A Philosopher's Blog

Truth & Lies, Politico & Carson

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 9, 2015

Two of Dr. Ben Carson’s strengths as a Republican Presidential are his compelling backstory and perceived authenticity.  A key part of his narrative, as laid out in Gifted Hands and other writings, is that he met with General William Westmoreland and was offered a “full scholarship” to West Point when he was a teenager.

In November of 2015 Politico challenged this part of Carson’s backstory, noting that there is no evidence that Carson ever applied to West Point and that there are, in fact, no scholarships for West Point (those accepted attend at no cost). Politico also questioned the claimed timeline regarding Carson’s meeting with Westmoreland. Put on the defensive, Carson conceded that he did not apply to West Point and endeavored to retroactively modify certain aspects of his backstory. As should be expected, some on the right have stepped in to defend Carson and accuse Politico of being driven by liberal bias. The minds behind American conservatism have conducted a very effective campaign against the mainstream media, thus allowing an easy appeal to media bias as an almost perfect defense. Some of the folks on the left accept this as more evidence of Carson’s duplicity.

As a practical matter, the accusation by Politico will only strengthen the resolve of Carson’s supporters and the folks on the left would not support him even if his backstory were entirely true. That said, the matter of lying is certainly philosophically interesting. Before turning to the specific issue of Carson’s alleged duplicity, it is necessary to consider the more general matter of lying.

While there are numerous philosophical examinations of lying, I will keep it relatively simple and consider four intuitively plausible factors. These are truth, belief, intent and motivation. Truth is whether the claim made is true or not. Belief is whether or not the alleged liar believes the claim being made (which is distinct from the claim being true or not). Intent is the purpose or objective of the claim. Motivation is why the person is making the claim. This includes both making the claim itself as well as the decision to claim what is or is not believed to be true.

To illustrate these factors, consider the following tale of deceit, honesty and marijuana. The married coupled of Dick and Jane have four children. Larry, Theodora, Hannah and Bob. Alerted by the telltale evidence of a lingering odor and an abnormal number of empty Dorito bags, Dick and Jane suspect at least one of their kids has marijuana in the house. They gather the kids in the living room and ask “do you have any marijuana in your room?” To try to scare their kids straight, Dick and Jane also add that “you know, smoking marijuana will kill you.”

Larry, who had been smoking marijuana in the house, believes that he still has some hidden in his room. Unknown to him, Theodora found his stash and hid it most of it in Hannah’s room because she thinks her parents would never suspect honest Hannah. Worried that she might not be able to get a smoke when she needs one, she hides two joints in her room. Bob, who has been baking his brain for some years, has forgotten about a secret stash of marijuana in his room. As such, he honestly believes he has none.

All the children answer “no.” Larry’s claim is true—he has no marijuana in his room. However, he believes he does.  His intent is to deceive his parents and his motivation is to avoid being grounded. Giving that he made a true statement, it might be tempting to claim that Larry is not lying. However, Larry believes his claim is false and he intends to deceive to avoid a presumably just punishment. As such, it seems reasonable to accept that Larry is lying—the fact that he is ignorant of Theodora’s thievery does not seem to be adequate as a moral excuse.

Theodora’s claim is false, she believes it is false and she intends to deceive so as to avoid being grounded. As such, Theodora presents a paradigm example of lying: making an untrue claim that is known to be untrue with an intent to deceive out of a selfish motivation. So, she is totally lying.

Hannah’s claim is false, but she believes it is true. She has no intention to deceive and her motivation is, let it be assumed, to be a good daughter. While her claim is untrue, it would seem wrong to claim that she is lying. After all, her claim is only false because her sister (unknown to her) hid marijuana in her room and she is free from any malign intent. If she knew there was marijuana in her room, she would (let it be assumed) inform her parents even at the risk of punishment. As such, Hannah should not be considered a liar. The fact that she is ignorant of what Theodora has done is relevant to assessing her honesty.

Bob’s claim is not true, but he believes it is. He does not intend to deceive at this time, but he would do so if he was aware of the marijuana in his room. As such, his motivations are not exactly pure—he is saying what he believes is true because he thinks doing so will keep him out of trouble.  Given these factors, it would be an error to say that he is lying in this case, but he is not acting from any commitment to honesty.

Dick and Jane’s claim about marijuana is untrue and let it be assumed they know it is not true. But, if their intent is to protect their children from the real harms of marijuana and their motivation is good (love for their kids), then it would be reasonable to accept this as a form of noble lie. That is, a lie that can be justified on utilitarian grounds: it is morally acceptable because it does more good than harm. There are numerous moral views that do regard lying as wrong regardless of the utility. For example, Kant regards lying as wrong in and of itself. Similarly, the Ten Commandments is rather clear about lying.

In the case of Carson’s backstory, it turns out that some of his claims are not true. Assuming the above discussion yields plausible results, Carson should not be regarded as a liar merely for making untrue claims. So, the other factors need to be considered. I will begin with belief.

