Posts Tagged ‘lies’

McCain, Obama And The Philosophy of Lies

Tuesday, September 16th, 2008

“False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil,” Socrates

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a lie is 1. A false statement deliberately presented as being true, or 2. Something meant to deceive or give a wrong impression. This, ironically, makes lies a lot more concrete than the truth, philosophically speaking, which is a much harder quantity to pin down.

McCain Campaign Lies

McCain Campaign Lies

Why has John McCain, the self-annointed “straight talker,” resorted to lying? It’s a simple question and one that’s impossible to answer without some inside information. But if we’re to have any hope of understanding McCain and guessing his future actions it’s worth trying to figure it out.

If you’re interested in knowing what McCain is accused of lying about, the Democratic Party has established “Count the Lies” a chronicle of “independent, nonpartisan” fact checks “debunking John McCain’s lies and distortions.” Even some conservatives have tutted at McCain’s recent stoops. Even Karl Rove (!!), as reported in the Christian Science Monitor, of all places, has said that “McCain has gone, in some of his ads, similarly one step too far in sort of attributing to Obama things that are, you know, beyond the 100 percent truth test.” If you’re a Republican presidential candidate and Karl Rove is accusing you of distorting the truth, you know you’re a big fat liar… or a pawn in another one of Rove’s despicable schemes.

John McCain with President Bush

John McCain with President Bush

(This is a bit of a digression, but the Salon published a very interesting piece back in January asking why in all of the election coverage of John McCain’s losing primary bid in 2000 no journalist had mentioned who it was that smeared John McCain so successfully that he lost. The answer, of course, George Bush and Karl Rove…)

Perhaps we can find in our children the unadulterated origin of the impulse to lie. My son, now 4-years old, has just begun to lie. His reasons are transparent: He lies either to get something he wants (usually cookies, candy, or toys), or to avoid something he doesn’t want (typically to take responsibility for a transgression). McCain’s lies seem to fall squarely in the first category. As a “maverick, outsider” it suited him to talk straight. But as an establishment insider, it’s much more effective for him to lie. He’s always wanted power and success, and now that lying seems to offer the best path to victory, he’s adopted it with the same zeal he once reserved for honesty. The tactic is all the more successful because, in Obama, he seems to be up against a candidate who has some genuine integrity — a terrible handicap against smear tactics.

What does this tell us about the kind of president McCain would make?

Politicians the world over resort to lies, many of them relatively successful leaders. Lying in itself isn’t a guarantee of poor government and lousy leadership. Although Bush has overused and abused this privilege, the security of a country, for instance, relies to some extent on the ability of its government to keep secrets from its enemies, which also means keeping secrets from its people.

In order to understand the degree of concern we should have about McCain’s lies, we really need to consider what his goals will be as president. We can then assume that he will lie to achieve them.

And given that McCain has dropped most if not all of his firmly held political beliefs in order to gain the highest office, one can only assume that his primary goal as president will be to consolidate his power and popularity — in other words, he’ll lie in order to keep the conservative political base as happy as possible. That’s a scary thought.

Footnote - What about Palin?

What about Palin? She’s a big fat liar, too, and a scary character in her own right. The Times has an extensive piece on her political MO. Not a pretty picture. Here’s a quote from Laura Chase who was Palin’s campaign manager during her first bid for mayor:

“I’m still proud of Sarah,” she says, “but she scares the bejeebers out of me.”

Related posts from around the web:

McCain Lies Again - But McCain is still airing ads telling the same lie. He has also still not retracted his lie on The View when he point blank said that Palin has refused all earmarks as governor. I cannot remember a candidate for president telling such …

Romney: McCain Lies - So Rove has declared McCain’s campaign overly harsh and Romney has declared it deceitful. I honestly have no idea how that sort of criticism from those people is possible to recover from.

Obama Campaign Launches Ad Hitting McCain’s Lies As “Dishonorable” - We’ve been waiting for it, and here it is: The Obama campaign launches its first ad hitting McCain for his lying and his mendacious adver-sleazements and slamming his campaign as “disgraceful” and “dishonorable”: …

McCain Lies About Obama’s Health Plan- JUST THE FACTS! - In our ongoing efforts to expose Senator McCain’s lies about Senator Obama’s policies, we need to look at the McCain campaigns lies and then provide some “straight talk” about the facts. McCain claimed that Obama’s health care plan …

The Philosophy of Deceit

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

On lying, fibbing, tricking and kidding.

Philosophy blog: candy wrapper four year old sonMy four year-old son is learning the nuances of deceit. When he’s caught claiming that he didn’t eat that piece of candy you said he couldn’t have he says he was “just joking.” His deceptions have a straightforward purpose — to get something that he wants which would otherwise be denied him, or to avoid responsibility for something that would incur his parents’ displeasure. Transparent and predictable, his lies seem to come with the territory of being human. He’s learning about the commodity of untruth, and its cost.

