Constituents’ willingness to overlook deception may depend, in part, on whether politicians lie well and with a good purpose.
T he idea that politicians are dishonest is, at this point, something of a cliché – although few have taken their dishonesty as far as George Santos, U.S. representative for New York’s 3rd Congressional District, who seems to have lied about his education, work history, charitable activity, athletic prowess and even his place of residence.
Santos may be exceptional in how many lies he has told, but politicians seeking election have incentives to tell voters what they want to hear – and there is some empirical evidence that a willingness to lie may be helpful in the process of getting elected.
If this is true, though, then why should voters care that they have been lied to?
As a political philosopher whose work focuses on the moral foundations of democratic politics, I am interested in the moral reasons voters in general have a right to feel resentment when they discover that their elected representatives have lied to them. Political philosophers offer four distinct responses to this question – although none of these responses suggest that all lies are necessarily morally wrong.
1. Lying is manipulative
The first reason to resent being lied to is that it is a form of disrespect. When you lie to me, you treat me as a thing to be manipulated and used for your purposes. In the terms used by philosopher Immanuel Kant, when you lie to me you treat me as a means or a tool, rather than a person with a moral status equal to your own.
Kant himself took this principle as a reason to condemn all lies, however useful – but other philosophers have thought that some lies were so important that they might be compatible with, or even express, respect for citizens.
Plato, notably, argues in “The Republic” that when the public good requires a leader to lie, the citizens should be grateful for the deceptions of their leaders.
Michael Walzer, a modern political philosopher, echoes this idea. Politics requires the building of coalitions and the making of deals – which, in a world full of moral compromise, may entail being deceptive about what one is planning and why. As Walzer puts it, no one succeeds in politics without being willing to dirty their hands – and voters should prefer politicians to get their hands dirty, if that is the cost of effective political agency.
2. Abuse of trust
A second reason to resent lies begins with the idea of predictability. If our candidates lie to us, we cannot know what they really plan to do – and, hence, cannot trust that we are voting for the candidate who will best represent our interests.
Modern political philosopher Eric Beerbohm argues that when politicians speak to us, they invite us to trust them – and a politician who lies to us abuses that trust, in a way that we may rightly resent.
These ideas are powerful, but they also seem to have some limits. Voters may not need to believe candidates’ words in order to understand their intentions and thereby come to accurate beliefs about what they plan to do.
To take one recent example: The majority of those who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, when he was trumpeting the idea of making Mexico pay for a border wall, did not believe that it was actually possible to build a wall that would be paid for by Mexico. They did not take Trump to be describing a literal truth, but expressing an untruth that was indicative of Trump’s overall attitude toward migration and toward Mexico – and voted for him on the basis of that attitude.
3. Electoral mandate
The third reason we might resent lies told on the campaign trail stems from the idea of an electoral mandate. Philosopher John Locke, whose writings influenced the U.S. Declaration of Independence, regarded political authority as stemming from the consent of the governed; this consent might be illegitimate were it to be obtained by means of deception.
This idea, too, has power – but it also runs up against the sophistication of both modern elections and modern voters. Campaigns do not pretend to give a dispassionate description of political ideals, after all. They are closer to rhetorical forms of combat and involve considerable amounts of deliberate ambiguity, rhetorical presentation and self-interested spin.
More to the point, though, voters understand this context and rarely regard any candidate’s presentation as stemming solely from a concern for the unalloyed truth.
4. Unnecessary and disprovable
The lies of George Santos, however, do seem to have provoked something like resentment and outrage, which suggests that they are somehow unlike the usual forms of deceptive practice undertaken during political campaigns. And this fact leads to the final reason to resent deception, which is that voters do not accept being lied to unnecessarily – nor about matters subject to easy empirical proof or disproof.
It seems clear that voters may sometimes be willing to accept deceptive and dissembling political candidates, given the fact that effective political agency may involve the use of deceptive means. Santos, however, lied about matters as tangential to politics as his nonexistent history as a star player for Baruch College’s volleyball team. This lie was unnecessary, given its tenuous relationship to his candidacy for the House of Representatives – and easily disproved, given the fact that he did not actually attend Baruch.
I believe voters may have made their peace with some deceptive campaign practices. If Walzer is right, they should expect that an effective candidate will be imperfectly honest at best. But candidates who are both liars and bad at lying can find no such justification, since they are unlikely to be believed and thus incapable of achieving those goods that justify their deception.
If voters have made their peace with some degree of lying, in short, they are nonetheless still capable of resenting candidates who are unskilled at the craft of political deception.
— AUTHOR —
▫ Michael Blake, Professor of Philosophy, Public Policy and Governance, University of Washington.
▪ Text: This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PMP Magazine on 22 January 2023. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
▪ Cover: Adobe Stock/Bits and Splits.