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Lies: They Come With Consequences

By Sissela Bok
Sunday, August 23, 1998; Page C01

Psychologists sometimes speak of "flashbulb memories," images of momentous events that are etched in our minds long after others fade. President Clinton's speech last Monday ignited such a memory for many Americans. It brought immediately to mind his strong, finger-pointing denial of wrongdoing on Jan. 26. The president addressed the public with seemingly utter sincerity in both instances, yet he acknowledged on Monday that he "misled" us seven months ago. We have learned, too, of the anguish among friends, cabinet members and White House staff who have been drawn into a vast web of deceit to buttress these falsehoods and involve us by disseminating them in the public arena.

The media have rightly been accused of excessive attention to sex and scandal and of abandoning basic journalistic standards by sometimes publishing undocumented rumors about the charges and countercharges surrounding the Clinton White House. But by broadcasting or reprinting the two statements together, the media have done us a great service. They have helped set the stage for what could turn into a more focused national debate about lying by public officials.

This spring and summer, as the controversies surrounding the Clinton White House intensified, some argued that lying in public life had become so pervasive, even accepted, that there was nothing to be done about it. Others held that there could be no moral problems whatsoever about lies protecting privacy and, especially, sexual life--that "all's fair in love and war." Still others maintained that lying would be uniquely excusable by anyone subjected to the overreaching ferocity of the Starr investigation.

Such arguments dismissing moral concern were easier to put forth in the abstract, before the two statements crystallized the practical import of lying for us all. The public's response this week shows how many there are who regard lying by elected officials as anything but morally acceptable. And when pressed, few say that claims to privacy automatically justify not only silence but lies, much less that officials who have sworn to uphold the law should go so far as to lie in response to legal investigations.

Yet many people have also been disturbed at what has seemed humiliating, at times prurient, probing of the president's intimate affairs both by investigators and the media. Few among us would want to live in an inquisitorial society in which our most intimate concerns were subjected to relentless public scrutiny. In repressive states, sheer survival compels individuals to lie about, say, their religious or political views. Even in a democracy, genuine quandaries arise about the legitimacy of lying to avoid intrusive probing by people who have no right to the information they seek. What should public officials do, in that case, given that they are exposed far more routinely than others to inquiries into every aspect of their lives, in the full glare of the media?

People disagree about the boundaries between conduct in the White House that is of genuine public concern and what is purely private. But all can envisage secrets that ought to be a president's own business--fears about a friend's illness, for instance, or concerns about a relative's behavior. Silence at such times is clearly legitimate. Why, in that case, should lying to the public not be equally legitimate, in cases of persistent and intrusive probing? What is it that turns an official's lie to the public into a matter of public concern, no matter how rightfully private the subject of the lie itself?

The simplest answer is that the credibility of public officials is crucial in a democracy. As a result, we in the public have to be wary of all official lies, however innocent they seem to presidents or others telling them. Our experience with presidential lying gives little reason to be sanguine about its being limited to private matters. Appeals to privacy can be exploited to cover up wrongdoing just as much as appeals to national security can, as we saw during the Vietnam War.

But there are deeper reasons for our caution with respect to lying, by public officials as by all others. The juxtaposition of the two Clinton statements helps us in this respect, too. It allows us to visualize the contrast between the two perspectives of deceiver and deceived. We gradually learn, from childhood on, what it is to lie and to be lied to. We know the power over others that deceit may confer; and how much easier it is to slip into a lie than to undo its effects.

Everyone makes mistakes of this kind; but it is another matter altogether to choose to knowingly deal with others through deceit. The most serious miscalculation people make at such a time is to blind themselves to the effect lying can have on their integrity and self-respect, and the jeopardy in which they place others. Because liars also tend to overestimate their own goodwill and their chances of escaping detection, they underestiimate the damage to their reputation and their credibility once they are found to have lied. And if they do get away with lies at first, further psychological and moral barriers may wear down; more and more lies may seem to be necessary, and fewer of those lies may seem morally problematic.

Most remote of all, as people calculate the pros and cons of particular lies, are the corrosive and cumulative effects that their lies, once suspected, will have not only on their own credibility but on trust more generally. Lies invite imitation, preventive duplicity and retaliation after the fact. As they spread, trust is damaged. Naive trust invites abuses all its own; but when distrust becomes too overpowering within a family, a community or a nation, it becomes impossible to meet joint needs.

Increasingly, social scientists are viewing such trust as a fragile good, necessary to human cooperation and effective government, yet as vulnerable as our natural environment to being cumulatively polluted. Liars function as free riders in this social setting, relying on a modicum of trust to dissemble, even as their actions help wear it down.

In public as in private life, everyone has reason to consider to what extent their actions erode or help restore this social good of trust. But public servants, doctors, clergy, lawyers, bankers, journalists and other professionals have a special responsibility in this regard, given the privileges they have been granted. Public officials, above all, can have a uniquely deleterious effect on trust. When they act so as to undermine trust, this cuts at the roots of democracy. When President Clinton addressed the public on Jan. 26, he invoked a deliberate bond of trust, saying "I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me." To the extent that citizens lose confidence in what leaders say, they are disempowered: They cannot know enough about the facts to form an intelligent opinion without relying on the information provided to them. Once disenchanted on that score, citizens may suspect even the most honest officials.

As soon as we put ourselves in the shoes of those who have been deceived, all the risks that deceit present become starkly apparent. We recognize the special sense of injury people experience, how wary they become, on discovering they have been duped. They are far less sanguine about the good motives of those who lie, far less sure that these people can maintain clear limits between lies that are legitimate and all others.

We become aware, too, of the injustice done to individuals drawn into deceptive schemes without their knowledge, much less consent. When a public official who lies to cover up for personal shortcomings also lies to colleagues and subordinates and asks them to make public statements that turn out to be untrue, this puts their own credibility on the line in profoundly compromising ways. There is also often a special burden on friends to cooperate in disseminating what they know or guess are falsehoods, out of loyalty. Yet as Cicero said, doing so is no act of true friendship. It is, rather, a violation of the first rule of friendship either to ask another to do something dishonorable or to go along with such a request.

For all these reasons, we are right to take seriously lying by presidents and other public officials, even when they invoke privacy. If there are to be specific exceptions, they ought to be subjected to public debate and consent, with full regard to the possible abuses of power that might ensue and the safeguards needed to control these abuses. Only mischief can come of allowing officials to decide for themselves when truth is required and when deception is justifiable.

Sissela Bok is the author of "Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life," and "Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation," both published by Vintage.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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