Every year, Tom Jeannot polls the students in his ethics class at Gonzaga University about lying. And every year the consensus is the same: Lying is generally acceptable.
“They mainly think of lying in utilitarian terms,” he said. “If a particular lie produces more good consequences than bad consequences, then they are not morally offended by it.”
Lie about the age of your 2-year-old to save a couple hundred dollars on an airline ticket? No problem.
Deliberately omit some income from your tax return? Other people do, too.
Tell a roommate you haven’t seen her red jacket, the one you secretly took to the cleaners after you spilled coffee on it? You’re having it cleaned, why cause a fuss, too?
Samantha Gerand, 22, agrees that some lies are OK. The Shadle Park single mother said she lies to city bus drivers about her son’s age to avoid paying his fare. She lies to her grandmother about her relationship with her boyfriend. She lies to her son about his father.
“There are a lot of cases where telling the truth simply serves no good purpose,” she said. “I don’t want my little old grandmother staying up all night worrying about my salvation. My son doesn’t need to know that his father doesn’t love him.”
So it’s not surprising that a recent CNN-Time poll showed the majority of Americans believe President Clinton is lying when he denies he’s had sexual affairs, most recently with a White House intern. But when asked if he’s doing a good job, they give him the highest approval rating since he took office.
“There has been a sea change in our public discourse since Watergate,” Jeannot said. “We don’t expect our politicians to have integrity.”
Even among purists, few people in society take an absolutist view on lying. Most attempt to draw a line between everyday-type lies and morally offensive deceit.
“But those lines aren’t always clear,” said Forrest Baird, professor of philosophy at Whitworth College, “especially in this society we’ve set up where people are constantly rubbing up against one another. There’s a kind of culture of lying that smooths things over.”
That means people tell polite lies. But polite lies become habit. And habits are powerful things. So even though most people will say lying is wrong, they can’t help themselves.
“There’s an overwhelming sense that lying is a bad thing to do and an overwhelming sense that people do it all the time anyway,” Baird said.
For Gerand, the lower you are in the economic chain, the more lying is a matter of survival. The higher up you are, the more lying is a matter of habit.
“Rich people lie to their employees, tell them they can’t possibly pay them any more, just so they can hoard all their money,” she said. “Poor people lie because rich people are lying, and just to keep their heads above water.”
But even though we expect our leaders to lie, we wish they wouldn’t and are shocked when they do.
Blaine Garvin, head of the political science department at GU, points to disillusionment and cynicism as the weak points of American democracy. His solution: Lower our expectations.
“Politics is not friendship,” he said. “We should have different standards for our politicians than we do for our friends.”
John Duncan, a retail salesman who works in downtown Spokane, said he thinks we should at least have the same standards.
“I don’t drill my buddies about cheating on their girlfriends,” he said. “I wouldn’t fire them for infidelity.”
While Garvin thinks most political lies are uncalled for, some are unavoidable. For instance, had Franklin D. Roosevelt told the American public he was planning to enter World War II, he may not have been elected.
Instead, he lied, Garvin said. And the ultimate outcome of the war was a good one.
“(Politics) is a very specialized craft,” he said. “When you are leading a whole community and trying to produce good consequences, it’s the force of necessity.”
The whole prospect is disheartening to Jeannot. He sees lower moral standards as just as much a threat to democracy as Garvin’s concerns about cynicism.
“The truth is the common property of each and every one of us,” Jeannot said. “All of us have a fundamental entitlement to the truth.”
In fact, he believes the ability to act responsibly and make moral decisions is grounded in knowing the truth.
“So there is a fundamental connection between knowing the truth and human freedom,” Jeannot said.
Jeannot aligns himself with Aristotle, who basically preached that character matters, particularly among leaders. And the way to judge character is through actions.
It’s unlikely we’re going to think badly of a liar if we are liars, which might explain the polls.
Not everybody agrees society is that bad off. “I may either be a fool or just lucky, but I don’t know anybody who lies regularly,” Garvin said.
But if Americans truly have become moral degenerates when it comes to lying, how did it get this way?
Many people point to wholesale examples of governmental lying, such as Watergate, Vietnam and the Iran-Contra scandal, as the culprit.
Jeannot also blames a society obsessed with money and capital gain. “We tell ourselves that whatever we have to do to secure our private advantage is all right.”
Rarely do we measure people by less quantifiable values, like kindness, decency or wisdom.
It’s impossible to gauge whether people in general or politicians in particular are lying more today than in the past.
The incidence of lying at all levels of society may be the same and people are simply more matter-of-fact about it and admit it more readily. It’s just as possible that, because lying is generally expected today, people are looking for it and finding it.
But if we have lowered the bar, Jeannot wants it acknowledged.
“If that’s what this is all about, I think we would all do well to reflect on what the implications of that are,” he said.
Garvin - the Gonzaga professor who thinks the crisis is cynicism, not moral standards - thinks we ought to simply lighten up.
“Part of our confusion is that we expect the moral resolve of the country to reside in one person,” he said, referring to the president.
“Being the moral beacon is a more specialized job. Do we need one? I don’t think so.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: GREAT MINDS PONDER WHEN A LIE IS A LIE Defining a lie is almost as difficult as figuring out when it’s OK to use one. Just as there’s no one definition of the truth, there are no parameters for defining a lie. Sissela Bok, author of “Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life,” prefers this simple definition: “A lie is an intentionally deceptive message which is stated.” To Bok, withholding information isn’t lying. But deliberately misleading someone with half-truths or legalese is. Most religious and moral traditions are rigorously opposed to lying - but not all. Immanuel Kant, the philosopher, was frequently attacked for his theory that prohibited all lying. St. Augustine preached a similar interpretation, from a Christian standpoint. Plato actually advocated lying, said Whitworth College philosophy professor Forrest Baird. “If anyone at all would have the privilege of lying, the rulers of a state should,” Baird quoted from Plato’s “Republic.” That included dealings with other nations, as well as with the public being governed. Aristotle argued there were no absolute rules, which is why one needed good moral character. College professors use this example: You’re living in Germany in 1940, hiding Jews in your basement, when storm troopers knock on your door and ask if that is true. “That’s the problem with lying,” Baird said. “You’re never choosing between good and evil. That would be easy. What you’re really doing is choosing between two goods.” Kelly McBride