In 1978, Sissela Bok wrote a book, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (Pantheon, NY). Since Bok’s book, the American people have had to endure regular news of scandals in business and government, all based on misconduct covered over by lies.
Many Americans are so accustomed to lying leaders, they are cynical. Lying is the rule, not its exception.
Why So Many Lies, Scandals, and Harm?
Leaders in business and government who have lied during misconduct, or to hide it, are under intense criticism. The broad and deep financial and social consequences of leaders’ misconduct and lying are what anger people affected adversely by them. People become greatly concerned for truth and justice when their ox is gored.
Perhaps Santa Claus is the first, “little white lie” children experience. In a thousand ways, we grow up learning that some lies are harmless, even helpful, but others ought not or must not be told. Yet once we have admitted the utility of lying under certain circumstances, when we need this tool–to get or keep a job, a spouse, a reputation, loyalty, whatever–it is an easy step to take it out and use it.
Profit and power are two motives in America that generate lies among many leaders. Fear of disgrace, losses of wealth and power, and prosecution are some negative drivers for lies. What now gravely concerns many Americans is that greed and power seem to be leading to the ruin of the nation.
The Moral Learning Process
Morality has to do with conduct, which has to do with what is right or wrong in our conduct towards other persons. There is a morality that holds it is always right to preserve life, and always wrong to take another human life. There is another morality that holds it is always right to preserve the life of those we love, and always wrong not to take the lives of anyone who threatens in any way those we love.
Morality is a completely learned set of values, like a parenthesis waiting for us to fill in the content according to our preferences. The moral value of loving, discerning, following, and telling the truth, is a learned value. It requires a process of teaching, practice, critique, correction, and affirmation or disapproval to master. Many people claim many things are true, but one must learn to question, research, compare, and think independently of mere claims. This involves critical thinking, an essential skill to learn what is true and false; to prefer the former to the latter; and, to live by that rule.
Americans today learn their moral values from every source: parents, friends, years in school and, surely, millions of mental “inputs” from every media. If you look at American values held up for public adulation and imitation, this is a terrifying prospect. Sexiness, great wealth, material possessions, complete power to choose one’s way of life and destiny, even pushing others out of the way who block what we want, these appear in game shows, serial programs on TV, movies, magazines, and throughout the Internet.
The philosopher Goethe once made a philosophical point by playing on the identical sound of two different German words: “Mann ist Was man isst.” This translated means, “You become what you eat.” In this context, to “eat” means willingly to take in what we wish, on a daily basis, several times a day. The “food” is our regular diet of what we approve, like, or love, in terms of values, behaviors, and life goals. After all, we refuse to take in, or even be around, if possible, the things we reject, disapprove, or hate.
As with real food, so also with moral values, skills, and behaviors.
If we prefer and consume selfishness, a self-centered world, quick pleasures of the senses, and view every day as an opportunity to relate to others in order to “get what you want,” then we naturally become what we love and seek. If lying helps us earn wealth, possessions, power, and admiration from others like us, then lying is merely a tool to our goals.
If we prefer and consume selflessness, an others-centered world, delayed sensual pleasures to obtain longer-lasting pleasures of character development, contributions to society and the world, character development, including honesty, then each day’s thinking and doing are applied to those goals. Telling the truth not only has to do with with our inner moral core. People who love their neighbor as themselves tell the truth because they know it is important not to deceive others, just as they do not want to be deceived.
In America now, there is a non-philanthropic, materialistic, cynical reinterpretation of the Golden Rule: “Who has the gold, rules.” If the neighbor gets in the way of obtaining the gold, get the neighbor out of the way, whatever is required. Thus we have the loss of concern by some leaders in business and government to tell the truth, and their willingness to lie, for profit and power.
Exchanging Good for Bad Morals: a Historical Case
The Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, created what we now call The Big Lie. Tell as truth whatever serves the regime’s goals, and repetition–without allowing full and equal time to opposing views–eventually has its effect. The people adopt the lie as the truth, then line up to execute it in public policy, funding, and personal sacrifice.
Most Germans had been raised to learn either Protestant or Roman Catholic catechisms, which included the Ten Commandments. Lying and murder were forbidden, love for God, neighbor, and even enemies, were commanded. Most of the German churches opposed to Nazism were silenced. Over time, unopposed daily repetitions of how Hitler was good for “Aryans, an unstoppable master race with a divine destiny of a Thousand Year Reign over enemies who tried to destroy them” had their effect.