One important consideration is that Carson was writing or having a ghost writer write) inspirational books rather than creating a rigorous text (such as a history book). As such, it is reasonable to hold him to a lesser standard of research integrity. After all, writing an historical text requires proper research and due diligence. Recollecting events from one’s distant youth to inspire people would seem to require a lower level of diligence. As such, while Carson should have been more careful in his claims, the standard for diligence is rather lower here. As such, Carson could have been relying on his memory and if he was confident of his recollection, then he might have not bothered to confirm the details.

Human memory is quite fallible even over the short term and gets even worse as time goes on. If the details of an event are not recorded immediately, the mind starts losing bits and filling in other bits. As such, Carson could have believed that what he claimed was true. If so, he might be justly criticized for being a bit sloppy, but would certainly not be lying.

People also have a natural inclination to polish their backstories and this is often done unconsciously so that the better tale becomes accepted as the memory.  I will not defend this on the grounds that it is commonly done—that would be the fallacy of common practice. Rather, it is not note that if Carson forgot the actual facts and told the story based on his polished recollection, then he should not be singled out for special condemnation or regarded as lying in this case. To use another example, when Carson claimed that the pyramids of Egypt were built to be grain silos, he was wrong but almost certainly not lying. He seems to have really believed that.

It is also possible that Carson was well aware that he was making false claims. If so, then his intention and motivations become rather important.  If his intent was to inspire people and his motivations were laudable, then he could be regarded as engaging in a noble lie or perhaps an ethical exaggeration. He could be regarded as acting like writer of inspirational fiction: the claims are untrue, but truth is not the goal. Rather, the goal is to inspire and what matters is doing that well.  This is analogous to the situation of actors: they know they are engaged in untruths, but they are not liars because of their intentions and motivations. They are aiming at entertaining the audience through untruths rather than acting from infernal intents and malign motivations. As such, Carson could be a liar—but a noble liar. Or a teller of inspirational fictions.

If Carson’s intent and motivations were not laudable, then it becomes rather harder to morally justify the intentional untruths. If he exaggerated (or fabricated) to sell more books or from the desires of ego, then it would be reasonable to condemn these untruths as lies.

Tagged with: , ,

31 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on November 9, 2015 at 5:03 pm

    “The decor at Ben Carson’s home in Maryland shows that Donald Trump may not have the biggest ego among the Republican candidates. On display are awards, certificates, medals, and a painting of himself with Jesus…” See the photos here: Ben Carson’s house: a homage to himself – in pictures http://gu.com/p/4evqq/stw

  2. TJB said, on November 9, 2015 at 6:37 pm

    Mike, most reporters can’t get their facts straight when a story happened yesterday. You know this, don’t you?

    “Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
    In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.”

    ― Michael Crichton

    • nailheadtom said, on November 9, 2015 at 7:00 pm

      According to the always reliable “Slate”: The punishment visited on Sen. Hillary Clinton for her flagrant, hysterical, repetitive, pathological lying about her visit to Bosnia should be much heavier than it has yet been and should be exacted for much more than just the lying itself. There are two kinds of deliberate and premeditated deceit, commonly known as suggestio falsi and suppressio veri. (Neither of them is covered by the additionally lying claim of having “misspoken.”) The first involves what seems to be most obvious in the present case: the putting forward of a bogus or misleading account of events. But the second, and often the more serious, means that the liar in question has also attempted to bury or to obscure something that actually is true. Let us examine how Sen. Clinton has managed to commit both of these offenses to veracity and decency and how in doing so she has rivaled, if not indeed surpassed, the disbarred and perjured hack who is her husband and tutor. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/2008/03/the_tall_tale_of_tuzla.html

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 10, 2015 at 5:18 pm

      Does this entail that all candidates get a free pass on lies?

  3. TJB said, on November 9, 2015 at 8:10 pm

    I am not a fan of Carson’s, but I do remember that Obama wrote in his autobiography about a girlfriend that did not exist and nobody cared.

  4. Anonymous said, on November 10, 2015 at 5:46 pm

    Mike, I confirmed with a West Point grad yesterday that student positions given for West Point are called scholarships in routine conversation. Did anyone think to do the simple thing I did and ask someone who’s been to Weat Point?

    Magus

    • TJB said, on November 10, 2015 at 5:48 pm

      Of course not. All that matters is to destroy Carson. Soon there will be a white woman who will claim that Carson sexually assaulted her.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 11, 2015 at 1:39 pm

        That seems unlikely. Carson said he has tried to kill people, but I think that if he had any such skeletons in his closet they would have hit the media by now. Unless the Democrats are holding them in reserve in case he gets the nominations. You know how disciplined and well organized those sneaky Democrats are.

        • TJB said, on November 11, 2015 at 1:56 pm

          “You know how disciplined and well organized those sneaky Democrats are.”

          Maybe not in Will Rogers’ day, but they are all goose-stepping in sync now. Or at least goose-thinking.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 13, 2015 at 1:10 pm

            That really cannot be true. We have only two actual parties and it would be exceptionally unlikely that there are just two sets of beliefs. While the party leadership might have common views, there is disagreement among Democrats. Likewise for Republicans.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 11, 2015 at 1:37 pm

      Politifacts ranks Carson’s use of “scholarship” as “mostly true.” This can be legitimately taken as a point of semantics, so I would not say that Carson was wrong when he claimed that West Point offers scholarships. Strictly speaking, they don’t-but West Point ads have used that term in the past.

