The Ethics of “Sweet Illusions and Darling Lies”

Are we morally responsible for what we believe? To some extent, we are. The acceptance of lies and bizarre conspiracy theories by so many of our fellow citizens makes the issue extremely relevant. The philosopher Regina Rini discusses the ethics of belief for the Times Literary Supplement:  

On January 6, the US Capitol building was stormed by a mob, motivated by beliefs that were almost entirely false, absurd and nonsensical: the QAnon conspiracy; the President’s [lies] about massive voter fraud, and the various conspiracy theories that he and his lawyers peddled in support of overturning the election results.

In 1877, the English philosopher William Clifford published a now famous essay, “The Ethics of Belief”, setting out the view that we can be morally faulted for shoddy thinking. Clifford imagines a ship-owner who smothers his doubts about the seaworthiness of a creaky vessel, and adopts the sincere but unjustified belief that it is safe to send passengers across the Atlantic. The ship then sinks. Clifford (himself a shipwreck survivor) asks: don’t we agree that the ship-owner was “verily guilty” of the passengers’ deaths, and that he “must be held responsible for it”? If we agree to this, Clifford continues, then we must also agree that the ship-owner would deserve blame even if the ship hadn’t sunk. It is epistemic carelessness that makes the ship-owner guilty, even if catastrophe is luckily avoided. “The question of right or wrong has to do with the origin of his belief … not whether it turned out to be true or false, but whether he had a right to believe on such evidence as was before him.”

Clifford’s views went out of favour among philosophers for most of a century. Moral evaluation, it was thought, should stop at the mind’s edge. After all, we cannot directly control our beliefs in the way we control our fists. I can’t just decide, here and now, to stop believing that Charles I had a pointy beard . . . And if I can’t control my beliefs, how can I be held accountable for them?


Yet in recent decades, many philosophers have become less impressed by this objection (sometimes called the problem of “doxastic voluntarism”). After all, I can control how I acquire and maintain beliefs by shaping my informational environment. Suppose I do really want to change my beliefs about Charles I’s grooming. I could join a renegade historical society and surround myself with dissenting portraiture. Slowly, indirectly, I can retrain my thoughts and I can be held accountable for choosing to do so.

More to the point, I can also fail to take action to shape my beliefs in healthy ways. The social media era has made this point especially acute, as we can each now curate our own information environment, following sources that challenge our beliefs, or flatter our preconceptions, as we please. Digital epistemic communities are then made up of people who amplify one another’s virtues or vices. Credulously accepting conspiracy stories that vilify my partisan enemies not only dulls my own wits, but encourages my friends to dull theirs. Clifford himself was quite sharp on this point: “Habitual want of care about what I believe leads to habitual want of care in others about the truth of what is told to me … It may matter little to me, in my cloud-castle of sweet illusions and darling lies; but it matters much to Man that I have made my neighbours ready to deceive”.

So far, then, Clifford’s 150-year-old diagnosis seems precisely to explain the epistemic culpability of those who stormed the Capitol on a wave of delusion and lies. But there is a wrinkle here. Clifford thought that credulity – insufficient scepticism toward the claims of others – was the most troubling intellectual vice. But the epistemic shambles of QAnon show a more subtle problem. After all, if there’s anything conspiracy fanatics possess, it is scepticism. They are sceptical of what government officials say, sceptical of what vaccine scientists say, sceptical even of what astronauts say about the shape of the Earth. If anything, they show that critical thinking is a bit like cell division; valuable in proportion, but at risk of harmful metastasis. In the eyes of QAnon devotees, we are the “sheeple” who fail to “do the research” of tumbling down every hyperlinked rabbit-hole.

Conspiracy aficionados are all too willing to think for themselves – that is how they end up believing that Democrats are Satan-worshippers or that 5G phone towers cause Covid-19. And that’s where Clifford’s moralizing – “No simplicity of mind, no obscurity of station, can escape the universal duty of questioning all that we believe” – goes wrong. The ethics of belief should not be a Calvinistic demand for hard epistemic labour. Conspiracists work at least as hard as the rest of us, pinning notes and photos to their bulletin boards late into the night. Hard epistemic labour is just as prone to amplifying epistemic mistakes as overcoming them.

In fact, we should not be focused on individual intellectual virtue at all. The epistemic practices that justify our beliefs are fundamentally interpersonal. Most of our knowledge of the world depends essentially on the say-so of others. Consider: how do you know that I live in Toronto? Well, it says so right at the bottom of this column. But that’s not the same as going to Toronto and seeing me there with your own eyes. So even this simple belief requires trusting the say-so of me or the [Times Literary Supplement].

