UNIT 08: THE POLITICS OF LYING OBJECTIVES:
After completing this unit, you should be able to:
• give examples of political situations in which lying may be acceptable
• defend, or reject, the use of lies, untruths or half-truths in election campaigns
• explain why politicians who lie or mislead seldom get punished by the electorate.
“A lie is a statement that is intended to deceive others” – Maureen Ramsay (Unit 08, e-
Ramsay’s definition is deceptively simple. When it comes to politics, the issue of lying
can be complicated. Theorists tell us that a lie is not simply the opposite of the truth,
because telling the truth is not necessarily the same as being truthful. People may be
truthful, yet be wrong. They may honestly think they are telling the truth, but if they are
mistaken, without any intention to deceive, they may still be said to be truthful, even if
what they say cannot be classified as the truth.
The distinction between truth and truthfulness may seem arcane – splitting semantic hairs
– but the distinction is significant, because political leaders whom we regard as lying to
us will often defend themselves by saying, no, they told us what they believed at the time
was the truth. In other words, they were truthful. Perhaps they changed their minds
subsequently, or came into possession of information they had not previously known
existed. Or perhaps some higher imperative – national security, for example – made it
necessary for them to dissemble, to mislead, to lie. They were not really lying, they might
say; they were simply responding to a greater need.
If you have not already done so, please view the DVD “Fog of War”. See what you
think of the U.S. administration’s truthfulness during the Vietnam War.
• “The Fog of War” can be viewed on the Internet through Google Video, among
other websites. Go to: Fog of War. It is also available at the university library
or for rental at video stores.
Realists would argue that lying is justified when it is required to defend national or
strategic interests against enemies of the state, such as terrorist groups or rogue nations. It
may be outright lying, or it may be more subtle (and insidious). It may involve the use of
evasion, subterfuge, manipulation and cover up to obscure the real nature of government
activities from public scrutiny. If politicians do this, it is because it is in the interest of
protecting the nation – or so we are led to believe.
Defenders of political lying claim it is rationally required. But some apologists go further
and say such lying is also morally justified. This is the doctrine of “Democratic Dirty Hands” – the “just lie,” the lie that is acceptable, even commendable, because the end
(service of the state) justifies the means (deliberately misleading the citizens of the state).
This is a slippery slope, however. Who is to judge a government’s true motives? Does it
resort to lies, propaganda or the withholding of information because the interests of the
state require the use of such deception? Or does it dissemble because it seeks to avoid
uncomfortable questions in Parliament or political embarrassment in the country?
Among the theorists, Emmanuel Kant would say it is always wrong to lie, because Kant
believed that all lying harms mankind and destroys human dignity. Most political
practitioners, however, would not agree with Kant. While very few political leaders, if
any, would openly advocate lying to the people, most would acknowledge that lies can be
a necessary, even valuable tool in a government’s hands.
Here is an example used by Professor Patrick Boyer, a former MP, who taught this course
a few years ago. During the devastating ice storm that hit Quebec and eastern Ontario in
early 1998, Montreal was in dire straits with the power out, no heat or light in the depths
of winter. At a press conference then Premier Lucien Bouchard was asked if there was
any problem looming about a water shortage in the city. With no power for the water
pumps, a journalist figured an even worse situation might be just hours away. Not to
worry, however. The premier reassured the press, and through the reporters, the general
public, that there was no risk of a water shortage. The fact that he knew very well that the
Montreal reservoirs were nearing depletion made this statement untrue, yet if he had said
honestly, “Yes, we are just about out of water, too,” taps around the city would swiftly
have been turned on by an anxious population filling tubs, sinks and pails with water. If
that had happened, soon there would be no water available at all. The unvarnished truth
almost certainly would have made things worse for everyone. So there may be times
when telling a lie serves the public interest better than revealing the truth. This deliberate
misleading of the people is sometimes described as a “noble lie.”
A question to ask yourself: Is a lie that serves the public interest still a lie?
Video 8.1: Under what circumstances is it permissible for a political leader to lie to
the people and is it possible to lie in the public interest?
Lies We Have Been Told
It has been said that the truth is the first casualty of war. Every national leader lied in the
Second War World War. They lied to mislead the enemy militarily, to demoralize
civilian populations in enemy countries, to keep their own allies on side, to preserve
civilian moral at home, and to maintain popular support for their wartime governments.
As you will have seen in “Fog of War,” during Vietnam, Presidents John F. Kennedy and
Lyndon Johnson (and their Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara) lied deliberately,
blatantly and repeatedly about the facts of the war – about the Communist menace, about the success (or failure) of U.S. military