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A Pathological Liar as World Leader

Personal Perspective: Vladimir Putin's aversion to truth.

In the screenplay of Rob Reiner’s 1992 military legal drama A Few Good Men, the character Colonel Nathan Jessup, portrayed by Jack Nicholson, famously tells Tom Cruise’s Daniel Kaffee of the US Marine Judge Adjuvant General’s Corp, “You can’t handle the truth. Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. . . . I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom.”

Such works present a moral challenge. Do we admit that some who happen to be in high places enjoy a special dispensation to lie, or do we expect everyone, regardless of station in life, to tell the truth? Can rich, famous, and powerful people deliberately propagate falsehoods as they deem necessary with moral impunity, or should they be held to the same standards of truth-telling as everyone else? Who is above the truth, and therefore above the law?

To the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, the answer could hardly be clearer: Lying is always wrong. Human beings are rational creatures who need to be able to choose freely based on accurate understanding, and lying undermines this capacity. It denies the liar’s own rationality, contributes to conditions under which truth-telling and trust seem no longer possible, and involves treating other people as little more than means to achieving the liar’s ends, rather than as ends in themselves.

The 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill took a different view. According to his utilitarian ethics, the moral priority is always to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. While Mill does not condone wholesale deception, he does argue that circumstances may arise in which lying may promote more happiness than truth-telling, implying that we sometimes have a moral obligation to speak and act dishonestly.

Whether Kant or Mill approaches closer to the truth of the matter is a subject for another day, but one thing we can all agree on is the potentially disastrous consequences of developing a reputation as a habitual spinner of untruths, sometimes referred to as a pathological liar. Pathological liars don’t merely lie a lot but do so in ways that cause suffering both for the liars themselves and those whom they deceive.

Consider Russian President Vladimir Putin’s utterances with regard to the war in Ukraine. Putin has repeatedly denied that Ukraine is a county. He has called Ukraine an inalienable part of Russia’s history, culture, and spiritual space. Despite massing large numbers of troops on the Ukrainian border leading up to February, Putin denied that an invasion was imminent. And when the invasion occurred, he claimed that Russia was defending and liberating the people from neo-Nazis.

Putin’s credibility has been reduced so far that he has become the butt of an old joke: How can you tell that Putin is lying? His lips are moving. That his habit of untruthfulness is harmful to the people of Ukraine, who have borne the brunt of the war’s devastations, there is no doubt. Yet he has has also harmed Russia by sacrificing the lives and limbs of tens of thousands of troops, wreaking serious damage on the country's economy and world standing, and inculcating a culture of mendacity.

Putin has ruled Russia for more than two decades. Over that time, he has created an echo chamber around himself, in which opposing points of view are often punished. As often happens with autocrats, no one dares tell the dictator what he doesn’t want to hear. As a result, the capacities of both Russia and Ukraine were seriously mischaracterized. Even if Putin wanted to, he cannot make well-informed decisions, because no one speaks the truth to him. Sham referenda and annexations are the order of the day.

The COVID-19 pandemic only amplified the reverberations of Putin’s voice in his own ear. Fear of contracting the infection led him to isolate himself even further. And the more isolated he became, the more he came to believe that he was in complete control, able to dictate the course of events according to his own wishes. Dissenters at home could be quickly eliminated by arrest, imprisonment, and assassination, and opponents abroad could be trampled underfoot by a vastly superior Russian military.

The well-guarded walls of the fortress Putin erected around himself may turn out to be a prison. The people he might otherwise rely on to tell him what is really happening have long since left the building, ensuring that those who remain have little conviction or experience in truth-telling. To get an accurate account, Putin would need to admit something that he cannot bring himself to do: that he may not have complete mastery over the situation, and that events may be spiraling out of his control.

The Russian government suffers from a severe personality disorder. Puncture lofty official rhetoric about restoring Mother Russia’s glory and reveal a base kleptocracy. Dig beneath the surface of Russian reunification and find a rank power grab. Listen between the lines of the news and hear little more than propaganda. When a culture is dominated by a pathological liar, no one can know the truth, trust becomes the scarcest resource, and descent into blackest suspicion and cynicism is a foregone conclusion.

Both Kant and Mill would condemn Putin: Kant because Putin routinely violates an inviolable moral law, and Mill because the consequences of Putin's mendacity have been disastrous for him, the people of Ukraine, and people throughout Russia and Europe.

For democracy to thrive, people must not only be able to handle the truth; we must demand it. Otherwise, we cannot know who and what we are voting for. Even more importantly, we need a culture of vigorous and open debate. We may look at matters differently, but we need to know that all points of view can be heard, so that those who are ultimately in charge – the people – can avoid the autocrat’s predicament and choose both wisely and well.