One would think that by the time a person has grown to adulthood he or she has learned that obvious, easily uncovered untruths have little value and come at a high cost, especially when you live in the public eye.

Philosophy blog: Hillary Rodham Clinton lies untruths gas tax dissemblingHillary Clinton, one can presume, must understand, abstractly at least, the high cost of silly lies. And yet she trots them out as if she were a four year-old. (I’m not exculpating Barack Obama, but his lies at least seem to be in keeping with his general philosophy and purpose, whereas Clinton’s sometimes confound us with their preposterous posturing.) Claiming to George Stephanopolous, for instance, that her support for summer gas tax relief was something other than just political pandering insults the intelligence of those who would vote for her.

Recent research into the psychology of lying suggests that people lie to deceive others or to deceive themselves. This research also suggests that lying to deceive oneself has an aspirational quality — the student who inflates his grade point average aspires to that grade point average, and, more often than not, will get closer to it over time.

Very often politicians lie because they aspire to be right. They lie to defend a position because they believe in their ability to hold correct positions. Hillary Clinton desperately wants to believe that her aspiration to the presidency is legitimate. Beyond anything else, a victory would validate her sense of her right to be center stage — politically and personally. When someone fights so desperately to win, it gives us a window into what they feel they have to lose.

Philosophically, deceit is a simple concept — the presentation of untruth in place of truth. We can quibble about what we mean by truth, about whether anything can be completely objective, but this is hairsplitting. When a student says his grade point average is 3.7 when it is really 3.1 this is deceit.

And deceit isn’t confined to humans. The natural world abounds with deceit. Animals camouflage, impersonate, dissemble, trick… all with the aim of staying alive or furthering their genes.

Philosophy blog: socrates lies sophistry truthEarly philosophers such as Socrates and Plato focused a great deal of attention on the mechanics of deception and the antidote of reason. They did this because they felt that too often people were deceived by illogic. Clear, unfettered truth was the primary battleground of their philosophy.

Amazingly, many hundreds of years later, despite great advances in so many fields, we still don’t teach our children the fundamentals of logic and reason as a matter of course. Until today, until right now, I’ve thought that this was simply an oversight. But I wonder now whether the battle that Socrates started isn’t still underway. Perhaps it’s a battle of humanity for humanity.

Here we have highly educated people fibbing like four year-olds. In Socrates’ day, the sophists were aware of their deceptions, and they succeeded because people wanted to believe them. Just so today, the Clintons of the world know that they’re dissembling, but people want to believe them. We like rhetoric. We like to think that the world might be something other than what it is. Reality is hard. The truth is unsavory. Let’s go for a drive…

LIFE Why We Exist and What We Must Do To Survive Rational Science-Based Book About Meaning and Purpose of ExistenceFor a rational, science-based explanation of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive.

Lies And Consequences

Monday, March 10th, 2008

On truth and lies: and their effect on society and how we live.

Philosophy blog: truth and lies for sale signMy wife and I are selling our house. One man made a good offer, insinuated his keenness to move quickly, and then promptly became impossible to pin down. After a roller-coaster of promised inspections and contract signings, reneged upon for reasons of his workload or ill health, we have been forced to conclude that he’s either completely full of it, or extremely busy and unfortunate. We don’t know which. Nor does it seem likely that we will ever know. While I’m curious for curiosity’s sake to know the real story, my overriding concern has a practical base — is he a legitimate buyer?

Philosophy Blog: Love and ConsequencesI’d been wanting to write about fake memoirs (the latest being Peggy Seltzer’s Love and Consequence, her (fictitious) account of her young life in the LA drug wars) and Daniel Mendelsohn helped me find a way in. Mendelsohn has been gathering life histories of family members who survived the holocaust for a book he’s working on. Mendelsohn has a very personal take on those who lie about their experiences in order to tell an amazing story. He thinks it is repellent. He goes further and questions whether it is a good thing to go through the process of trying to imagine the pain of others, to put ourselves in their shoes. Our presumption to be able to imagine what others go through “debases the anguish” that they suffer, he claims.

Mendelsohn spares no one in his assault on induced empathy. A holocaust museum that recreates the experience of riding in a cattle car “encourage[s] not true sympathy or understanding, but a slick “identification” that devalues the real suffering of the real people who had to endure that particular horror.” (Mendelsohn goes on to implicate the Internet, “which has already made problematic the line between truth and falsehood, expert and amateur opinion, authentic and inauthentic.”)

Apart from his skepticism about manufactured, the real crime, according to Mendelsohn, is that when people lie about their experiences, they make us less trustful of such accounts generally. “How tragic if, because of the false ones, those amazing tales are never read — or believed.”

