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From Washington to Trump, all presidents have told lies — but only some have told them for the right reasons

September 27, 2020 in Blogs

By The Conversation

Michael Blake, University of Washington

Michael Cohen, in his recent book, has called President Trump a “fraud,” a “bigot,” a “bully” – and, most emphatically, a “liar”. The Trump administration’s response to this book simply reverses the accusation, calling Cohen someone who attempts to “profit off of lies”.

Nonetheless, the media has often noted the frequency with which President Trump lies. The Washington Post, for instance, maintains a running database of what it terms the President’s “false or misleading claims” – which now number over 20,000, or an average of 12 per day.

Media’s accounts of Trump’s lies would seem to indicate that most people are wholeheartedly opposed to lying – and, in particular, opposed to being lied to by presidents. And yet a recent survey of presidential deception found that all American presidents – from Washington to Trump – have told lies, knowingly, in their public statements.

As a political philosopher, with a focus on how people try to reason together through political disagreement, I argue that not all lies are the same.

History shows examples of presidents who have lied for a larger public purpose – and have been forgiven.

The morality of deception

Why, though, are lies thought so wrongful in the first instance?

Immanuel Kant, in the 18th century, provided one powerful account of the wrongness of lying. For Kant, lying was wrong in much the same way that threats and coercion are wrong. All of these override the autonomous will of another person, and treat that person as a mere tool.

For Kant, human beings were morally special precisely because they could use reason to decide what to do. When a gunman uses threats to coerce a person to do a particular act, he disrespects that person’s rational agency. Lies are a similar disrespect to rational agency: One’s decision has been manipulated, so that the act is no longer one’s own.

Kant defended these conclusions without exception. Kant regarded any lie as immoral – even one told to a murderer at the door.

Modern-day philosophers have often accepted Kant’s account, while seeking exceptions from its rigidness. In his book “Ethics for Adversaries,” philosopher Arthur Applbaum explains why citizens might sometimes consent to being deceived, which might be useful in understanding presidential deception.

For example, a political leader who gives honest answers about …read more


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