The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)
The liar is a form of parasite.
His goal is to infect a victim with a false belief, in order to cause the victim to act in ways that end up thwarting the desires of those infected, but fulfill the desires of the parasitic liar.
In the same way that a tapeworm feeds off of the food the host eats, and a mosquito feeds off of his blood, the liar feeds off of his misinformed intentional actions.
The liar wants to get elected to Congress. If the people knew the truth – and acted so as to fulfill their own desires given their beliefs – their intentional actions would not be those that put the agent in Congress. So, the agent lies. He tells people things he knows are not true because he seeks to hyjack their deliberative process so as to produce intentional actions favorable to the candidate, though ultimately harmful to the people he lied to.
The liar wants to continue to make money producing a product (e.g., carbon emissions) that will destroy huge amounts of property and cause widespread destruction. So, he hires a marketing company to do research to determine the most effective ways of infecting the voting public with false beliefs about the science of global warming. He pays the agency $50 million so that the public will continu to pay $50 billion for products that significantly threaten the health and property of their children and grandchildren.
If the action that an agent wants us to perform is one that would fulfill the most and strongest of our desires, he does not need to lie. In this case, the act that fulfills the most and strongest of our desires given our beliefs is the act that fulfills the most and strongest of our desires.
However, when the action that an agent wants us to perform is not one that would fulfill the most and strongest of our desires, then he needs to drive a wedge between what would fulfill the most and strongest of our desires, and what would fulfill the most and strongest of our desires given our beliefs. That’s when he needs to infect us with false beliefs.
Which means we, for the most part, have many and strong reasons to use whatever social forces are available to create aversions to lying. We have many and strong reasons to condemn lying – to recognize liars as the parasitic life forms they show themselves to be.
Unfortunately, we do not. Our culture seems to be set up to give liars a pass. They keep their jobs sucking tens of billions of dollars into industries that threaten the health and well-being of our children and grand children. We elect them into Congress. We give them multi-million dollar contracts and give them huge quantities of radio and air time on what are euphamistically called “News” programs.
The parasites, in this case, are thriving, and the hosts are being sucked dry as a result.
Perhaps one of the reasons for this rests with the right to freedom of speech. This right to freedom of speech prohibits us from reacting to contemptible speech with violence. However, a lot of people confuse this with the idea that freedom of speech prohibits us from reacting to contemptible speech with condemnation. “Everybody is entitled to their opinion. We have no right to criticize.”
As a result, parasitic liars do not get the condemnation they deserve. Parasitic politicians, corporate executives, and “news commentators” are allowed to thrive under conditions where a culture that was doing what is in its interest would have them struggling to find any type of work.
In creating this aversion to lying, we wisely recognize that there are limits.
When the Nazi soldiers come to the door, or the slave hunter comes looking for the escaped slave, or the father comes looking for the daughter that dishonored the family by being caught holding hands with a boy, we are dealing with an agent whose own desires are not those that a good a person would have.
Clearly, if it is morally permissible to shoot or assault a villain to save his potential victim from bodily harm, it is permissible to lie to the villain for the same ends.
However, we should not treat lightly the fact that lying to the villain falls into the same moral category as assaulting the villain or killing him. It’s not an act to be taken up casually. The agent should have an aversion to lying like he should have an aversion to killing – but recognize that, in some circumstances, those aversions would, in the mind of the good person, be subordinate to stronger desires to shelter and protect the innocent and the defenseless.
We have reason to want our neighbors to tell the truth – but not to the Nazi soldiers looking for the Jews that used to live in the neighborhood.
Another family of lies that are told for the benefit of others are those associated with the surprise party. The intention here is also to give the agent a false belief, and it is so that the victim will do what the liar wants the victim to do. However, in this case, the liar also wishes to fulfill the desires of the victim. The victim of the false belief is unwittingly fulfilling his own desire – that is, if the surprise party is well thought out.
A third family of lies worth considering are the Santa Claus lies. These are stories told to children that adults know to be fiction. When this is combined with the manipulative suggestion to “be good or you will not get any presents,” it comes dangerously close to the manipulative form of deception mentioned at the start of this post.
Santa Claus lies are asserted to be “harmless fun”. This may be true. However, it may also be the case that much of the casual ease at which adults deceive and manipulate each other may well come from the lessons on lying to others that they learned as young children. The question to be answered is: What desires and aversions, associated with lying, are the effect of this type of social custom, compared to the alternative? And what reasons for action do we have to avoid those effects and condemn the liar?
These are questions that have an empirical answer – and I do not know what that answer is. However, it would be interesting to note how much of the ease with which adults learn to deceive and manipulate each other come from the lessons they learn about lying as young children.
Some may want to put religion into the category of lying, but it does not qualify. The person speaking cannot be called a liar because he does not realize that the claims he makes are utterly false.
Yet, many of the claims of preachers, priests, and other religious leaders would count as lying, and those who utter these claims properly classified as social parasites as a result. This is the case when the religious leader manufactures evidence for the existence of a God or misleads people into accepting as “miracles” that for which natural explanations exist or can be easily provided. Such people are parasites in the sense used here. They are manipulating the beliefs of others so as to obtain contributions for their churh as well as social power and influence.
These people will often insist that a right to freedom of speech and a right to freedom of religion implies that they have a right to deceive others on these types of issues without question or condemnation. However, the moral requirements do not work this way. The deceptive parasite may be immune from social violence, but he has no right to immunity from condemnation. Indeed, the right to condemn is itself a form of speech and, as such, condemnation deserves the same regard as any other speech.
In general, though, the rule is this. If one decides to have one’s community harvest pools of warm stagnate water, then one should expect to find oneself surrounded by clouds of parasites with all of the problems that they bring with them. If, instead, one wants to get rid of the parasites, then the task at hand would be to put some work into draining the social and cultural pools in which they are currently allowed to thrive.
- Alonzo Fyfe