All of which made me wonder — is he right?

I concluded that Mendelsohn takes an essentially irrational position. That his response is mostly emotion wrapped in rationale.

Philosophy Blog: Holocaust Museum Empathy QuestionRationally, Mendelsohn’s empathy hypothesis would lead us to suspect any form of empathy. But if we read, watch or listen to a true story of oppression or suffering, the story has impact and affects us only if we can feel some sort of empathy. If we were to be able to tell ourselves that we had no place imagining ourselves in a similar set of circumstances, the story would be emotionally meaningless to us.

Mendelsohn’s actions also don’t concur with his rhetoric. He is compiling a list of true stories because he believes they should be heard. Does he want them heard but not to affect people?

Sure, some empathy ploys are cheap, ineffective, devaluing and insulting. But to damn empathy generally is short-sighted.

Mendelsohn’s other target is trickier to unravel. I share his desire for less fabrication, for greater honesty and candor. But wanting won’t make it happen. And I don’t immediately come to the same conclusion that modern society has become a catchall for lies and misstatements, with the Internet as its most effective web.

I wrote recently that we each have an obligation of skepticism. That we can’t simply accept everything we read or see at face value. Mendelsohn seems to hanker for a world where everything is believed because it is all truth. But truth is an elusive quality. Even in the true stories that Mendelsohn gathers for his book there will be elements that become highlighted, brought to greater intensity by the use of a particular word or phrase or literary technique, as well as aspects that get excluded or diminished in the telling. That’s the whole point of the telling — to get it told, to bring out the essence.

For as long as there has been language there have been lies and liars. As human beings we process the stories we hear, some we know to be truth, some we know to be lies, and some we either must take at face value or not. Ultimately, we each reach our own level of skepticism. Without a certain level of honesty and truthfulness, society begins to crumble, because society relies on contracts of reliability in human relationships. Society rightly places a great value on honesty. I therefore feel less pessimistic than Mendelsohn seems to feel about the future of truth.

LIFE Why We Exist and What We Must Do To Survive Rational Science-Based Book About Meaning and Purpose of ExistenceFor more rational, science-based explanations of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive.

Goodbye, Rudy; We’ll Miss You

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

(OK, that’s one of my four lies for today.)

On lying and its uses: Rudy, McCain, Bush, and your average guy.

Giuliani leaves the stage in florida after losing primary to mccainAfter Giuliani’s thankfully dismal showing in Florida, the rush to spout fibs found Giuliani and McCain vying for who could tell the biggest whopper. First Giuliani suggested that he had failed in Florida because his opponents had built up too much momentum in earlier primaries, whereas, in fact, Giuliani spent a lot of money and time in New Hampshire before retreating from that state. McCain countered with the gracious and fallacious compliment that Giuliani had “invested his heart and soul” in the race, which of course was exactly what Giuliani hadn’t done, otherwise he would have performed much better. McCain followed this up swiftly with an upper-cut of an untruth declaring that Giuliani had “conducted himself with all the qualities of the exceptional American leader he truly is.” Giuliani tried to recover with a transparent falsehood of his own; that he had run “a campaign of ideas.” But McCain, again, clearly had him beat.

bush state of the union liesOn a less happy and more serious note, the editorial board of the NY Times brings our attention to the latest lies from George W. Bush. If you’re going to tell lies, I suppose that delivering them in a state of the union address endows them with a deep and lasting sense of moment and history. The Bush legacy will be in large part one of mass deception – about weapons of mass destruction, the illegal activities of the government and its agencies, and the intent and actions of Bush himself. As The Times points out, Bush’s reconciliatory rhetoric conflicts with his deeds, yet again, as he refuses to respect certain new legal provisions that would increase oversight of military contractors, their actions, and the acts of government agencies by asserting in his signing statement that these provisions step on his constitutional powers.

Bush is an inveterate and habitual liar. One can presume, by studying his behavior and his words, that he feels no remorse about his lies and that he believes the ends justify the means.

lie detector test polygraphWhich brings me to a recent study that finds that people admit to telling about four untruths per day and that two-thirds of those polled don’t feel guilty about lying. Now, statistics can be misleading, but in this case, as one commentor wryly observed, asking people to admit to how many lies they tell will probably result in under-reporting rather than over-reporting. (Another study lends support to this theory by finding that people underreport the number of their sexual partners unless they’re told that they’re hooked up to a lie-detector.)

The actual numbers concern me less than the philosophy of lying.

We lie, it seems, to avoid unwanted repercussions, to sway the course of events by untruth. This applies to the fib “no, you don’t sound bitter” as well as to the deception of a nation so that you can fill your cronies’ coffers. 

