by Luke Muehlhauser on November 4, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

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

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Mindyourmind November 4, 2010 at 4:56 am

What then about the “liar” who tells his mother that the meal that she has been working on all day tastes wonderful, even though he thinks it tastes awful? Or the husband who tells his wife that “No, honey, those jeans do not make your arse look fat”.


Markus November 4, 2010 at 5:51 am


As someone who attempts to practice brutal honesty when asked a direct question, I’ve found it’s easier to answer in a way that stresses that it is only my opinion.

How does the meal taste?
Bad answer: “It’s not very good.”
Better answer: “I’m not a big fan of . I’d prefer more of , but that’s just my preference. I bet would like this. Maybe they can give it a try.”

Do these jeans make my butt look fat:
Bad answer: “Yes they do.”
Better answer: “Your butt looks good to me! Though I think that other pair looked like more of your style. What do you think?” Long before this question even comes up, I’ve stressed how confidence is the sexiest part to me, not physical appearance. I find self-esteem to far outweigh clothes as far as attraction goes…

Whether I give the bad or better answer, a bigger question is: Do I have a relationship with my wife that would allow me to be honest with them? If not, then I see that as a failure of communication for both of us and needs to be addressed ASAP. Thankfully, I do. While it’s not always the easiest path, I find it well worth it.


Tony Hoffman November 4, 2010 at 6:14 am

Parasite, not parisite. It’s just sitting there all naked in the first sentence, 7 words in.


TXCHLInstructor November 4, 2010 at 6:28 am

Interesting that you would run a photo of Shrub with this article. The evidence would support the contention that Shrub actually believed what he said, so that would not make him a liar — even if what he said was mistaken, which much of it was. A closer fit for this article would have been our current Dear Leader, who is probably the most cynical of liars ever to occupy the White House.


Luke Muehlhauser November 4, 2010 at 7:12 am


Fixed, thanks.


Charles November 4, 2010 at 7:44 am

If the Santa myth is merely for amusement, then I agree. The practice is questionable. We as a culture should seek comfort in Truth not Myth.

However, there is benefit if the purpose is to instruct. Perhaps the point is to give children the opportunity to puzzle their way out of the false belief in imaginary people that peers say exist.

I think there is a certain value to that.


Tshepang Lekhonkhobe November 4, 2010 at 12:39 pm

@Markus, I think you are trying too hard. If you just mention “I’d rather not say.” to someone who’s not used to your brutal honesty, that person will ‘get it’. OTOH, a lot of people get surprised and appreciate a person who expresses unflinching honesty, even if they become sad, and to me that’s a far better option than them living with a false believe that you really did enjoy that meal. I got a few people who hold me in high regard for practicing this sort of thing.


cl November 4, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Nice post. Made sense and I enjoyed the relative absence of desirist / moral terms.


Jeff H November 4, 2010 at 3:48 pm

Don’t have much to add here, but I just wanted to say that I got a chuckle from the transition from Nazi soldiers straight into surprise birthday parties. Lol.


Markus November 4, 2010 at 4:26 pm

It looks like parts of my post didn’t make it through. It should look something more like:
Better answer: “I’m not a big fan of “ingredient/flavor X”. I’d prefer more of “ingredient/flavor Y”, but that’s just my preference. I bet “someone else” would like this. Maybe they can give it a try.”

@Tshepang Lekhonkhobe
I agree, answering that way isn’t always the easiest path. When someone asks me for my opinion, justifying to myself why I don’t like something can preemptively reduce chances at misunderstanding. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll say I hate a meal if it is truly horrible, but it’s rare that every aspect (texture, display, taste) are all poor.
I second the statement about high regard for honesty. I count on my Dad to answer honestly, even if it leads to confrontation. On the other hand, there are occasions where we spend time arguing just to find an early assumption by one of us is at fault.


mojo.rhythm November 4, 2010 at 4:42 pm

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 national explanations exist or can be easily provided.

Sorry Alonzo, did you mean natural explanations?



Luke Muehlhauser November 4, 2010 at 5:34 pm


Thanks, corrected.


Hermes November 4, 2010 at 6:49 pm

TXCHLInstructor: Interesting that you would run a photo of Shrub with this article. The evidence would support the contention that Shrub actually believed what he said, so that would not make him a liar — even if what he said was mistaken, which much of it was. A closer fit for this article would have been our current Dear Leader, who is probably the most cynical of liars ever to occupy the White House.  

While I disagree with your assessment of the current Prez., the previous one was either a true believer — joyously drinking his own Kool-Aid — and thus worthy of the scorn from his critics who called him inept, or he was a stunningly good liar. The best I can tell is that he was a bit of all three; true believer, inept (but not as much as it seemed), and a good liar.

Agree or disagree, I appreciate your comments as they have helped me solidify a few ideas.

One issue that Alonzo Fyfe did not raise in this post — but I would encourage him to do so later if it’s not already on the schedule — is hypocrisy.