Because of the Big Lie, unopposed by a free press, or unopposed by clergy silenced from fear or their own nationalism, German Christians exchanged their childhood morality for Nazi morality. What was unthinkable before was praiseworthy, beneficial, and doable. Hitler and Goebbels were so effective that–even after the Nuremberg Trials, and forty or more years later–some die-hard Nazis were convinced the Third Reich was correct.
American Leaders Who Lie and Harm
There is nearly nothing in our national media that celebrate–daily, regularly, systematically–people who tell the truth, have highly developed moral character, and always try to do “the right thing.” We hear a few stories of heroism, sacrifice, and moral nobility. They make the national news because they are the exception to the rule, that is, they are “newsworthy.”
It would be national news if somehow a magic wand revealed the truth of leadership misconduct and lying, leading to the prosecution and imprisonment of all involved. Nevertheless, just as occasional self-sacrifice is newsworthy, so also is the occasional and even rarer story of a lying leader at the highest levels of business and government.
A series of U.S. Presidents have engaged in conduct some charged was impeachable: Nixon (Watergate), Reagan (Iran-Contra), Clinton (lying under oath), and G.W. Bush (false information to Congress regarding WMDs). Clinton was impeached. All others either resigned before impeachment was completed, or filed impeachment proceedings never passed Congress.
The single lesson learned by many Americans was that leaders lying in the highest positions can escape consequences, when aided by allies who suppress or preclude the full investigation of the evidence, to seek the truth, and protect the public interest. This is not a partisan political statement. It is a general rule.
The Roman Catholic child abuse scandals fit this rule. Decades of scandals in the savings and loan industries, banking, food and pharmaceutical industries, mining and manufacturing, conflicts of interest throughout government, all these fit the rule. If we turn completely away from U.S. history to the history of nations, we see the rule again and again: lying among leaders rarely results in a full and fair search for the truth, and its consequences.
What Moral Leaders May Choose to Do
There are many thousands of American leaders in business, government, and institutions traditionally the custodians of private and public morality, such as religions, who have personal knowledge of lies by superiors, peers, and subordinates, covering over legal and illegal misconduct.
The definition of a leader is one who leads others who follow. We often associate the term, leader, to mean a person in a position of power and formal authority. Nevertheless, like the army private who steps forward to assume moral leadership without formal authority, when those with it are absent, there are hundreds of thousands of American leaders with the capacity to act, if they will.
We already have seen that the apparent rule for lying leaders in high positions of authority is exemption from punishment. That exemption is possible only because the necessary evidence has not been revealed, or has been suppressed successfully by allies with those engaging in misconduct.
There is absolutely no doubt that many American leaders possess evidence needing to be entered in the public record. Likewise, there are many persons not holding formal leadership positions who have knowledge and evidence. Those in the latter class do not have formal leadership authority, but they have complete potential for moral leadership. If they ever choose to become moral leaders, others will follow them and their example.
Moral leaders, formal and moral, have consciences burdened by what they know of harmful consequences created by liars and lies. They have a moral choice. They either must keep the truths they know to themselves, or they must decide to make a careful plan to find some means to tell the truth. Silence means the continued erosion of character by protecting the guilty. Acting for the truth means reclaiming personal integrity and demonstrating for their family and friends that someone must stand for the full disclosure of the truth.
Risks of Moral Action on Behalf of the Truth
There often are great personal risks to act against liars. Liars are willing to do whatever it takes to keep what their lies brought them. Character and career assassination are easy options for liars. Thoughts of losing employment, of seeing one’s family put in the street, are strong deterrents against telling the truth. Knowledge of what liars are capable of–threats made, threats kept against other honest people–creates stress and anxiety when considering any plan of action against them and the harms they have done.
In American history, we have many true stories of heroic individuals who told the truth against powerful individuals and alliances. It is because they were heroic, that is, that they stood up against odds of personal harm that they were enrolled in the hallowed pantheon of heroes and heroines. Some lived to enjoy the fruits of courage, but some suffered humiliation and ruin, or even death. The story of the hero is the story of rare nobility, its benefits and costs.
The true stories of Frank Serpico and Jeffrey Wigand were made into movies. Serpico tried to tell the truth of police corruption, was shot in a set-up, and nearly murdered. Wigand told the truth about a corporation’s harmful products to 60 Minutes, but the corporation threatened lawsuits and the story nearly was not told. Liars often may do anything to those who tell the truth.
