Thursday, December 05, 2013

Lying for a Good Cause

While waiting for a dentist's appointment this morning I took a look at a Time magazine from last month and was mildly irritated by its attempt to defend Obamacare. The author described a deliberate lie about people being able to keep their insurance if they wanted to as the administration being insufficiently clear—I do not have the magazine with me so can't offer an exact quote. And he echoed the Administration talking point that represented all existing policies that did not cover everything the ACA requires, including contraception, as worthless junk that people only bought because they were desperate for insurance. Which left me wondering about the author of that particular piece of partisan puffery disguised as news commentary. My guess is that, dosed with truth serum or in a sufficiently private conversation with a trusted friend, he would admit that the Administration's claim was a deliberate lie but justify it on the grounds that it was necessary in order to get a good law passed.

It is not an absurd position. "The end justifies the means" is usually stated as if it were obviously false, but it is not clear that it is. Most of us would be, I think should be, willing to do things we would usually disapprove of in order to achieve a sufficiently good result. To what degree ends do or do not justify means is, as it happens, one of the subthemes of my second novel, where an antagonist who is not a villain behaves very badly to my protagonists for good, from his standpoint sufficiently good, reasons.

It occurred to me to wonder if the author of the Time piece or others with similar views would accept the same argument applied to a previous instance and a different President, if they would agree that, while the facts it was based on might be mistaken, the moral reasoning was correct.

Imagine that you are President Bush and that you believe the following:

1. Saddam Hussein is a murderous tyrant whose people would be far better off without him.

2. If he is overthrown by the U.S., his government can be replaced by a reasonably free and democratic one which will serve as a model to convert other dictatorships in the region into free and democratic societies.

3. Points 1 and 2 will not be sufficient to persuade the American people to support an invasion of Iraq. They would, however, support such an invasion if they believed that Hussein was producing weapons of mass destruction.

4. While it is possible that Hussein is producing weapons of mass destruction, the evidence is very strong that he is not.

Would you be justified in pretending to have good evidence of WMD's in order to get sufficient public support to make possible a U.S. invasion of Iraq?

The logic is the same as in the case of Obamacare—lying to the public in order to make possible policies you consider highly desirable.

In both cases, the argument hinges on factual beliefs. Point 2 above turned out to be strikingly false. Obamacare will, I think, turn out to have been a very serious mistake. But the question I am asking is not whether the beliefs were correct but whether the moral argument is. If Bush believed points 1 to 4, was he justified, in terms of those beliefs, in lying to the American people? If Obama believed that the ACA would greatly improve American health care, was he? 

And, perhaps most interesting, would people who answered "yes" to the second question be willing to give the same answer to the first?


Anonymous said...

Topping of the list of questions: if someone responds in the affirmative that either Bush or Obama was justified in lying to achieve something they believed was right, how can you ever trust anything that person ever says in the future?

Antisthenes said...

I believe that if you have to lie or resort to skulduggery to achieve an end in a democracy then that end has failed the test that it is worth achieving. In a democracy only the majority of the people have a right to decide what an end result should be. Politicians have lost sight of this point and constantly push their agenda with scant regard as to the wishes of the people.

David Friedman said...

Anonymous: If someone replies in the negative that neither was justified, and you suspect the reason is not that he believes it but that he doesn't want to admit not believing it—perhaps because he anticipates your reaction—how can you ever trust anything that person says in the future?

To put the point differently, if someone replies in the affirmative the implication is not that you cannot trust anything he says but that you cannot trust things he says when you know he has strong reasons to want you to believe them. Someone might be—the fictional character in my novel is—generally honest, but willing to be dishonest in sufficiently extreme circumstances.

David Friedman said...

Antisthenes writes:

"In a democracy only the majority of the people have a right to decide what an end result should be. "

Why? More generally, what do you see as the basis for the moral legitimacy of democracy? Why does something become right when 51% of the population are in favor of it?

Anonymous said...

I freely admit that I like Obama a few thousand times more than I did Bush. However, the good that I hope Obamacare will do is insufficient to warrant lying to his constituents, us. But your analogy is not very apt. To begin with, I'm not sure Bush was lying; I think he let himself be carried away by his nutty religious beliefs and the influence of Dick Cheney, who I believe likely was lying. But most important, Obama's lie did not kill anyone. That is a huge difference. Going to war will inevitably kill a great many people. To justify that, the good it will produce should be certain, and of great magnitude.