In the case of leaders, if they are hypocrites or not becomes more important than the personal beliefs of the leader or if they are telling the truth or not in one instance or the next. We expect them to pander. To be hypocritical. To lie. With one exception. We don’t want to be the target of their lies or hypocrisy. Many people who get it that their leaders are lying hypocrites towards members of the outside group actually revel in the bad actions of their leaders. Or, to put it another way, girls love the bad boys as long as they are not negatively impacted by them or may even benefit from the bad boys in their lives. Part of that is standing up for the in-group’s biases, and not double dealing on any of those biases. Someone who goes against the group’s biases is distancing themselves from the group and is less attractive — be they voters or lovers.

[ How about that Luke; something you can comment on from a few different directions if you care to. ]

In-group, out-group, let’s make that concrete … oh, easy;

The continuous news reports of yet another anti-gay rights advocate who are caught showing that they are actually gay themselves. These folks are clearly hypocrites in the deepest sense of the word.

Note that fessing up to the truth about that part of their lives is rarely an option that these folks take. (Probably because it would make them an out-group member, and thus kill all current group relationships.) Public denial is tied to some sympathy gaining statements. Talk about family, and stressful times, and — oh! — they’re not really gay anymore because they went to some heterosexual training class and they realized that they were just mistaken! Those sneaky gays, tricking a poor heterosexual like that! Gee, who hasn’t been fooled like that before, right?

Riiiiight. Hypocrites. Every one of them.

Yet, every maneuver and every comment is towards admitting some lies while showing that they are still worthy of holding up the banner for their former hypocritical acts because — clearly — they can’t be a hypocrite if they believe that teh gay is really bad and they themselves are now a poster boy for the damage teh gay does to good people. Good people who are in the same social group as the hypocrite.

[ Similar hypocrisy from a YouTube Christian apologist, care of dprjones. Sex is bad. Mkay? ]

* * *

Let’s backtrack a bit. I’m going to stop talking about hypocrisy, and go down a different path. I will return to the issue of hypocrisy, but to do so will take a while so bear with me.

* * *

If I am not aware of a fact or even the best available evidence, and I make a bold statement or decisive action that is wrong, I can be forgiven (somewhat) for making that wrong decision; I can be honest if ignorant that I’m likely mistaken.

This includes simple things like rushing into the wrong public bathroom because you didn’t pay attention to the sign on the door, grabbing the salt when you meant to grab the pepper or sugar, or reflexively typing a command or clicking a button that results in the computer doing what you told it to do — but not necessarily what you wanted. Many endearing characters in movies make these types of mistakes. We are sympathetic towards them because we can see our own gaffes in them even if the results are much less dreadful or personal.

Important: Ignorance of facts or the best available evidence — intentional or not — even raises pity and sympathy towards people who are simply unaware or not inquisitive about the details of what they do or comment on. It reminds us about our own childhood mistakes, and we don’t feel compelled to stomp all over the person immediately, but instead we attempt at first gently remind them of the obvious and/or point them in the right direction. Well, unless you’re a complete jerk, that’s the initial impulse. There are exceptions, though.

For example. Let’s say you’re a gardener. You have a team of people who are helping plant a community garden with you, and two of them pour an excessive amount of fertilizer in the areas they are preparing. The two people had different responses when you noted that they over fertilized;

* Ken thought that fertilizer was just better soil, and that the more he used the bigger the plants would be. Ken basically did not know any better and was going on a guess.

* Sam insisted — and continues to insist after you talk with him — that this particular fertilizer requires a higher concentration, and that he knows what he is doing and intends to fix your mistake in under-fertilizing. Sam is not aware of how to use fertilizer properly and is aggressively overconfident.

In both cases, they are not considered liars. They probably gain your sympathy and if you express frustration about the mess, only part of that is directed towards either Sam or Ken. You may even blame yourself for not offering both of them proper guidance.

In the case of Ken, I bet that you will be cautious about him and at a minimum shuffle him off to work with someone who isn’t fertilizing anything but needs the help. You may even keep Ken close to you so that you can actively prevent any disasters, or you may just pat him on the back and send him away. In any case, you won’t blame Ken but you will be motivated to reduce any future damage. Ken’s either a moron or just modestly uninformed and unskilled and needs a buffer till you decide you can trust him or not.

Sam, on the other hand, is confident he’s right. You don’t expect that Sam will go along with what you say because he’s said as much already. You might think that Sam is like Ken — either a moron or just uninformed — yet, you know you can’t guide Sam because Sam thinks he is right and that you are the one making the mistake. So you’re left with either engaging Sam’s comments or sending Sam away. The assessment that Sam is potentially a moron is still there, but you can not hint that you think that as Sam already is defensive and insists his actions and knowledge are correct. You may decide to calmly bring up specifics such as the labeling on the fertilizer, or tables in a gardening book that talk about fertilizer types and how much to apply in specific circumstances (plants, soils, time of year, type of soil, …).

