Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses and Abuses of Honesty in Politics

Can ancient Chinese thought help us think about politicans and lying today?

Posted Jun 18, 2012

Thanks very much to Kevin DeLapp, the Dr. Harold E. Fleming Chair of Philosophy at Converse College, for authoring this post!

Many of us react with trigger-finger sensitivity to any perceived instance of politicians lying – at least when the politician is a member of a rival political party! Leaks, cover-ups, marketing spin, flip-flopping on issues, all of these get reduced to the level of bald, straight-faced perjury. In our more everyday moral lives, however, we usually make finer and more charitable discriminations. Perhaps it’s the pace or the medium of modern politics that makes for this double-standard? Or, perhaps there is something genuinely unique about the way we should view deception in politics?

It seems we deceive ourselves when we righteously assert that we never want our politicians to deceive us. As philosopher Ruth Grant has put it, ‘We do not really believe that our leaders will never tell a lie, and I doubt we would be simply proud if they were scrupulously honest when it cost us something’ (1997: 23). We often hurl around accusations of dishonesty more for rhetorical and political purposes, than as honest expressions of moral disapproval.

Much of our outrage at perceived political lies can be understood by looking at modern reactions to Plato’s (in)famous defense of deception in his dialogue Republic. In constructing his utopia, Plato describes a creepy super-king who is given the power (indeed, the obligation) to deceive the ignorant masses who could not otherwise handle the truth. Plato’s ‘Noble Lie,’ as he called it, makes some cultural sense when we appreciate the general atmosphere of anxiety regarding the possibility of illusion and disguise – themes dominant in ancient Greek art and mythology (Keightley 2002) – in which he was writing. But for the most part, we today do not share Plato’s cosmic suspicion of appearances or his pessimism about the capacity to figure things out for ourselves. Hence our indignation about being condescendingly lied to by our politicians. 

The ancient Chinese thinker Han Feizi (early third-century BCE) might offer a more accessible and realistic model for our otherwise schizophrenic attitudes to political deception. Han Feizi enjoins politicians to ‘hide their hearts’ and keep their intentions ‘closed and dark.’ Partly, this is a gamble to smoke-out corrupt lobbyists. And partly it’s a technique for the politician to safe-guard her own identity as the personification of the community. If a politician is too forthright about her personal likes and dislikes, that can tempt lobbyists to try to bribe or intimidate her by playing on those likes.

Han Feizi, after all, subscribed to a view of human nature according to which most people by default tend to be motivated by lazy and profiteering considerations. Whereas Plato viewed most people as intellectually lazy but morally pretty decent, for Han Feizi, most people can be quite intellectually discerning, but are morally self-centered. The two thinkers’ accounts of political deception are predicated on that difference in moral psychology: Plato thinks we wouldn’t understand the truth, whereas Han Feizi thinks we’d understand just fine, but that we’d abuse it for short-sighted personal gain. 

Notably, though, Han Feizi claims that strategic deception can also be a valuable strategy for political advocacy. Han Feizi relates the story of a politician named Sunjin who managed to convince an otherwise intractable ruler to abandon a wasteful building project by stacking eggs on top of one another in order to indirectly showcase the project’s foolishness. Sunjin’s action was in some sense ‘deceptive’, for he had to lie to get an audience with the ruler in the first place and then evade the ruler’s questions as he performs his egg-stacking. But such tactical deception was necessary to terminate a wasteful political policy. Thus, Han Feizi recognizes that certain deceptions are essential to the art of persuasion, which in turn is at the heart of constructive policy-making and governance.

Furthermore, to those who would call for total transparency in government, Han Feizi references a man who self-righteously calls himself ‘Honest Gong,’ but who is so brutally and indiscriminately truth-telling that he makes a federal case about even the smallest perceived untruth. Why should we allow the self-proclaimed Honest Gongs in our own society to disrupt the constructive – albeit more indirect and sometimes frustratingly slow – political efforts of the Sunjins out there? To diagnose every evasion and deception as if it were a Platonic ‘noble lie’ and then to yell ‘You lie!’ to the face of any would-be Sunjin is to conflate truthfulness with truth-bullying

Han Feizi also helps us remember that politicians should probably not be viewed in the same way as we view our friends. Evasiveness would be an undesirable trait in a friend, after all, but politicians are not our friends (at least not qua politicians): they operate in an arena in which rapidly-changing facts make for shifting truths, in which every statement needs to be checked against the threat of de-contextualization, and in which different audiences have different motives and may hear quite different messages.

What do you think? What is the political psychology of truth-bullying, deception-shaming, and perception management today? Is our view of human nature more like Plato’s or Han Feizi’s? 

Dr. Kevin DeLapp, the Dr. Harold E. Fleming Chair of Philosophy, Converse College


Works Cited: Grant, Ruth. (1997). Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Ethics of Politics. University of Chicago Press.

Keightley, David. (2002). ‘Disguise and deception in early China and early Greece,’ in Steven Shankman and Stephen Durrant (eds.), Early China/Ancient Greece: Thinking through Comparisons. SUNY Press, pp. 119-153.