by Eric Heubeck
One very important reason to be strongly opposed to dishonesty in society—and there are many—is the close and intimate relation between dishonesty and violence. In fact, I will go so far as to say that if we were successful in eliminating virtually all lying from society, I believe we would also succeed in bringing an end to all war. I have come to the conclusion that all war-making must be opposed as a matter of principle (although I still consider it to be justifiable to use violence, even deadly violence, in personal self-defense), partly because I have come to the conclusion that War and the Lie are inextricably intertwined, and that to end either one of them requires not giving any support to the other.
I do not think it is a coincidence that in philosopher Sissela Bok’s book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (Vintage Books, 1979), in her examination of the various excuses for lying that have been offered over the centuries—most of which she finds wanting—so many of them have in some way or another pertained to the making of war and the maintaining of “national security.” Claims are sometimes made that lying by a government is morally justified when it does so for reasons of “national self-defense.” But lies relating to war and “national security” are particularly dangerous because—especially in a democracy—they can never be told only to a nation’s supposed enemies. To fool those supposed enemies, those same lies must also always be told to the nation’s own population at the same time (assuming the population is told anything at all about the matter). For example, during the Cold War, the CIA would try to mislead the Soviets by planting fake news stories in West German newspapers—even knowing that those fake news stories, since they came from newspapers operating in the “free world,” might well make their way back to the U.S. media, and even into the history books.
Even worse is when the lies are directed by a nation’s government primarily toward the nation’s own population, rather than toward other nations, out of a belief that the nation’s population is too obtuse to understand what is truly required in order to most effectively “defend” itself (bearing in mind that more than a few government officials take the view that “the best defense is a good offense”); and note, by the way, that this type of lying is again a problem that seems especially pronounced in mass democracies, in which it is crucial that the support (or at least acquiescence) of public opinion be obtained. With both of these types of lying, the population is forced to trust that whenever they are being misled by their government, they are being misled “for their own good”—even though, not being allowed to know the truth of the matter, they will never be in a position to determine whether the government officials do in fact take any actual interest in the true welfare of the entire population of their nation, and not just some small ruling clique within the nation. Nor will the people be able to believe their government even when it is telling the truth, since they will know (or ought to know, if they bother to think things through) that the government might at any time be lying to them for supposed reasons of “national security” which are never made clear to them in advance. To put it quite simply, they will have no idea what to believe about anything; and as a result, the government must gradually lose its legitimacy in the eyes of more and more of the population, at the same time as all manner of “conspiracy theories”—some of them probably correct, most of them probably not—inevitably abound, in people’s desperate attempts to make some kind of sense of what is going on in the world. It is for reasons such as these that the alleged “self-defense” justification for the lying committed by a nation’s government is totally different in kind from the (what I believe to be legitimate) “self-defense” justification for some of the lying committed by individual persons.
In her book, Dr. Bok includes some discussion of the connection between these great twin evils of dishonesty and violence:
Deceit and violence—these are the two forms of deliberate assault on human beings. Both can coerce people into acting against their will. Most harm that can befall victims through violence can come to them also through deceit. But deceit controls more subtly, for it works on belief as well as action. …
The knowledge of this coercive element in deception, and of our vulnerability to it, underlies our sense of the centrality of truthfulness. Of course, deception—again like violence—can be used also in self-defense, even for sheer survival. Its use can also be quite trivial, as in white lies. [I must here note my disagreement with any implied assumption that so-called “white lies” are necessarily “trivial”; and actually, in a later chapter, Bok herself also questions whether any such an assumption is truly justified when the telling of those “white lies” forms part of a widespread social practice which tends to undermine the general level of mutual trust in society.] Yet its potential for coercion and for destruction is such that society could scarcely function without some degree of truthfulness in speech and action.
Imagine a society, no matter how ideal in other respects, where word and gesture could never be counted upon. Questions asked, answers given, information exchanged—all would be worthless. Were all statements randomly truthful or deceptive, action and choice would be undermined from the outset. There must be a minimal degree of trust in communication for language and action to be more than stabs in the dark. This is why some level of truthfulness has always been seen as essential to human society, no matter how deficient the observance of other moral principles. Even the devils themselves, as Samuel Johnson said, do not lie to one another, since the society of Hell could not subsist without truth any more than others.
A society, then, whose members were unable to distinguish truthful messages from deceptive ones, would collapse. But even before such a general collapse, individual choice and survival would be imperiled. The search for food and shelter could depend on no expectations from others. A warning that a well was poisoned or a plea for help in an accident would come to be ignored unless independent confirmation could be found.
All our choices depend on our estimates of what is the case; these estimates must in turn often rely on information from others. Lies distort this information and therefore our situation as we perceive it, as well as our choices. A lie, in [the philosopher Nicolai] Hartmann’s words, “injures the deceived person in his life; it leads him astray.”
