3 years ago: VIII

March 17, 2010, on this blog: VIII

Lying about others — bearing false witness against them — is dangerously corrosive. It sets the liar on a downward path that leads not just to moral confusion, but to epistemological insanity. Bearing false witness will ultimately make you crazy.

What may start out as a well-intentioned choice to “fight dirty” for a righteous cause gradually forces the bearers of false witness to behave as though their false testimony were true. This is treacherous — behaving in accord with unreality is never effective, wise or safe. Ultimately, the bearers of false witness come to believe their own lies. They come to be trapped in their own fantasy world, no longer willing or able to separate reality from unreality. Once the bearers of false witness are that far gone it may be too late to set them free from their self-constructed prisons.

This slide from fighting dirty to embracing insanity happens in politics, obviously, but not only in politics. And regardless of the arena the end result is the same. The bearers of false witness make themselves stupid — so stupid that they don’t even seem to notice that they’ve surrendered the argument by choosing to live in a fantasy world in which all arguments are irrelevant.

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  • Fits young earth creationists perfectly!

  • Random_Lurker

    Or anti-abortionists. Or complementarians. Or anit-gay rights. Or deficit-crisisists. The list goes on and on.

  • arcseconds

    I think Kant’s essay (and his moral philosophy more generally) should be read and wrestled with until it’s understood, though.

    It’s not good enough to say “well, I’m not going to accept that conclusion! So I’m not going to bother reading the argument, except maybe in a completely superficial and uncharitable way in order to make potshots at it”

    this is exactly the frustration I’m having with some of the creationists I’ve been struggling with over on James McGrath’s blog…

  • arcseconds

    Actually, I’m going to go a bit further.

    Fred, you’re going to lie to evil people to save lives.

    This, presumably, is justified in a large extent by the consequences, right? People will die if you don’t.

    What happens if people will die if you don’t bear false witness? I mean, while it’s maybe a bit less plausible to have the lies so directly involved with people’s death, it’s not all that implausible to have a situation where, by lying, one could have a person you know will kill people either removed from office or imprisoned.

    It’s a standard plot in police dramas, isn’t it? And I’m sure there have been many, many examples of police (and witnesses) doing exactly this. They know this person is a bad, bad person, and they know that if let loose they’ll kill or rape or molest again. Maybe the person even did the crime they’re accused of, but the evidence just needs to be a little more convincing for the jury.

    So, why do the deaths in one case justify lying, but the deaths in the other not?

    You’re worried about the fact that bearers of false witness end up living the lie, but surely the problem isn’t really the kind of lie they’re telling. The problem is that they’re routinely lying to advance their cause, and this could equally as well be a problem with lies that don’t bear false witness. False witness is more likely to directly harm other people, but it’s not necessarily so — con-artists often harm others quite directly, for example.

    (Oscar Schindler was totally living the lie. A businessman engaged in the kind of lying that he was doing, basically running a large-scale con of the central government, we might well worry about the state of his conscience and grip on reality, particularly if it looks like he started off genuinely intending on delivering the service but ended up covering up more and more for his incompetence. )

    If we make the cases parallel in terms of consequences and the amount of lying done, then I’m not sure the distinction you want to draw is at all clear.

  • “Deficit-crisisist” is fun to say.

  • The problem arises when there’s no possible way to prove that doing something is actually having any effect whatsoever. Claiming that Plan B pills cause abortions when they don’t really isn’t likely to stop anyone from taking them if the need arises, so how does it fit the categorical imperative to lie for a cause?

  • MaryKaye

    I think it’s more complicated than “lying-to is okay, lying-about is not.”

    The key test, it seems to me, is lying to put a person you believe to be guilty in jail, when you don’t think you can do so by telling the truth: say, accusing Joe falsely of crime A because you are certain he is guilty of crime B but don’t think you can convict him of B.

    This harms you, because you are lying to hurt someone and that is in my opinion intrinsically harmful to you. You may get caught out and lose your reputation for truthfulness. (If you are, say, a police chief this could have big repercussions. In any case it reduces your personal power to do good if no one trusts you anymore.) You are also training yourself to be a vigilante, which is only justified in a situation where civil society has collapsed or is incorrigibly evil. (I would argue that that’s where Oskar Schindler was. It is not where most of us are.)

    It harms society for at least two reasons. First, if you get caught out it erodes trust in the legal system–look how they tried to frame Joe for A! You can’t trust them! Second, in most cases someone really is guilty of A, but if Joe is falsely convicted the search for the guilty party will stop. There’s also the danger that reliance on vigilante solutions, which is what this is, will take away resources that could be used for social change–reforming the corrupt system. And historically it’s clear that police departments who let themselves start thinking “I’m sure he’s guilty, who cares if I can prove it in this specific case?” turn into predatory monsters.

    Is it ever the right thing to do? I think you could pose scenarios where I’d say that it was. But the weight against it, a priori, is very high. Crime B would, I think, have to be ongoing, very severe, and impossible to stop by normal means. My “ideal” (yuch) scenario might involve a Joe who has already been tried and exonerated for B in an obviously fake trial, and who has gone right on re-doing B.

  • arcseconds

    I think the opposition to Plan B is an excellent example of the insanity that Fred refers to, which I think is pretty much spot on.

    There’s two options: they either believe it, or they don’t.

    If they believe it, then they’ve got caught up in a worldview that has a tenuous relationship at best with reality, where the only news you trust is things your tribe tells you are true, in which the world is filled with Sin and evil liberals are trying to cause as many abortions as possible.

    If they don’t believe it, then they’re deliberately telling people that plan B kills babies, when it doesn’t. Which is an awful thing to do.

    I’m not convinced no-one will pay attention to them, by the way. I’ve read an article about a very distressed young woman asking the pharmacist whether this would be an abortion. So the message has gotten out there, causing needless distress and suffering, and probably also pregnancies the woman doesn’t want or is ready for.

    So, destroying lives, basically.

    (Note that who this hurts the most is pro-lifers, or more generally people with a moral objection towards any abortion, even though they may not be promoting the moral objection as policy. So they’re hurting their own here.)

    And why would they do that?

    Well, it could be to try to deal with the proximal effect, which is contraception, or slightly more distally, sex outside marriage. If they really are doing any sort of moral calculus here, they’d have to be supposing that contraception or sex outside marriage is worse than lying about the effect of the drug, lying about the biology of conception, falsely accusing people of murder, needlessly distressing women (and their partners, and anyone else close to them), setting families against one another, and deceiving people into thinking the choice is between (pseudo?)murderous abortion and having an unwanted child.

    (and, you know, people who are using this within marriage caught up as collateral).

    Or they could be doing this as part of a more general strategy to tow the USA (and the world!) kicking and screaming back to some ‘idyllic’ version of the 1950s, where no one had naughty sex outside marriage, no-one was gay, and everyone was white, went to church, and voted Conservative. Or to oppose Obama and the evil liberals in the present day, because they’re the hated enemy.

    But I don’t think anyone’s actually doing anything quite like this. While there are the ‘not intended as a factual statement’ lot, I think they think life as more or less like a video game. You pursue your goals with whatever strategy you like, and no real person actually gets hurt.

    Anyway, none of this has much to do with my comment, that you’re replying to.