Theater of Cruelty

When is it okay to lie, and why?

The philosophy of lies
LIE / There are no limits to how many lies leaders can tell the people as long as the lies are useful to the state, and other lie perspectives from the philosophy of the new book.


The Norwegian philosopher Lars Fr. H. Svendsen's new book The philosophy of lies begins with a Nietzsche quote: "Not that you lied to me, but that I no longer believe in you has shaken me." It is thus not the lie itself (or the problematic effect of it) that Svendsen wants to investigate. The opposite of a lie is not the truth, but the truth, he writes.

The various philosophical perspectives are treated in an easy-to-understand, clear and interesting way in chapters such as «The ethics of lies», «Lying to oneself» and «Lies and friendship».

The lies in the personal are treated as in Montaigne when Svendsen writes about the breach of trust in the interpersonal relationship: «The lie is in truth a shameful burden. It is only through the word that we are bound together and become human. "

If I'm lying to you, I'm blocking your access to reality. Even white lies undermine the habit of truthfulness. That lies are an evil in the interpersonal for the citizens, it seems to be agreed in the history of philosophy. But what about the political? Interesting aspects appear in the chapter «The politics of lies». When is it acceptable to lie in politics? Er it acceptable?

Trump's use of lies

In an account of lies and politics, it is impossible to get around Donald Trump and his use of social media. Hannah Arendt observed a new type of lie in modern society, especially during Nazism and Communism, where the lie is not used to win a debate or cover up certain facts at the expense of the truth, but to displace reality itself.

Fear is the state's most important management tool.

If everyone always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe in the lies, but rather that no one believes in anything anymore, Arendt writes. The truth becomes only an equal alternative to the lies.

It is in the perspective of Arendt's observation that the lie is characterized by totalitarian societies, that Trump's use of lies is startling.

According to the newspaper The Washington Post, the total number of Trump lies and untruths is estimated to have passed 25 by 000. Contemporaneity is therefore central to Svendsen, and an estimate that the truth or "truthfulness" is under pressure. Truth (truthfulness) was named Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society in 2005, and ten years later, in 2016, Oxford Dictionaries chose post-truth to the word of the year.

Plato praised gennaion pseudos, the noble lie, in politics. Ordinary citizens should not lie, Plato said, but state leaders can lie – for example, to get citizens to cooperate, and for the sake of the state and the common good. The stability of the state legitimizes the use of lies.

Machiavelli admits that it is wrong to lie (p. 46), but since goodness is the same as self-destruction, the prince must also lie. Kant's position was a total ban on lies, no matter what: Politicians should not lie. Here he stood in opposition to Hobbes, his predecessor in the history of philosophy, who opened up to lies as a legitimate tool of control. Fear is the state's most important management tool. True philosophy can be punished, according to Hobbes. According to Max Weber (and Per Borten), it is almost a duty to lie in politics.

US presidents lie, without exception

All American presidents have lied, Svendsen continues, for example Ronald Reagan, but he still did not surpass Trump in the number of lies. As examples, Svendsen points out how the Bush administration justified the invasion of Iraq with the so-called reliable evidence that Saddam Hussein was a close ally of Osama bin Laden, and the allegations that the country had weapons of mass destruction.

Nor would the Nixon administration's lies meet Weber's demands for an acceptable liability policy. The Pentagon papers were not to prevent Vietcong from gaining insight into the state of the US war in Vietnam, Vietcong already knew, but rather to prevent the American people from receiving this information, as it could weaken the people's support for the warfare. The purpose of the secrecy was thus to evade democratic control, which in the highest degree should have been the subject of such control, in Svendsen's perspective.

It is thus only the people who are to be lied to. There are no limits to how many lies the leaders can tell the people as long as the lies are useful to the state and therefore also to the residents. Those who are meant to take into account the security of the kingdom do not always intend to prevent the enemy from gaining knowledge, but rather that one's own population gain it. One lies to justify a particular course of action – such as going to war – or to hide something specific that may be unfavorable to the regime.

Svendsen does not mention Noam Chomsky, but draws in Robert Nozick.

Lying is incompatible with the idea of ​​modern democracy

In the axis between the British philosopher Glen Newey, who claimed that a people has the right to be lied to, and the American philosopher John Rawls' principle of openness, where the authorities should not be able to pursue a policy they are not capable of – or willing to – to defend publicly for the citizens, Svendsen's point is well illustrated when he draws in the American political scientist John J. Mearsheimer, who points out that heads of state and diplomats lie quite little to each other. Thus, the lies of the Bush administration in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq appear to be a violation of an international agreement, since the lies were not only directed at its own people, but also at other heads of state.

The last chapter is called «Living with lies». When we know that lying is also the king's road to chaos, a defense of the principle that the state can lie to its people may seem like a paradox. In the Norwegian context, Svendsen could have mentioned Einar Gerhardsen's lie about the Kings Bay mining accident on Svalbard, or that the governments that have dealt with the demolition case of the Y-block, could not possibly have cultivated the truth. Lies are incompatible with the idea of ​​modern democracy, Svendsen writes, the question is whether politicians perceive that lies are anything other than an acute sense of truth. Svendsen's advice is to cultivate sincerity and accuracy in order to refrain from choosing to lie.

Marianne Solberg
Marianne Solberg
Solberg is a regular critic in Ny Tid.

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