Lying is still probably a bad idea

After my last post about how lying for political gain is actually a massive risk that often goes completely unrecognized by those who naively propose it, some people pointed out a number of related issues. One common reply was that deception in the political arena is actually par for the course, and not an abnormal state of affairs - people largely either don’t care what’s true, won’t take the effort to verify claims, or can’t get the word out even if they do uncover lies.

Even if that is the case, consciously deciding to lie in order to effect a certain goal still means betting that your willful deception won’t be revealed. It means hoping that a critical mass of people simply won’t notice or won’t care that you’ve lied to them. In politics, that is far from guaranteed, especially in the long run.

Sometimes, it may work for a while:

But not necessarily forever:

Even taking an especially cynical stance, one must acknowledge that lies (such as the purported inferiority of racial minorities, women, sexual and gender minorities, the disabled, and so on) are sometimes noticed, including large and widespread lies. With this realization, action may be taken. Political apathy, common and infinitely renewable as it may seem, is not a constant, and not all lies can be passed off without consequence.

In choosing to lie, you’re taking the risk that your deception will come to light, and potentially backfire. Further, you do not have an accurate sense of the likelihood of this happening, or of what the consequences of its revelation may be. You’re aiming for a certain outcome, but with no idea of what might happen if you were to fail, or how probable your loss is. This can scarcely be considered an informed decision on your part. As a strategy for success, it’s essentially just recklessness, worse even than a blind bet: you do not even know how much you stand to lose. And being so confident that your lie will be accepted that any possibility of loss can be ignored is not warranted by historical trends.

Others posed the familiar problem of the inquiring murderers: If you are concealing Jewish refugees in your home, and Nazis come to your door to ask if you’re hiding any Jews, would it be wrong to lie? The simplicity of this scenario makes the answer both easy and useless for any wider purpose. This is the entirety of the question: Action A (not lying) will result in the unjust deaths of innocent people (negative outcome). Action B (lying) will result in their survival (positive outcome). You pick one, the scenario is concluded, and you’re left with the results of your decision.

In an unrealistically simple hypothetical situation like this, the answer is obvious assuming you value the lives of innocent people over their deaths. You pick Action B, lie to the Nazis, and your guests survive. The simulation ends and there is nothing more to it than that. There are no wider consequences. There is nothing unanticipated.

And what happens if your lie is discovered? If the Nazis find out, the results would be no worse than if you had told them the truth in the first place. (Even with this possibility added into the mix, lying is still the superior choice, as the probability of the deaths of your refugees is only 1 times the chance that the Nazis will catch you lying, as opposed to a probability of 1 altogether if you had not lied.) And if, after the war and the fall of Nazi Germany, others find out that you lied and call you to account for this? Then you tell them you were placed in a hypothetical scenario where lying was 100% certain to save innocent lives, and not lying was 100% certain to result in their deaths, with no consequences beyond that. And they tell you “Oh, okay, we understand. We would have done the same thing.”

If every ethical question involving honesty or dishonesty were as uncomplicated, limited in scope and consequences, and absolute in the certainty that given outcomes will result from specified actions, then the answers would always be this easy. In reality, they rarely are this simple, and neither are the answers. Some people posited scenarios such as “There are people who want to kill gay people because they think it’s a (wrong) choice”. Such hypotheticals fall under the same category as the inquiring murderers problem: unrealistically simple and useless for any practical purpose.

People make the same mistake when they envision the question at hand as actually being this basic: “If we tell people Statement A, they will hold Belief A, and this will be good for us. If we tell people Statement B, they will hold Belief B, and this will be bad for us.” With this reasoning, they conclude that we should tell people Statement A, and that’s that. No consideration is given to whether a certain belief is indeed reliably induced by exposure to a particular statement, or what other beliefs might result instead, or what precisely those “good” and “bad” results for us truly consist of, or even the actual truth of any of these statements and the possible consequences of willful dishonesty.

This oversimplified model thus fails to reflect reality in any way whatsoever, and those who use it as a guideline for how to act are neglecting to take the complexities of reality into account. I could just as well say that telling people that gay people choose their orientation gives them hope that gay people can change, and makes them less inclined to kill gay people than they otherwise would be. But have I provided any evidence that their current beliefs are leading to the alleged result, or that their holding of the proposed belief would lead to the desired result, or that they would even hold the belief we want them to if we told them this? No, and my claim would not be persuasive. Similarly unjustified claims are similarly unpersuasive.

Obviously, the same criticism applies equally whether you’ve poorly thought out the potential results of lying or telling the truth. There can be risks and uncertainties in either case. This is not as easy as a straightforward calculation of utility - it is a complex calculation of utility. But when you choose to lie, one thing is assured: You have made it the truth that you aimed to deceive people. It’s now an aspect of reality that is there for people to discover. It creates a vulnerability that telling the truth does not. Don’t forget to factor that in.

NOM: National Organization for Murder

From The Bilerico Project: NOM Hate Bus Rolls Into Indianapolis