woefully fallible in being able to predict or control the future or to impose an order on every part of life that will make every outcome best. So, the wisdom of a free and critical thinking populace and free, unregulated aspects of society, are necessary checks on rulers’ abilities to try to impose utopias through theory alone. 3. Institutions of power—even those theoretically built around intelligence—will inevitably, at least sometimes, fall to those who are not the smartest but who have charisma or political sway. And an educated populace is needed to tell the difference when this happens and to be able to resist the corruption it creates.
4. It intrinsically damages the flourishing of the average person to actively thwart her abilities to think for herself as much as possible and to be autonomous as possible and the truly wisest who truly loved the good would value the potential autonomy and wisdom of even ordinary people, even at the risk of arrogance and incorrigibility among other ordinary people.
Why I Oppose Noble Lying Today
Now this brings us to today. If there are any truths within theology, they are philosophical, psychological, sociological, or scientific truths which can be had without theology and which we can reformulate and teach to people without any needed reference to superstitions people regularly confuse for facts. Theological ideas in some cases are both literally and philosophically false and/or harmful in practice. In other cases, they are literally false but to some extent capable of philosophical reformulation in ways that are relatively true or productive of goodness.
Since I think that an honest reading of psychology, history, and politics, and a correct understanding of ethics, all vindicate prioritizing the maximum cultivation of the average person’s autonomy consistent with social order and overall flourishing, I think we should give people the truth, straight up. We should engage with everyone in a philosophically and scientifically sincere way. If we are engaging in useful fictions like literature or art, we should not in any way use it for noble lie purposes which tries to teach people philosophical truths by getting them to believe in literal lies. We should let them decide the relative value of fictions for themselves, knowing full well they are fictions and not literal truths they must accept.
I think that anything true people currently believe based on their religious training (say, that it is good to love one’s neighbor or that all humans should be thought to have dignity) should be explained to people in the true philosophical terms which justify these views. They should not be pandered to or deceived any further than they already have. They should be dealt with honestly.
The Case of Antonin Scalia
All of this provides context to answer a specific objection raised to me the other day. Justice Scalia argued that it was perfectly legitimate not to view the death penalty as “cruel and unusual” if the majority of people in America were Christian and accordingly believed that death was not the ultimate end of life and so not an absolute evil to inflict on a criminal. I argued that it was dangerous to let a wholly unjustified, religious metaphysical belief determine our laws about who should be killed or not.
I worried that Scalia himself may reason about the justice of the death penalty on such grounds, in effect letting people legally be executed because of a fairy tale belief in life after death. I worry this may contribute to callousness towards the justice systems murdering innocent people cleared after death by DNA analyses. If he thinks God sorts everything out in the afterlife, then this may make him indifferent to the injustice on earth. If Scalia really believes this and is willing to judge accordingly, or is willing to approve of the mass of Americans’ judging accordingly and make his judgments respect their irrational religious feelings, then he is letting a groundless and extremely implausible metaphysical assumption potentially victimize people in the most profound way.
In reply, Marta Layton argued we need better theology to disabuse Scalia of such horrible inferences about what his (or others’) religious metaphysics can morally justify. Her argument seems to me to be that if Scalia, due to religious prejudices, will not listen to philosophically presented arguments that he thinks are trumped by his (or Americans’) theology, then we should present those philosophical arguments within the theological terms he is most deeply committed to so we will have hope of actually persuading him.
I reject this approach because it just perpetuates both the false attribution of authority to theology and the false idea that it is just to consider theological arguments in legislating and these are the real sources of the problem. Not to challenge this perpetual error machine itself but to just try to work within it and correct the errors one by one is like treating symptoms and not the real disease.
I do not want to strategically prop up the noble lies any longer. I stand with philosophy and trust reason to make its case publicly and not through subterfuge. I am tired of the unintended consequences of centuries of lies to the average person. I am tired of having to wade through a mess of half-truths taken for absolute truths. It is time for the failed and perpetually backfiring attempts of arrogant elitists to educate the average person by lying to her to end. If philosophers are committed to the truth and to the good above all things, then they have no business lying for political reasons.
For more of my reasoning on the themes in the foregoing discussion, see