[Incidentally, Hartmann’s use of this particular language points to why I think the word “mislead” better describes what exactly is so objectionable about dishonesty than does the word “lie.” When people ask themselves, “Was that a lie?”, they are apt to get confused about the central issue involved and disagree with each other about the correct answer, since people will often allow themselves to focus partly on whether they believe they “meant well” when they said what they said, assuring themselves (usually unconsciously) that a lie told with “good intentions” is not “really” a lie. But when they ask themselves, “Was my intention to mentally lead that other person’s attention to focus on some thought or line of thinking other than what my own attention was focused on?”—or, “Would the average person feel that my words had led him to think about some thought or line of thinking other than what I had actually been thinking about in my own mind?”—they are required to give greater attention to the true crux of the matter, making it much easier for people to arrive at general agreement regarding the correct answer in any particular case. (By the way, it is interesting that the ancient Greek word planaō, meaning “deceive, defraud,” more literally means “make to wander, lead astray.”)]
Dr. Bok continues,
To the extent that knowledge gives power, to that extent do lies affect the distribution of power; they add to that of the liar, and diminish that of the deceived, altering his choices at different levels. … [pp. 19-20; all emphases are mine; citation omitted.]
In her book, Dr. Bok also notes,
In Dante’s Inferno, deceivers are tormented in the eighth circle of Hell, lowest of all except for that inhabited by traitors. [However, I would argue that every knowing, deliberate, unjustified liar has actually already made himself a traitor to his own society—largely for the reasons given above by Dr. Bok.] Why such severe treatment? Because:
Of every malice that gains hatred in Heaven the end is injustice; and every such end, either by force or by fraud, afflicts another. But because fraud is an evil peculiar to man, it displeases God, and therefore the fraudulent are the lower, and the more pain assails them. [p. 45; the emphases are mine; citation omitted.]
Incidentally—whatever one thinks of political libertarianism—it is interesting to note that among the more principled political libertarians, the only laws that are considered to be morally legitimate are those that, in keeping with the “non-aggression principle,” prohibit unjustifiable force or fraud against the fellow members of one’s society.
Sissela Bok and Dante are not the only persons other than myself to have noticed the fundamental kinship between coercion through dishonesty and coercion through violence. Both Mohandas Gandhi and Nobel Prize-winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn had this same crucial insight into the essential equivalence of violence and falsehood. One might say that violence is the “outer” aspect of lying, while lying is the “inner” aspect of violence. As suggested in the passage by Dr. Bok, violence and lying both represent forms of aggression: violence is physical aggression, while lying is mental aggression. They both serve as illicit “shortcuts” that free an unjust individual from the nuisance of having to persuade other people to knowingly and willingly do whatever it is that the unjust individual wants them to do.
In fact, in his writings, Gandhi would routinely speak of truth and non-violence as if they were a coupled pair. As does the Bible, incidentally. In Zechariah 8:14-17,19, the prophet—speaking of the Messianic Age—writes,
For thus says the Lord of hosts: As I purposed to bring disaster to you when your fathers provoked me to wrath, and I did not relent, says the Lord of hosts, so again have I purposed in these days to bring good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah; fear not. These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace; do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath, for all these things I hate, declares the Lord. … Therefore love truth and peace.
I strongly urge everyone to read Solzhenitsyn’s extremely important short essay, “Live Not by Lies,” written in 1974. What Solzhenitsyn calls for in the essay actually comes quite close to the “honesty culture” strategy that I am proposing (although Solzhenitsyn did not work out the details of his approach quite to the extent that I have mine); and I find that fact encouraging, since it reassures me that I am not irrational to believe that the great goal I am proposing is actually possible for human beings to achieve by using the methods I discuss in my writings (or methods similar to them).
It is noteworthy that in his essay, Solzhenitsyn specifically mentions Gandhi by name and explicitly compares the approach he is suggesting in that essay to the approach Gandhi used in India. Solzhenitsyn, addressing his thoughts to the people of the Soviet Union, writes,
We have not sufficiently matured to march into the squares and shout the truth out loud or to express aloud what we think. It’s not necessary.
It’s dangerous. But let us refuse to say that which we do not think.
This is our path, the easiest and most accessible one, which takes into account our inherent cowardice, already well rooted. And it is much easier—it’s dangerous even to say this—than the sort of civil disobedience which Gandhi advocated.
And the simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation lies right here: Personal non-participation in lies. Though lies conceal everything, though lies embrace everything, we will be obstinate in this smallest of matters: Let them embrace everything, but not with any help from me. [All emphases are mine.]
