Lie If You Must, But Don’t Pretend There Are Not Consequences

I am not a crook

Read my lips – no knew taxes

I did not have sexual relations with that woman

Saddam Hussein has gone to elaborate lengths, spent enormous sums, taken great risks to build and keep weapons of mass destruction

If you like your health care plan, you can keep it

The recent Presidents of the United States of America do not exactly have the best track record when it comes to telling the truth, or at least over matters of certain significance. What I find more interesting is not that politicians lie, but how do we react when these lies become public.

Just this past April, Paul Krugman emphatically repeated that Bush’s presumption that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was an intentional lie:

Even more important, Bush lied us into war. Let’s repeat that: he lied us into war. I know, the apologists will say that “everyone” believed Saddam had WMD, but the truth is that even the category “WMD” was a con game, lumping together chemical weapons with nukes in an illegitimate way. And any appearance of an intelligence consensus before the invasion was manufactured: dissenting voices were suppressed, as anyone who was reading Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy) knew at the time. [Emphasis original]

Regarding the Obama’s health care promise, the New York Times was considerably more charitable. In an editorial, the Times softened the transgression saying, “Mr. Obama clearly misspoke when he said that,” and several days later, a NYTimes news article called it, “an incorrect promise.” Writing in Slate, Matt Yglesias conceded it was “wrong to mislead the people” but ultimately it was all for the best.

It was an irresponsible promise, a cowardly cave-in to focus-group findings that it was what Americans wanted to hear. But it didn’t make sense as a promise and didn’t make sense as a description of any plausible insurance reform. While Obama ought to be sorry he said it, the idea of actually trying to make it a policy goal is insane.

Finally, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette dismissed the dishonesty, but also contributed a worthy insight as to people’s reactions.

Was it a lie? He should have known the facts. By definition, a lie is a deliberate misstating of the truth; it is not simply something that was wrongly stated with good intentions, in this case perhaps, to make the complicated simple for public consumption. Those who believe the worst of this president will conclude that he lied; those who do not will be more charitable.

Note the importance of the last statement. Those who are inclined to view someone favorably will be more likely to give someone the benefit of the doubt, while those who are biased against an individual will be more critical. This important insight into human nature is even found in Proverbs 10:12, “Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs.” While this may be a truism of human interactions, I believe there is much we can learn from the rationalizations people use to justify certain lies over others.

In our current series of Shabbat Torah readings, we find various examples of lies. Abraham and Isaac both claimed their respective spouses were their sister (Gen. 12:13, 20:2, 26:7) out of fear that they might have been killed. When a skeptical Sarah laughs to herself that her husband is too old to bear children, God alters her statement in his report to Abraham such that she said that she was too old to bear children (Gen. 18:12-13). It is from this deception that the Talmud teaches that one is permitted to lie for the sake of “shalom bayit” – peace in one’s house (B. Bava Metzia 87a).

While the examples cited above may seem justifiable, others carried significant consequences. Upon instruction of his mother, Jacob deceives his blind father into thinking he is Esav in order to receive the superior blessing (Gen. 27). Later, Jacob himself is deceived by Lavan who substituted Leah for Rachel. Lavan’s defense recalled Jacob’s actions, “It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one” (Gen. 29:26). The tradition of deception continued with Jacob’s children who lied to Shechem regarding a potential treaty (Gen. 34:13), and later deliberately mislead their father into thinking Joseph had been killed by an animal (Gen. 37:31-35).

I do not believe these latter instances of lies and deception are unrelated, due to the recurrence of the Hebrew word mirma meaning deception. When Esav cries out that Jacob stole his blessing, he said, “my brother came b’mirma” (Gen. 27:35). This is the same word Jacob used to accuse Lavan of his deception (Gen. 29:25), as well as his sons deceiving Shechem (Gen. 34:13). Curiously, Targum Onkelos, the Aramaic translation of the Torah, does not translate this work mirma consistently. When it is used to describe Lavan’s actions, he translates the form as meaning “lying,” but regarding Jacob and his sons, respectively, he translates mirma to mean “wisdom.”

For many years I had assumed like the Pittsburgh Post Gazette the Targum was engaging in simple partisanship. Lying is always bad, unless it is done by “our” people in which case we can find justifications. But there is a subtler distinction to be made here based on the perceptions of the individuals. From the perspective of Jacob, it is quite possible he felt justified in misleading his father – aside from Midrashic apologetics, he acted on the instruction of his mother. But this still set a precedent by which lying was now permitted as long as one could somehow justify it. Jacob’s children followed this model in their deception of Shechem – deliberately setting up the town for the inevitable massacre. When Jacob castigated Shimon and Levi, their defense was one of indignation – should our sister be treated like a harlot? (Gen. 34:30-31). Essentially, like Jacob before them, Shimon and Levi had learned that lying is an acceptable means though which one may actualize their sense of ethics. Eventually, even this line becomes blurred as they continued to deceive their father Jacob.

My point here is not to argue Kant’s categorical imperative regarding lying. Rather, when we consider the ramifications of lying there may be consequences which are not immediately apparent. In our political sphere we have become jaded and cynical to the point where this sort of behavior is not only tolerated but expected. However, with each successive instance of unaccountable lying, we are tacitly lowering the ethical bar of what we expect of our leaders. What may be explained or justified to favor one agreeable policy can easily be used against whatever interests we may have.

The exact instances of when it is, and is not, acceptable to lie will obviously depend on the individual. But keep in mind the consequences of our actions rarely do.

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