Yet, people hate to lose face — lose social standing in a group — as they consider, rightly, that they could end up being shuffled out of the group and not retain status.

So, if Ken is not actually a moron and made an honest and infrequent mistake, he might make up for his gaffe by showing that he is an extra cautious and attentive assistant gardener.

Not so with Sam. Sam has asserted his authority as an expert and to not keep that status would mean a loss of standing in the group. He must not be the low one on the totem pole even if he is not in the top leadership role. He must not because of an almost primal fear of being cast out of a group. That fear is justified and shows up in both human and animal societies with complex social systems such as but not limited to chimps, bonobos, dolphins, elephants, and wolves.

This is where hypocrisy steps back in.

Since the social groups that are based on cultural Christianity^^^ have taboos around sexuality, anyone who performs those taboos is in risk of being ostracized. If you are a person who is mostly in agreement with the social strictures and other aspects of your group, then clipping off that one part of your personality or even working against it is hypocritical but may seem the best thing to do. Why lose your family, friends, business contacts, … when you can admit to lying but double up on the hypocrisy?

The same type of motivations can be seen in many religious conversations even when the issues aren’t about sex but some other group bias.

* * *

Well, enough of that. Time to post and let the comments fly, if any.

- – -

^^^. Cultural Christianity mainly, based on local or sectarian strictures. Betty Bowers has some good comments on a Bible based marriage.


Rick B November 5, 2010 at 9:40 pm


Nice vid :) I lol’d.


What about cases where the lie is intentional, but there can be shown no harm stemming from it? I’ll try to pose an example:

Suppose I’m to go on a date with someone I like, and as the event approaches my dog comes down with stomach troubles, but I beg off as sick myself. Either way, the date is canceled; but the truth is hidden, and not for malicious reasons. The date can happen at a later time, the truth can be outed without consequence, and the explanation for the lie is believed adequate.

How would your moral calculations respond to this kind of situation? The lie is not preventing harm, but neither is it causing harm; the action is not parasitic, does not change the outcome of any situation, and grants no advantage or benefit to anyone.

It is situations like your Nazis, the surprise birthday party, and the canceled date, which give me pause. I cannot in principle agree with your blanket statement,

The liar is a form of parasite.


Hermes November 5, 2010 at 10:15 pm

Rick B, I didn’t take Alonzo’s examples to be blanket statements to call all people who tell lies parasites, but those who attempt to leverage lies for an advantage habitually. The Cameron & Comfort ‘once a liar, always a liar’ nonsense makes no sense, as the same person will more often than not be honest and trust worthy in their daily actions. If such a trust worthy and honest person was deemed to be noble and selfless, that would make them noble — and as a liar, a parasite; a noble parasite. Maybe that’s technically accurate on some level, but it’s hardly apt.

[ Part of the above observations about C&C were taken from someone else's comments on another blog. I'd give them credit, but I can't find the original. Best guess, it was someone on the Atheist Experience or Friendly Atheist blog. ]


Tshepang Lekhonkhobe November 6, 2010 at 12:58 am

@Rick, there was no need to lie in that case. Why not just apologise for your absense, and offer to explain the reason later on?

BTW, why withhold the fact that your pet is sick? Are you worried that she’ll think ‘you value it more than her’, spoiling your potential* relationship? Is it not better to have her know up-front how important your pet is?

* assuming here that you are not yet involved


Rick B November 6, 2010 at 11:20 am


Perhaps I was a little hasty in deciding that was a blanket statement. After all, Alonzo gives two examples where lying is beneficial.

@Tshepang Lekhonkhobe,

This situation was meant to be hypothetical. No dog claims me as its human.

And you’re exactly right: there is no need to lie in that case. But what is the harm, and what is the benefit? Is there such a thing as a completely neutral lie?


Tshepang Lekhonkhobe November 6, 2010 at 3:20 pm


I agree there’s situations where lying seem harmless (neutral situations). But how does that affect your being? Doesn’t it reduce your aversion to lying? Soon it can become more comfortable, and with experience, you may even become more skillful at it.

Anyways, the fact that you are going to lie and find it morally permissible (neutral situations) is a problem itself, especially because there are other options (as I’ve shown with the date/dog story above). The kind of lies that are normally found by people to be harmless are ones where there is lack of interest/guts:

* “I am busy.” vs “I really hate doing that. Sorry.”
* “I’m really tired right now.” vs “I really hate doing that. Sorry.”
* “Nice to meet you.” vs “Hello.” – it’s just a random person you wouldn’t even miss
* “Congrats! Nice speech.” vs “Hello.” – the speech was horrible
* “How’s your family?” vs “Hello.” – you are not interested

Not good. I hate it (and I do at times). I wish everyone who spoke these words really meant them.

This doesn’t mean people should stop being polite. That’s another topic, and if Alonzo has covered it, whoever, please provide a link.


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