Partly as a result of reading Solzhenitsyn’s essay, I have since taken an increased interest in Gandhi’s writings, and now feel convinced that members of an “honesty culture” would greatly benefit from a close study of his writings and ideas, so that it could better imbibe his spirit. (Which is not to say, of course, that I am in complete agreement with all of his ideas.) I believe that Gandhi—as well as Solzhenitsyn—have, to a large extent, already provided us with the needed solution to the immense twin evils of War and the Lie; now we just need to go about the work of implementing the solution. As a character in the movie Gandhi says, just before Gandhi is assassinated, “I believe, when we most needed it, he offered the world a way out of madness. But he doesn’t see it . . . neither does the world.” But I think there is now an opportunity for the world to discover that “way out of madness” offered by Gandhi and Solzhenitsyn—an opportunity created by the fact that so many people have by now grown so weary of both lying and war. People are, to a greater extent than ever before, able to perceive the very existence of the madness out of which they must now find their way. (By the way, I recommend watching or re-watching the movie Gandhi with the idea in mind of Gandhi’s movement being “repurposed” as an “honesty culture” movement.)
Both Solzhenitsyn and Gandhi were advocating approaches based upon non-participation in and non-cooperation with evil. And, to that extent, and also inasmuch as the methods which they called for were non-violent in nature, I am in complete agreement with both of them. (By the way, the name that Gandhi gave to his approach, Satyagraha, is often translated as “passive resistance”—a translation that Gandhi himself sometimes used, but did not especially like, since in a meeting of Europeans he found “that it was supposed to be a weapon of the weak, that it could be characterized by hatred, and that it could finally manifest itself as violence.” He preferred that the word be translated either as “non-violent civil resistance” or in accordance with the word’s more literal meaning, namely, as “Truth-Force” or “Firmness in the Truth.”) However, although the approach I advocate is definitely not a “passive” one, it does make a point of avoiding direct confrontation, even direct confrontation of a non-violent nature, with those holding political power—more so than did Gandhi’s approach, which actively worked to provoke responses from the governing authorities.
Again picking up on the close relation between violence and falsehood, Solzhenitsyn writes,
When violence intrudes into peaceful life, its face glows with self-confidence, as if it were carrying a banner and shouting: “I am violence. Run away, make way for me—I will crush you.” But violence quickly grows old. And it has lost confidence in itself, and in order to maintain a respectable face it summons falsehood as its ally—since violence can conceal itself with nothing except lies, and the lies can be maintained only by violence. And violence lays its ponderous paw not every day and not on every shoulder. It demands from us only obedience to lies and daily participation in lies—all loyalty lies in that [my emphasis].
And so Solzhenitsyn had a tremendous additional insight (one which is also and more explicitly indicated in the first passage of his that I quoted above): It is much easier to resist the Lie than to directly resist violence in the way Gandhi advocated and practiced. By placing our focus on eliminating the Lie, we can at the same time eliminate violence and war along with it—and, in the writings on this site, I advance the argument that it is actually possible for human beings, by the correct use of our native, God-given reason and intelligence, to gradually but systematically eliminate the Lie. Falsehood constitutes the “weak spot,” the “chink in the armor,” of the evil Violence/Falsehood “complex.” Since Solzhenitsyn’s approach calls for considerably less self-sacrifice by individuals than did Gandhi’s (though some self-sacrifice would still be required), the likelihood of its popularity and therefore of its success is much greater; and so it is the more realistic approach to ask people to follow.
That is not to say that Gandhi’s method was wrong as far as it went—only that I believe it was the more difficult “version” of what is in many respects the same basic approach; and the reason it was more difficult is that it was not thoroughgoing enough with regard to the more specific struggle against the Lie. And so I am still able to agree with the basic sentiment expressed by Gandhi when he writes,
You need not be afraid that the method of non-violence is a slow, long, drawn-out process. It is the swiftest the world has seen, for it is the surest [my emphasis].
The same can be said of the method of building up a non-violent and non-secretive honesty culture—only its success, because it would follow the easier of the two methods, can be achieved even more swiftly by people than what would be possible if they were to follow Gandhi’s method in its original form.
In words reminiscent of Gandhi’s, Solzhenitsyn writes,
You say it will not be easy? But it will be easiest of all possible resources [my emphasis]. It will not be an easy choice for a body, but it is only one for a soul. No, it is not an easy path. But there are already people, even dozens of them, who over the years have maintained all these points and live by the truth.
As Solzhenitsyn indicates, there are already persons who are basically honest (and who would like to become still more honest). It is simply not true that “everybody lies.” We need to begin, not by making futile attempts to change dishonest people into honest people against their will, but by simply gathering together all those persons who already wish to be honest and to live in an honest society; and then, work from there.