There is a great temptation for morally honest people to give up, in the face of such widespread lying in high places, and against the real potential for personal financial or physical harm. The logic runs, “I am only one person. What can one person do against so many odds? I must just live with what I know, remain bitter and cynical, and be silent.”
This is the choice of many good and honest people. It is not a moral choice, but a prudential calculation. Self-preservation and self-interest outweigh commitment to the Golden Rule, the old one. Of course, the most powerful criminals and immoral people rely on fear in order to remain protected. This is as it always has been.
The Time cover to the left raises a question for some. “Was it coincidence, or maternal instinct–the desire to protect the innocent–that led three women to take personal risks in order to reveal the truth?”
Males dominate business and government positions of formal authority, yet women with moral fiber, character, and courage, can and do exercise moral leadership. Women often are considered weak by testosterone-driven males; however, these three women acted as moral leaders when they defended innocent victims.
Wikileaks’ sources have many motives. Some may be perverse pleasure, or retaliation. Yet some surely are persons who, because they have access to documents showing governments or businesses are lying to the public. For these, divulging secrets is to exercise moral leadership in the public interest. These sources seek to add information; reveal truth; reveal lies; and, empower democratic people to judge truth from lies.
Your Moral Development
The ninth commandment in Moses’ Ten Commandments is, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Many good people salve their consciences by saying to themselves, “Well, it was not I who told lies. Others told lies. They are responsible, not me.”
This is rationalization and immoral reasoning. At Nuremberg, many Nazis replied to their charges, “I was only following orders.” They were not in charge. They did not make the plan for the Final Solution. They did not drop the canisters of Zyklon B. into the acid. They merely had the subordinate duties they did. Yet Nuremberg ruled their collaboration was criminal. Millions died because thousands helped, in little ways, in the overall process of murder.
In U.S. law, there is the concept, accessory to a crime. People who did not pull the trigger, put in the knife, sell the illegal drug, hold up the bank, and many other crimes, still are morally and legally responsible when they enabled a crime, knew a crime was happening, and did nothing to stop its harms.
There are thousands of good people burdened with information, so long as it remains secret and hidden, that protects lies and liars who have harmed Americans. This information, held inside, builds up pressure in moral people. So long as they do not relieve the pressure by telling the truth, many turn to self-destructive behaviors.
He kept this information to himself, kept the code of secrecy, lived for decades as an alcoholic, and his secrets died with him. He was a good man, doing what his superiors required, but still bad deeds.
There is an old saying, “The person sleeps soundly who has a clear conscience.” If you are not sleeping soundly, unburden your conscience.
If you have information of harms done to your fellow citizens, illegal or unethical, release it to several groups of proper authorities. This will help ensure your information is not “buried,” increases the likelihood it will come before many eyes of moral persons like yourself, and this help protect you from unjust retaliation.
If you actively participated in, or passively endorsed such harms, your burden of guilt is increased. Alcohol or prescription medications to relieve depression will never absolve you of your role; however, there is freedom, admiration, and support, for people who own up to their crimes or moments of weakness, based in fear.
If you know someone burdened by these kinds of situations, do all you can to encourage and assist them in becoming moral leaders: for their moral development, moral satisfaction in loving their neighbors, and moral examples their families will cherish.
Certain knowledge kept inside can age you, make you dysfunctional with family and friends, lead you to self-destructive behaviors, as your self-esteem suffers. Choose to sleep well!
A Research Project on Lying
Here are some texts from the Bible on lying. You will find these reinforcements in your learning process. Imagine this as you read the texts: for thousands of years, millions of people, have read these same texts and gained moral and religious instruction.
Exodus 20:16; 23:1; Leviticus 6:2-5; 19:11-12, 16; Deuteronomy 19:16-20 (liars in court); Proverbs (many texts–6:16-19; 12:17; 14:5,8,25; 19:9; 21:28; 24:28; 25:18); Psalm 5:6,9; 101:5,7; 120:2-4; Ecclesiastes 5:6; Jeremiah 7:8,28; 9:5,8; Matthew 15:19; John 8:44 (Satan is a liar and Father of Lies); Ephesians 4:25,29; 1 Timothy 4:2; Colossians 3:9.
The Bible also contains many examples of people who lied and suffered consequences for it. If you are interested in learning more, please use the Contact Page!