Perhaps you want to be an uncompromising epistemic individualist, refusing to believe until you’ve verified it yourself? Well, you’ll need to come to Toronto to check. But how will you find Toronto? You can’t use Google Maps (that’s just more say-so from others). Maybe you’ll set out with a compass and enterprising disposition. But how do you know what that compass is pointing to? How do you know where the North Pole is, or how magnetism works? Have you been to the North Pole? Have you done all the magnetism experiments yourself? The list goes on.

No one lives like that. We are all deeply, ineradicably dependent on the say-so of others for nearly all our beliefs about the world. It’s only through a massive division of cognitive labour that we’ve come to know so much. So genuine epistemic responsibility isn’t a matter of doubting all that can be doubted, or only believing what you’ve proven for yourself. It’s a matter of trusting the right other people. That takes wisdom.

Not everyone in the Capitol mob was a QAnon believer. Some were white supremacists aiming to violently uphold a president who refused to condemn their hate. Others were merely insurrection tourists. Still, many do seem to have genuinely believed they were fighting a monstrous regime of Satanic child-harmers. Those beliefs did not appear in a vacuum. A Bellingcat investigation of the social media history of Ashli Babbitt, the woman shot by police while attempting to storm the House of Representatives, suggests that she held relatively mainstream political views until about a year ago, when she veered off into deep QAnon obsession. She put her trust in the wrong people, and all her epistemic labour only made things worse.

That is the most delicate and important lesson to draw from last week’s horror show. QAnon believers are culpable for their bad judgment. But that culpability extends far beyond them, through to everyone whose actions fed their dangerous beliefs. It’s not enough to insist that responsibility falls entirely on the believer, because we are all dependent on others for our knowledge, and we must all trust someone. That mutual reliance means we are all our neighbour’s epistemic keeper.

Most obviously the blame for last week’s catastrophe extends to politicians who cynically courted and channelled [lies] to support their false allegations of election fraud. Donald Trump spoke to the mob moments before their assault, declaring “you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong”, and ordered them to march against the Capitol. That evening, after Congress regained control of its chambers, senators such as Josh Hawley continued to flog “objections and concerns” about the presidential election which had been dismissed by numerous courts and Trump’s own Justice Department.

But manipulative politicians are not the only ones to blame. The culture of the internet played a big role as well. An investigation of QAnon’s origins by the podcast Reply All found that the conspiracy began life as a joke on the ultra-ironic website 4chan. In 2017, “Q” was one of only several fake government source characters being played, tongue-in-cheek, by forum participants who all understood it was a game. Gradually the Q persona became the most popular, and then outsiders – who didn’t get the joke – stumbled onto Q’s tantalizing nonsense. Within a year, thousands of people looking for anything to fill the gap left by their scepticism toward authority developed a sincere belief in Q. Behind the scenes, someone, with cynical political or commercial motives, was happy to oblige.


Prof. Rini’s analysis sounds right. The next question, of course, is: how should we respond? Millions of people are being immoral with regard to what they believe. Is there anything to be done about it? We have laws against some immoral behavior, like theft and assault. Although we can’t have laws that control what people believe, we can have limited government regulation of the companies that distribute those lies (such as Facebook, Fox News and your local cable TV company). The public can also exert pressure on companies, TV networks, for instance, that give certain politicians and pundits repeated opportunities to lie in public. And in our personal lives, when we hear somebody say something that’s simply not true, we can speak up, even though it’s easier to stay quiet.

Enough Is Enough, or A Sixty-Day Vacation

I have various reasons for doing this blog. I enjoy writing. I like to express my opinions. Writing helps clarify what I think. And there’s always a chance that my words may interest or benefit somebody who reads them (it can happen).

Saving the world is definitely a long shot, but the world needs all the help it can get. The post from earlier this month with the email addresses for the Postal Service’s Board of Governors was viewed more than 3,000 times (I hope they got some emails). That puts it in second place between Apple Core! Baltimore! (4,500 views) and The Fendertones Take Us Back To 1965 (1,700) (there’s a message here).

I mention all this because I’m wondering how to continue. Not whether to continue, but how.

We have an election in two months. It’s hard to believe it will be close. Millions of voters who gave the maniac the benefit of the doubt four years ago or couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a woman don’t have the same excuse this time. This is a president who has never had a positive approval rating. The reasons not to give him four more years are overwhelming. But Republicans don’t need a majority to win. They have the Electoral College on their side.

What this means is that some observers are warning Democrats not to be too optimistic. They’re writing articles with headlines like these:

Txxxx’s convention was repulsive and dishonest. I fear it was also effective.