Antisthenes said...

Mr Friedman I do my best to answer your question. Being no heavyweight intellectual I see things very much in laymen terms. For me government of the people is also for the people and by the people, some famous American said that I believe or it could be Tom Paine who was I believe a Brit like me. So accepting that is what democracy is all about then politicians proper role is to govern only by carrying out the wishes of the people. Certainly they have a role to advise and influence but if they cannot carry the majority of the people with them then for good or evil they do not proceed.

jimbino said...

As Joseph Fletcher famously asserted:

The end always justifies the means; if it doesn't, nothing else can.

If your end is to establish socialism, every means, including lying, fraud and theft is justified. Such as: "If you like your health insurance, you can keep it."

"Means" needs to be understood to comprise those measures that serve the end; otherwise they really aren't means.

Tibor said...


Suppose that you are G.W.Bush and you believe that going to Iraq will kill 1000 innocent people...which you also believe Hussein's regime kills in a few months while keeping millions of others in misery.

This reminds me of one story from the Sapkowski's Wiedzmin (Witcher in English) called "The lesser evil". Geralt (the main protagonist) is given an offer from a wizard who is being hunted down by someone who he has badly wronged before and who seeks revenge now. He asks Geralt to kill her for him, offering money and also arguing that she is a sociopath that will take the whole town where the wizard lives as a hostage...the wizard is hidden in his tower which is impenetrable. That woman who is after the wizard travels with a group of mercenaries and they would take the whole town as hostages and kill them one by one to force the wizard to leave the tower. He assures Geralt he won't do that, so killing her is the lesser evil.

Then he meets the woman and she tries to persuade him to kill the wizard for her (since he trusts him and will let him it)...with essentially the same arguments - it means betraying him, but he is also evil and so killing him is the lesser evil than watching the whole town being slaughtered.

Geralt essentially wants to stay out of this, because he does not want to choose between two evils, however in the end this leads to a worse result in a way (and especially for him) than if he chose one or the other.

Personally, I don't think there are many people who actually would not choose the lesser evil if they believed the greater evil is far greater. How far, that is hard to tell and probably depends on each person and situation.

And as it is partially shown in that Sapkowski's story, some people may even see refusal to choose a lesser evil as evil itself if the consequences of that are grievous enough.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if highlighting ends here is such a good thing?

Let's not forget that part of the means were lying about the cost to the US by a factor of about 200. That might make people rethink the lie a bit, don't you? Or would you forgive your dentist a fib about this not hurting, but getting a bill for 200x more, because, after all, the tooth needed filling?

And if this is about moral calculus, let's not forget that the options were not limited to (a) sack Iraq or (b) don't sack Iraq. N. Korea, the UAE, Libya, various tinpot dictators all over Asia and middle Europe could have been nice moral targets, too, if the goal was to take on a nasty dictator.

Since we are drawing comparisons, I wonder where your upset writings about Medicare D are. Those were a huge giveaway with a terrible rollout. Pointers to what I missed?

In any case, yes, I believe people see in gradients. If one believes, as I do, that a more social democratic nation is preferable to the one we have, one will, at times, sigh and declare, "all politicians lie." On the other hand, if you see a bigger outlay for destabilizing an admittedly terrible regime as an implicit subsidy to favored industries, yeah, not so much. My points above are just sussing out where you might not quite be the rational analyst you'd like to be seen as, either.

Alan said...

Just because someone says something that is obviously false doesn't mean they're lying. People are capable of convincing themselves of some pretty amazing things. For example, I think you're crazy when you say that climate change isn't a big problem, but I don't think you're trying to deceive us all.

I'm sure the author of the Time article believed what (s)he wrote, and I wouldn't be surprised if Obama believed what he said either, although in his case it is less excusable.

David Friedman said...

Anonymous: Obama's lie may not have killed anyone yet. If, as I suspect, the effect of the ACA is to make medical care more expensive and less available, the opposite of its claimed effect, it will kill quite a lot of people.

But my question wasn't about whether you thought one side or the other was correct in the policies being advocated. Nor was it about whether Bush actually believed the things I assumed--that was just a hypothetical. It was whether, given the belief of the person making the statement, the lie was morally justified.

Your answer seems to be that it would not be, in both cases. But it sounds as though you think it would be if the benefits of the lie were large enough.

David Friedman said...

