Lies and Damn Lies

posted in: BasicPhilosophy | 0

During the debate over Condoleezza Rice’s nomination for secretary of state, her truthfulness, and that of the Bush administration also, was questioned.  The strongest language came from Mark Dayton, a Minnesota Democrat. “My vote against the nominee is my statement that this administration’s lies must stop now.”

Bush’s statements before the beginning of the war in Iraq were under particular scrutiny last year, and the implication of many writers was that a presidential lie is grounds for dismissal.  The only problem is …well it’s a little too easy to call the other side a liar. Unfortunately, presidents who have lied may be the rule, and not the exception.

Although Eric Alterman, author of the insightful book When Presidents Lie, writes “Before the 1960s, few could even imagine that a President would deliberately mislead them on matters so fundamental as war and peace.”, historians list many presidential prevaricators including Polk, McKinley, Wilson, FDR, JFK, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and of course, Clinton.

Lies did not prevent many of them, though, from being popular or from ranking high on general performance in C-Span’s surveys.  Is honesty something that we truly expect from our leaders?  Is lying something that we only get upset about if it comes from the other political party?

Right or wrong, as Corey Brettschneider, assistant professor of political science and public policy at Brown University points out, in cases of strong national interest, e.g. the Cuban missile crisis, there is much precedent for deliberate deception from presidential administrations, and we know it.  Maybe we even want it.  Moreover, some philosophers suggest, disturbingly, that politicians tell us what we want to hear.

If we don’t mind a lie once in a while from the Oval office, then the intense focus on Bush (or Clinton five years ago) is merely partisan politics, and needless polarization.  In fact the righteous indignation of Dayton and others is itself a lie. 

Many people do not want to know the gory details of war, or the “secret” deals between the U.S. and Osama bin Laden or Sadaam Hussein.  We know life and politics are complicated.  Spare us the tangled web, as long as things are basically working out o.k.  That’s what we hired you for.  Let’s have the good guys in white and the bad guys in black.  During troubling times especially, we seem to gravitate more to a president that simplifies things for us, whether he’s telling the whole truth or not.

If you lie to me, and we both know you’re lying, is it really a lie?

But honesty is a virtue that even an atheist can appreciate.  So we better be clear about when it might be o.k.

For example, if someone asks you a personal question like, “Do you pick your nose in the car at red lights?” you have every right to lie.  It’s none of their business.

Sometimes it might even be right to lie. If you’re on an airplane and a suspected terrorist is sitting next to you, feel free to mention that you know of several passengers who are a swat team and the rest are participants in a martial arts tournament at your destination.  Lying may be a moral thing if it brings about a greater good.

Killing people is also immoral except in a just war, which is why we have a military.  If the President as Commander-in-Chief can lead the killing for national security, can’t he also tell an untruth?  On a scale of morality, shouldn’t lying be rated a few notches below killing?


Our Torah says, “Distance yourself from a false thing.”  “Do not lie to one another.” and “Thou shall not bear false witness.”  The sages say, “God’s signature is Truth,” and therefore one who wants to be holy needs to be particularly careful with his/her words.  So important is honesty that for a period of time in the Talmudic era, the main study hall refused entry to scholars who had any pretense or falsity about their character.

Unfortunately, in America, in our “modern” era, leadership does not imply holiness. (We pray for a more enlightened time.) Yet we still must hold the president accountable for lies that are unwarranted.


Instead of calling the President a liar, it would show more integrity on our part to explain why the specific lie we’re upset about is immoral.


If you really want to prove your point, you must show us why this lie is not just a regular political lie, as we’ve seen before too many times.


There are lies, and then there are damn lies.