To everyone who thinks Txxxx is a goner: He’s just getting started.

Liberals are quick to dismiss Txxxx. They do so at their peril.

Could It Be Bush v. Gore All Over Again?

Biden’s Loose Lips Could Sink His Chances.

In some cases, the people expressing these opinions want to come across as hard-headed realists. If, god forbid and against all reason, the maniac wins, they can say they got it right. Nobody will remember if they got it wrong.

Thus, Michael Moore, who warned us what would happen in 2016, is back:

Michael Moore warns that Dxxxx Txxxx is on course to repeat 2016 win. Film-maker says enthusiasm for president in swing states is ‘off the charts’.

Although the same publication has this as well:

Txxxx must win the Midwest. But out here his breezy reelection gambit falls flat.

I don’t think I can handle this for another two months: the “watch out, it’s gonna be bad” stories, even when they’re counter-balanced by a few “good times ahead”.

Something else I don’t want to take until November is all the lying.

Fortunately, I’m not one of those people whose job requires them to pay attention to the maniac’s pronouncements or those of other Republican politicians. Being exposed to one ridiculous lie after another is stressful. I imagine a White House reporter dreaming of grabbing Txxxx’s press secretary by the throat, screaming at her to just shut her damn lying mouth. Consider the poor (but highly-paid) reporters who had to keep the sound on during every minute of the Republican convention.

From Margaret Sullivan:

Daniel Dale met President Txxxx’s convention speech with a tirade of truth Thursday night — a tour de force of fact-checking that left CNN anchor Anderson Cooper looking slightly stunned.

The cable network’s resident fact-checker motored through at least 21 falsehoods and misstatements he had found in Txxxx’s 70-minute speech, breathlessly debunking them at such a pace that when he finished, Cooper, looking bemused, paused for a moment and then deadpanned, “Oh, that’s it?”

So, so much was simply wrong. Claims about the border wall, about drug prices, about unemployment, about his response to the pandemic, about rival Joe Biden’s supposed desire to defund the police (which Biden has said he opposes).

Believe it or not, Republicans lie more than Democrats. One big reason is that they have an unpopular agenda. They want to cut taxes as much as possible for the rich, so they have to say they’re doing it for the middle class. They want to stop Democrats from voting, so they say they’re doing it to fight voter fraud. They’re in court trying to kill the Affordable Care Act’s protection for people with pre-existing medical conditions, while claiming to be the ones who will protect us from the insurance companies. The president has no interest in providing health insurance to the uninsured, but keeps promising to announce a wonderful healthcare plan two weeks from now. It’s always two weeks from now. Republicans want to privatize Social Security and Medicare, but claim to be those programs’ biggest supporters. The list goes on.

In fact, way back in 2003, Al Franken published a book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. The next edition will come as a five-volume set. (That’s a lie, but not a bad one.)

Being lied to is stressful. It’s even worse when you can’t confront the liar. I want to avoid some of that stress for the next two months.

These two considerations, the pessimistic warnings and the constant lies, have convinced me to take a news vacation. I want to back away from the daily news cycle. Since politics has been this blog’s biggest topic, that will probably mean fewer posts or less pressing subject matter. But breaking the internet news addiction until after the election is worth a try. I already know who to vote for. So should you. Besides, the world will still be here to save after November 3rd.

Lies, Damn Lies and Some Statistics

I keep intending to update this blog, but end up doing other things. I can’t use those popular but lame “I’m too busy” or “There isn’t enough time” excuses. The truth is that I’m choosing to do other things. Why lie?

But last month I promised to revisit the philosopher Gerald Dworkin’s discussion of permissible lies when Professor Dworkin did. His new article, “How You Justified 10 Lies (Or Didn’t)”, was published a few days ago.

Professor Dworkin begins by listing the ten lies he discussed last time. He still thinks all ten would be permissible. Now, however, we get to see what percentage of 10,000 New York Times readers agreed with him. Even more importantly, from my perspective, we get to see how many of them agreed with me.

Surprisingly, all ten lies were deemed “permissible” by a majority of the Times readers. One lie was approved by 96% of the respondents. One was merely approved by 51%. But every single lie Dworkin listed got a positive reaction. Do the generally liberal New York Times readers who read “The Stone” philosophy blog and respond to opinion polls tend to be liars? Or maybe they were lying when they said these lies would be acceptable?

So here are the ten lies, listed according to my evaluations of them and showing how many Times readers got it right or were seriously mistaken when they responded to Professor Dworkin’s poll.