Alan: Its possible the author of the Time piece believed it, but that's not the way I would bet. I would be astonished if Obama, who is a pretty bright guy, didn't know that the rules on grandfathering meant that many people would be unable to keep their plans.

Unknown said...

Anonymous writes - "I wonder if highlighting ends here is such a good thing?"

If the end is socialized health insurance, could you expect a recantation of that policy once it proves to be flawed?

I suspect not. Which could suggest that socialized health insurance is of itself a means towards a second state of affairs, namely socialized healthcare, which in itself is a means towards a third (mandatory PE classes), etc etc to the n-th. In the case of socialist ideals, government intervention is a permanent state of affairs. The final state of affairs consists of permanent and constant intervention. Force will continue to be exerted upon the citizens.

Interference in the market begets further interference in the market. I do not know where the "end" is in a communist state?

Don't call me Janet said...

1. There are structural costs in so far as if lying is seen as legitimate then democratic checks and balances stop working. Sufficiently great goods still justify it (and perhaps I'm being sentimental) but it seems like a fairly large additional cost.

2. We are very bad at making predictions. So sufficiently good ends do justify the means but the chances are that you'll be wrong about some factual statement. This is what makes those who believe in achievable utopia so dangerous: atrocities like the cultural revolution are very easy to justify if you believe as Mao did that you are paving the way for heaven on Earth.

Great leaders should be spending more time with actuaries.


"Interference in the market begets further interference in the market."

Interestingly here in the UK we are seeing the opposite take place. At least two consecutive governments (different parties) have been implementing policy changes which push the NHS towards privatisation.

I think what some people forget is that if your government is democratically elected then there is an incentive to take on fewer responsibilities, especially for difficult jobs (like running a health service).

Politicians proclaim to love the NHS (because "providing the people with health care" is popular)but have consistently worked to put more distance between themselves and the actual running of the NHS.

A lot of people blame it on the politicians but unless New Labour was more won over by arguments for the free market than they were letting on, I suspect the Civil Service may have something to do with this. The distance between government and the NHS benefits them too.

Russ Nelson said...

I don't believe in the greater good. I don't believe that I have a moral right to volunteer other people to sacrifice to make other people's lives better. And even more strongly, I do not believe it is moral to mislead them into choosing to sacrifice themselves.

David Friedman said...

"We are very bad at making predictions. So sufficiently good ends do justify the means but the chances are that you'll be wrong about some factual statement. "

That is the point that the relevant part of my second novel is supposed to imply. Prince Kieron is intelligent and well intentioned. He believes, reasonably enough, that he understands the political side of the problems raised by the Cascade, the very powerful spell that Coelus, my male protagonist, has invented and that Kieron wants him to perfect secretly and under royal control, better than Coelus and Ellen (my female protagonist).

But he also knows that they understand the spell and the underlying theory on which it is based much better than he does, which should make him less willing than he is to force them to act on his judgement rather than their own (they want to suppress the spell instead of perfecting it, and work on developing magical counter measures).

Like most people, he overestimates his own judgement. That is his mistake—and the reason why "the ends justify the means" is a dangerous rule to act on.

jimbino said...

Possible ends are:

The Amerikan Way
Inflicting Obamacare on the USSA

It only makes sense that if the infliction of Obamacare is indeed the "end"(= ultimate goal, ultimate good), the means employed, i.e., sacrificing Truth, Justice and the Amerikan Way is totally justified.

Ssemans said...

I think what is being groped toward here is the concept of obtuseness, a close cousin to denial. Denial is a state of mind in which one truly deceives oneself that falsity is truth, and so there is no self-knowledge of a lie or false prediction. Obtuseness is when one deliberately adopts a positive or optimistic view and makes statements or predictions on that basis. If I understand the Obamacare issue correctly (and I haven't followed it closely), it would have been quite clear at the time his statement was made that minimum care mandates would compel insurers to cancel certain policies, but the grandfather clause would ENABLE them to continue offering them for a year. Whether it was the false optimism of obtuseness, or behind-doors assurances from the industry, Obama could have considered himself technically correct in that "keep" as delimited by "a year," constituted truth. That only the (relatively) small individual market was affected may have further mitigated this deception. Truth may be an absolute, but lying can never be. Whether President or King, rule rests on the trust of the people. Those who hope to acquire and retain this trust must speak THEIR truths confidently, hence the rise within political structures depends on the perfection of these two mental mechanisms, which are constantly validated by their peers. Scientists may be less predisposed to such mental jujitsu, and there are structural checks within their profession. The tension between your President (king) and the scientist (wizard), and the need to make them both sympathetic if oppositional characters can be played as either denial or, more interestingly I would think, as obtuseness.