Essayist Harold Nicolson defined a person who tells the truth as ’someone who, when they tell a lie, is careful not to forget they have done so, and who takes infinite precautions to prevent being found out.’ This is humorous, of course, but hints at the “humanness” of lying. Surely very few people habitually tell the truth, and those that do would be considered odd and unnecessarily blunt. One generally likes to be lied to if one looks lousy or has made a fool of onesself, for instance.

Is this a distinction that helps us? Lies are OK if the person wants to be lied to.

And what about lies that avoid unreasonable conflict? If we know that someone will react unreasonably to the truth, does that justify a lie?

It seems that we get much more worked up about the lies people tell to get away with something, to avoid being held accountable for their actions, unless the accountability is unreasonable or irrational. (We like the idea of Robin Hood. And we support the concept of the resistance fighter who lies to the oppressing power.)

The intent of the lie and the legitimacy of the repercussions of the truth then seems to be far more important, rationally speaking, than the act of lying itself.

Which brings us to the concept of honesty. When we speak of honesty as a virtue, we are really speaking of the bravery that comes with telling a difficult truth, of risking the consequences. What seems to be lacking in politics today is the bravery to tell difficult truths. One by one the candidates shift positions in order to sound more appealing to the voters, or to cast shadow on an opponent. McCain has done it, Romney has done it, Clinton has done it, Obama has been accused of doing it (did he snub Hillary Clinton deliberately or unintentionally before the state of the union address?)

And I wonder if we were to be served up an honest politician, would we elect them, truth and all, or would we prefer to be lied to?

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Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Friday, November 2nd, 2007

Rudy GiulianiWell, after reading Paul Krugman’s encouragingly negative piece on Giuliani’s statements about cancer survival rates, I trotted off to research my own damning indictment of Giuliani’s propaganda against Democratic calls for healthcare reform. I should have known better. What I found wasn’t so encouraging.

Of all people, I should have known better. I’m English; my father died of cancer, in England. I know first hand that the American health care system, in some ways — like shorter waiting periods and accessibility of newer treatments — tends to be better than the English healthcare system. (I also know first hand that in other ways — like community outreach — the English system seems better than the American system.) Giuliani’s propaganda should be condemned, perhaps, but not because he lied; as far as I can tell he didn’t lie he simply chose to use the most conveniently damning statistics.

It’s unfortunate that people abuse statistics as they do. The world would be a much better place if one needed a license to wield statistics. We need a license to drive a bus or to inspect an elevator, why not a license to fire off numbers?Benjamin Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli wasn’t the first to coin the phrase about there being three kinds of lies, but he popularized it across the Atlantic, as Mark Twain did here.

Statistics should be carefully handled, thoroughly understood. Very few statistics tell their stories in straightforward, unequivocal terms. How were they gathered? what’s been included, what’s been excluded? what was the sample size? were other influencing factors eliminated, if so, how? And even if we understand the statistics, how can we use them in such a way that we disclose everything we know about the statistics so as not to mislead people?

Here’s an example: If someone were to release statistics about the time I get on the subway to head into the city on weekday mornings, they could cite my average alighting time as 8:06am. But the standard deviation around this mean departure time is over 49 minutes!  Pretty eractic, what a flake.

Now, only those who had access to and took the time to study the underlying data would see that on three days each week I leave at 7:30am (so that I can go to the pool for an early dip). And on the other two days I get on the train at 9am after dropping my son at pre-school.  I keep a pretty regular schedule around those times, with a standard deviation on any particular day of the week of no more than a few minutes.

We like statistics because they feel definite and concrete. They feel as if they will support the weight of some action that we can take to alter them in some way. If my departure time appears erractic, I must strive to be more regular in my schedule! But unless the statistics really do tell the story we think they tell, then they will only support incorrect conclusions and unhelpful actions.

Giuliani clearly liked the statistics that seemed to show that the English healthcare system was vastly inferior to the American healthcare system. He didn’t go looking broadly for statistics that would bear out this conclusion in all facets of the healthcare system. He didn’t drill down to show how the Democratic health reform bill would specifically lead to problems of reduced quality care in the American system. He simply plucked appropriately scary numbers off the statistic vine and tossed them out to support his aversion to increased government healthcare spending. Giuliani selected statistics that on their face lead us to want to reject the Democratic healthcare plan, whereas they don’t necessarily support this rejection at all. We would need to understand a great deal more about the proposed plan and about the potential impact on the quality of healthcare before arriving at such a conclusion.

It could be that the healthcare plan will improve the overall quality of care in America. I would imagine that this is what its proponents intend. But instead of finding out the facts we’re stuck talking about whether Giuliani lied or not. So often, politics gets stuck in meta-discussion, and we all lose out.

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