I think these five would clearly be permissible:

(1) to hold a surprise party. 96% of the Times readers agreed;
(3) to calm down a loved one who has severe dementia. 89% agreed;
(4) to protect a newly-widowed woman from unnecessary pain regarding the violent death of her husband. But only 51% agreed;
(5) to test for racial discrimination in housing. 89% agreed;
(9) to get a better price from a car salesman. 94% agreed (very few sell cars for a living).

I had some concerns about these two, but decided they would also be permissible:

(8) to tell the willing participants in a medical study that they received real knee surgery when they really didn’t. 87% agreed;
(10) to tell a young child that their drawing was great when it really wasn’t. 71%.

I had more trouble with the last three. I wasn’t completely sure about this one, but decided to reject it:

(7) to lie about one’s plans to have children in order to get a job. 62% said it would be permissible. I thought it would be better to deflect the question (being male would make it easier for me to deflect).

Finally, these two were easy to reject:

(2) to tell a young child seriously injured in a plane crash that his parents “were O.K.”, even though neither survived, so that the child might be stronger during his upcoming surgery. 63% said it would be o.k., presumably hoping that somebody else would tell the kid the truth later on: “You know that plane crash you were in, and how the doctor said your parents were o.k.? Well, they weren’t. They were dead all along.” I thought one of those vague answers doctors know how to give would be better in the long run.

(6) During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy denied that America’s missiles in Turkey were discussed with the Russians. That was a lie. 55% said it was permissible. Again, I thought it would have been better to deflect the question or give a vague answer, while intending to eventually tell the truth.

After revealing the results of the readers’ poll, Dworkin discusses some of the more contentious lies. For example, a reader argued that it would be better for the woman in the job interview to answer truthfully regarding her plans to have a family, but “to question the heck” out of the interviewer (“How will this affect my chances?”, etc.). Other readers argued that the widow would have a right to know the truth about her husband’s painful death, although Dworkin observes that the woman might ask the question without really wanting to know if her husband suffered.

Most interesting to me is Dworkin’s discussion of the child facing surgery whose parents died in the plane crash. He and 51% of the respondents thought that saying the child’s parents were “O.K.” would be permissible. That’s hard for me to believe. Dworkin wants to protect the child in the short run, hoping that the surgery will go better if the child doesn’t know the truth. He also questions whether a young child has a right to know the truth, since young children aren’t fully autonomous yet. Fortunately, he concludes that if the child would be satisfied with a vague answer, a vague answer would be preferable to lying. I think that’s obviously true and that it’s extremely likely that a doctor could come up with a suitably vague but reassuring answer. So we aren’t as far apart on this case as it seemed.

In fact, while writing the previous paragraph, I realized that I could accept a lie in this situation too. My principal reason for disagreeing with Dworkin and the 51% is that I disagree with the particular lie they endorsed. I believe a lie like “Your parents were hurt too, so other doctors are helping them”, would be permissible, since it would allow for the possibility that the doctors weren’t able to help the parents enough to keep them alive. A lie like that could make the child’s transition to the truth less painful than hearing “your parents are O.K.”.

Dworkin concludes with some general remarks on the morality of lying. I think the most important point he makes is that there are no simple rules for deciding whether a lie is permissible. Life is complicated and so is morality. Different values come into play and need to be balanced in different situations. This is one reason the world needs blogs and other forms of communication, even though the people who communicate often end up doing things other things, some of which are easier or more fun than communicating.

Lies and Damn Lies, But No Statistics

The philosopher Gerald Dworkin got a big response when he wrote about lying earlier this week. He listed ten situations in which someone might or did tell a lie and asked his readers how they felt about each case. Dworkin himself thinks we all lie more than we realize and that lying is generally more acceptable than we think. It isn’t possible to respond to Dworkin’s list online anymore, but here’s the article. It includes some prefatory remarks. As for the lies, they’re listed below, followed by my thoughts on their acceptability.

Are the following lies permissible (yes) or not (no)?

1. A man lies to his wife about where they are going in order to get her to a place where a surprise birthday party has been organized.

2. A young child is rescued from a plane crash in a very weakened state. His parents have been killed in the crash but he is unaware of this. He asks about his parents and the attending physician says they are O.K. He intends to tell the truth once the child is stronger. 

3. Your father suffers from severe dementia and is in a nursing home. When it is time for you to leave he becomes extremely agitated and often has to be restrained. On the occasions when you have said you would be back tomorrow he was quite peaceful about your leaving. You tell him now every time you leave that you will be back tomorrow knowing that in a very short time after you leave he will have forgotten what you said.

4. A woman’s husband drowned in a car accident when the car plunged off a bridge into a body of water. It was clear from the physical evidence that he desperately tried to get out of the car and died a dreadful death. At the hospital where his body was brought his wife asked the physician in attendance what kind of death her husband suffered. He replied, “He died immediately from the impact of the crash. He did not suffer.”