Antisthenes said...

Ssemans. I do not believe this was a case of obtuseness but obfuscation.

At the end of the day I assert that moral legitimacy can only be bestowed by the people and that by majority agreement. Moral legitimacy cannot be ruled upon by philosophical or scientific means as it does not lend itself to measurement that is constant and is transient in that what may be morally justifiable to day may not be tomorrow as it relies on the needs of society which is for ever in flux. Politicians and anyone else have no right to usurp that by asserting it was being done in their best interests and therefore misleading them was justifiable. That to me is the road to dictatorship which current and past dictators give abundant evidence of using "in your best interests" for their own nefarious interests.

David Friedman said...


1. It was clear early on that many plans would not get grandfathered, because they had changed in some way after 2010.

2. As best I can tell, the problem isn't limited to individual insurance, that's just where it has showed up first. That's why Obama has pushed the point at which it will be visible for employer provided insurance to just after the next election instead of just before.

Anonymous said...

So, I take it that if our good host had to pay about 200k for his dentist to take out a strong man, he'd be OK.

How else should this be interpreted? Sure, private something something, but we do not live in that world. We live in a world where David seems to prefer that people die of lack of health care, and die of failure to live somewhere other than Iraq.

All so that there is one less lie from on tv.

David's point, if he has one, is less about the lie. It is about actually carrying through, and being effective enough to make it law.

Tibor said...


To take an extreme case - would you kill one innocent to save 2 other innocent people (if you were absolutely convinced that there is no other way to do so)?

I would not. But if it was one innocent vs. 1 billon innocents I probably would start considering it.

And if it was deliberately lying to one person (who is still innocent) in order to save couple of other innocent people form their deaths (it would not have to be a million...I guess 1 would suffice), I would probably not hesitate all that much (of course, it depends a lot on particular circumstances).

The problem is that I can be wrong. As David points out, people are usually too confident about their own judgement of the situation. But that is not important for the question. What is important is that I am completely convinced that it is so.

I don't think the position that doing something wrong is never justifiable is defensible. It means that In order to save the world from ending it is not ok to lie to someone (which let's say has results that are harmful to him, but not fatal), so it is better to let the world end. I don't think anyone actually behaves like that in real life...and I would perhaps even consider someone who would to be quite mad.

The real question is what the ratio is for someone and why. 1 innocent life for 2 does not seem right to me, neither does 1 to 5. 1 to a billion is more like it. I cannot really say what determines it for me. From a strictly utilitarian perspective 1 for 3 should be safe even if I ruin my life by killing that one innocent, still it is a +1, but it just does not seem to be right. Not even if I know with certainty that there is no other way to go around that. I guess it is because I cannot be sure what value to put on each person's life. That is why one to 5 or even one to 20 is not a choice I would probably make, but 1 to a billion gives me a reasonable difference one way or the other. It might be yet something else though.

Alaska3636 said...

"Most of us would be, I think should be, willing to do things we would usually disapprove of in order to achieve a sufficiently good result."
That's shiftless moral relativism. The ends are the means. If doing something makes you feel like a shitty human; then you probably are one.
Philosophy is about learning to die with grace and dignity;not learning to justify doing whatever you feel like.

macsnafu said...

This is an interesting question, but only to an extent. Being only human, I think it is possible, even likely, that I would lie under certain circumstances, if I thought the cause was good enough. But I would probably regret it afterwards, never believing that I had been justified in lying.

More interesting to me is that I think there is a relationship between means and ends--I don't think they can be separated willy-nilly. Some means and only some means can be used to achieve certain ends, while it is unlikely or even impossible to achieve the same ends by other means.

That sounds rather vague, I know. For a purely physical end, like digging a ditch, for example, the means are pretty clear. You can use a shovel, or better yet you could some fancy machinery like a backhoe, and do a faster and better job it. But using your bare hands or a pencil would make it at least difficult if not impossible to do the job.

In a similar fashion, I think that this interdependence on means and ends also applies to human society and relationships. If a president says that he wants to increase wages, but the means he uses is to raise the minimum wage, we can be reasonably sure he will fail to increase wages, even if we are less sure of his actual intentions. Whether he is merely economically ill-informed or has a hidden agenda, he has employed the wrong means for his stated end.