Lies Are Bad

In my last post, I noted that Alexander Baker had a rather odd view (in my opinion) of the value of honesty. Quoting from this post:

Is the plagiarist wrong simply because plagiarism is dishonest? No. Lying is only wrong when done to deprive another person of property. Deceiving a robber about the location of your valuables is virtuous.

This acceptance of dishonesty caught me off guard. But it turns out that Baker is hardly the only one arguing such a thing. Here’s Murray Rothbard arguing something very similar in The Ethics of Liberty:

We have therefore affirmed the legitimacy (the right) of Smith’s either disseminating knowledge about Jones, keeping silent about the knowledge, or engaging in a contract with Jones to sell his silence. We have so far been assuming that Smith’s knowledge is correct. Suppose, however, that the knowledge is false and Smith knows that it is false (the “worst” case). Does Smith have the right to disseminate false information about Jones? In short, should “libel” and “slander” be illegal in the free society?

And yet, once again, how can they be? Smith has a property right to the ideas or opinions in his own head; he also has a property right to print anything he wants and disseminate it. He has a property right to say that Jones is a “thief” even if he knows it to be false, and to print and sell that statement.

We can, of course, readily concede the gross immorality of spreading false libels about another person. But we must, nevertheless, maintain the legal right of anyone to do so. Pragmatically, again, this situation may well redound to the benefit of the people being libelled.

The thought that keeps running through my head as I read these statements is this: What is WRONG with you people!?

Of course, I’m reacting out of anger, not rational disapproval. But I think I at least have a good reason to be mad. I don’t like being lied to, and here these guys are, saying that lying is not wrong! What gives?

Giving my opponents the benefit of the doubt here, it seems to me that they’re arguing that lies do not necessarily cause harm. Thus, while lies may be disgusting and immoral, we shouldn’t automatically treat them like crimes. Alexander even goes so far as to offer a situation when lying could be considered just and moral.

But I think these guys are missing something. I think that they are missing the fundamental nature of lies. To me, the important point is this: lying is for enemies.

Consider our friends in the animal kingdom. They lie to each other, and they do it quite often. A crab spider, disguised as a flower, is lying to any nearby insects about its true nature. And why not? It’s not trying to cooperate with the bugs, it’s trying to eat them, so open and honest communication would not serve the spider’s agenda in any way.

Picture taken by Jeffrey C. Oliver, 2000
“Sorry, pal, but you should have read the fine print more carefully.”

It’s not just predators who lie, of course. Prey lie, too. And why not? If a creature is trying to eat you, do you have any obligation to give it an honest account of your true nature?

But Rothbard and Baker are not talking about predator-prey relationships between animals. They’re talking about human relationships. And not just any human relationships, but peaceful human relationships, the sort that we’d like to permit under any circumstances. In situations like these, there should be no enemies. I may not be friends with everyone, but I seek to be an enemy to no one, and I consider that to be a reasonable standard for all people. If someone lies to me, or lies about me, then my default assumption is that they are an enemy to me, and therefore they are an active danger, requiring appropriate response.

The nature of lying becomes more apparent when you look at the sort of lies that people defend. Crosbie Fitch has a particular lie that he likes to use as an example: “There are no Jews in this house”. The implication, of course, is that the liar is speaking to a Gestapo officer or some other anti-Semite, and is concealing the existence of Jews in order to protect their lives. Now tell me this: would you say that the liar has a friendly relationship with the Nazis they’re lying to? Of course not! They’re enemies with the Nazis, and they’re acting like enemies by actively obstructing the Nazis’ efforts to achieve their goals. We say that the lie is just because the liar is justified in treating the Nazis as enemies (hardly a controversial position, to be sure). But in a situation where the questioner is not worthy of being called an enemy, would we still justify the liar?

Now, having said all that, I must concede that there are many, many, many circumstances when punishing a liar is simply not possible, let alone desirable. If I actually had to enumerate when you could and should punish a liar, my position might not be so far from Rothbard’s. But I still think that Rothbard and Baker are far too cavalier about lies and liars.

The fact is that, as humans, we rely on each other. We need the knowledge that other people have, so we count on each other to tell the truth. Thus, we are generally justified in ostracizing liars simply because they lied, even if the lies had no effect. And if the lies did in fact cause measurable damage, then the liar has to pay. Rothbard is right in noting the problems that can come from libel laws (and he’s quite right to reject any right to “reputation”) but he’s wrong to reject libel laws entirely. Lying hurts, and lies are bad, and any society made of humans is going to recognize that.


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