5. In an effort to enforce rules against racial discrimination “testers” were sent out to rent a house. First, an African-American couple claiming to be married with two children and an income that was sufficient to pay the rent would try to rent a house. If they were told that the house was not available, a white tester couple with the same family and economic profile would be sent. If they were offered the rental there would be persuasive evidence of racial discrimination.

6. In November of 1962, during the Cuban Missile crisis, President Kennedy gave a press conference. When asked whether he had discussed any matters other than Cuban missiles with the Soviets he absolutely denied it. In fact, he had promised that the United States would remove missiles from Turkey. 

7. A woman interviewing for a job in a small philosophy department is asked if she intends to have children. Believing that if she says (politely) it’s none of their business she will not get the job, she lies and says she does not intend to have a family.

8. In order to test whether arthroscopic surgery improved the conditions of patients’ knees a study was done in which half the patients were told the procedure was being done but it was not. Little cuts were made in the knees, the doctors talked as if it were being done, sounds were produced as if the operation were being done. The patients were under light anesthesia. It turned out that the same percentage of patients reported pain relief and increased mobility in the real and sham operations. The patients were informed in advance that they either would receive a real or a sham operation. 

9. I am negotiating for a car with a salesperson. He asks me what the maximum I am prepared to pay is. I say $15,000. It is actually $20,000.

10. We heap exaggerated praise on our children all the time about their earliest attempts to sing or dance or paint or write poems. For some children this encouragement leads to future practice, which in turn promotes the development–in some — of genuine achievement.

Dworkin thinks all ten of these lies are justifiable. I think half of them clearly are. It’s acceptable to lie:

(1) to hold a surprise party;
(3) to calm down an Alzheimer’s patient;
(4) to protect a newly-widowed woman from unnecessary pain;
(5) to test for racial discrimination in housing; and
(9) to get a better price from a car salesman.

Lie (8), the one about telling people they had an operation when they really didn’t, is a bit problematic. To be acceptable, two conditions would have to be met. First, the patients would have to fully understand that some of them would be receiving, in effect, a placebo. Giving a placebo is acceptable in medical research if the experiment’s subjects understand they might receive a placebo and won’t suffer significant consequences from not getting the real thing. Dworkin mentions the first condition, but not the second.

I would add a third condition: every patient should receive the real surgery, not the fake surgery, if the study showed the surgery to be beneficial. Since these other conditions aren’t mentioned, I wouldn’t put lie (8) in the clearly acceptable category. But if forced to choose, I’d say it’s all right to “lie” in this case. Telling someone you will tell them a lie is more like playing a game than real lying.

Lie (10), the one regarding exaggerated praise for children, is also a little problematic. It’s acceptable to sometimes give children exaggerated praise, but the praise shouldn’t be extravagant. Praise should also leave room for improvement (if a drawing is perfect, there’s no reason to do a better one next time). But lie (10)  also goes in the “yes” column.

I have more trouble with lie (7). Should a prospective employee lie about their desire to have children if an interviewer inappropriately raises the subject? Instead of lying, I think a better response would be to politely ask the interviewer whether it’s appropriate to ask a prospective employee about having children. Not answering the question while mildly calling attention to its inappropriateness would be more acceptable than lying, so I give lie (7) a “no”.

The last two lies, (2) and (6), are easy to reject. In both cases, giving a vague or non-committal answer would be better than lying. Lie (2) might stop the injured little boy from worrying about his parents. But why open the door to a future revelation: “Remember when I told you that your parents were doing fine? I lied. They were already dead.” If you couldn’t think of a sufficiently vague answer, you could at least tell a lie that was closer to the truth: “Your parents were hurt, but the doctors are trying to make them better.” Then change the subject back to the child’s needs. Eventually learning the truth wouldn’t be as much of a shock.

Finally, in the case of (6), the only non-hypothetical lie in the list, it’s fair to say that all government leaders sometimes have valid reasons to keep a secret. Perhaps President Kennedy had a good, non-political reason not to tell the truth about his talks with the Russians. But he didn’t have to absolutely deny that America’s missiles in Turkey were discussed. Kennedy could just as easily have told the press that various issues of national security always come up when dealing with the Russians. This time was no different. Next question, please.

So, giving a “no” to (2) and (6) leaves me with seven acceptable and three unacceptable lies. Professor Dworkin, who said all ten were justified, promises to write about this further. I’ll do the same. But keep in mind that you can trust me, because I’m not lying. Whether this clearly untrustworthy professor returns to the subject is a whole other question.