      • WTP said, on November 11, 2015 at 1:57 pm

        All of which was known before you chose to re-hash them here. I had a far more detailed point I made earlier containing several links back to comments I previously made on this blog which seems to have gotten lost or perhaps stuck in you spam filter, but it basically boiled down to your not answering the following question:

        “Hands up, don’t shoot” Fact or fiction, Mike?

  5. Anonymous said, on November 10, 2015 at 5:49 pm

    Why does an offer to West Point even add anything at all to Carson’s huge resume? If it doesn’t why would he lie? Again– it is called a scholarship.

    Magus

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 11, 2015 at 1:43 pm

      The offer would not add a great deal to his existing resume, but it is a claim he apparently references with pride in the books.

      But, if the only false claim that can be found is this one, then it should be taken as having little impact. As a point of fairness, who does not get a bit hazy about the past and put a little extra polish on the old backstory? So, to hit him hard on this one fuzzy bit would be unjust-unless every candidate is also hit hard in their fuzzy bits.

      • WTP said, on November 11, 2015 at 1:51 pm

        So, to hit him hard on this one fuzzy bit would be unjust-unless every candidate is also hit hard in their fuzzy bits.

        So to be fair, and we all know how important “fairness” is to you…it’s damn near a religion…when can we look forward to you emphasizing, rehashing, and blasting HRC or Bernie Sanders or any of your other leftist icons in a similar and oft repeated manor?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 13, 2015 at 1:08 pm

          I did write about HRC and her emails. So far she and Bernie are sticking to the scripts. But, please make a list of lies they have made in recent debates and I’ll look into them.

          • wtp said, on November 15, 2015 at 9:51 am

            “please make a list of lies they have made in recent debates ”

            Cute qualifier. Why limit it to what was said in debates? Also, I was speaking of attacks on their character. Of course when we DO discuss HRC lies you just laugh it off with the “all politicians lie” excuse.

            Back to the ORIGINAL POINT here, Ben Carson did not LIE about this. He got a few details wrong about something that happened 40 years ago, but his basic point was true.

            How about addressing the LIES in this Politico hit piece that you had no problem repeating? And no, your garbled response to my response to Magus’ point does not address why you repeated the WP-doesn’t-offer-scholarships BS, nor why Politico needed to edit the story several times. That piece was an attack on Carson’s character and it was created out of nothing. And you repeated it.

            Don’t you ever feel sorry for disparaging people like this?

          • WTP said, on November 15, 2015 at 8:07 pm

            Here you go, Mike. As reported by the leftist medis, AP. I could quibble with their miserable grasp of economics, but such is the case for the vast majority of you leftists. But the fact remains even the AP found lies in the debate.

            http://bigstory.ap.org/d46a75ec8e474ab5bd7bce1b8aaf0402

            Of course you will find excuses and such, being the sophist that you are. But gotta do my due diligence.

            • WTP said, on November 16, 2015 at 10:02 am

              None of which has any bearing on the fact that this paragraph that YOU wrote is full of lies and innuendo totally unbecoming of someone who professes to be an unbiased philosopher, let alone one who is paid with money taken from taxpayers to supposedly educate young people.

              In November of 2015 Politico challenged this part of Carson’s backstory, noting that there is no evidence that Carson ever applied to West Point and that there are, in fact, no scholarships for West Point (those accepted attend at no cost). Politico also questioned the claimed timeline regarding Carson’s meeting with Westmoreland. Put on the defensive, Carson conceded that he did not apply to West Point and endeavored to retroactively modify certain aspects of his backstory. As should be expected, some on the right have stepped in to defend Carson and accuse Politico of being driven by liberal bias. The minds behind American conservatism have conducted a very effective campaign against the mainstream media, thus allowing an easy appeal to media bias as an almost perfect defense. Some of the folks on the left accept this as more evidence of Carson’s duplicity.

  6. Anonymous said, on November 10, 2015 at 5:51 pm

    Why did Politico change the title to the story, after the fact ?

    Magus

    • WTP said, on November 11, 2015 at 9:40 am

      First of all, welcome back…

      They changed more than just the headline. When this Politico story broke last week, the flaws and distortions in the original posting were thoroughly fisked by various members of the conservative media. Very little attention was paid by the MSM to the obvious lies and distortions. I believe the first reaction by Politico was a stealth replacing of the headline without any editorial acknowledgement until someone called them out on the change. After some further pushback, there were further edits in regard to the lede, which was false. The cliam: “Ben Carson’s campaign on Friday admitted, in a response to an inquiry from POLITICO, that a central point in his inspirational personal story was fabricated: his application and acceptance into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.” But no where in the piece did it state where Carson made this “application and acceptance” claim. The entire piece hinges on this missing piece of information. As for the BS that West Point doesn’t offer scholarships, the advertising by West Point would beg to differ, re:

      Given Mike’s obsession lately with Dr. Carson, I had thought he would ignore this thoroughly discredited story. But no, he doubles-down by backing and rehashing the lies and distortions of the Politico piece. Such is how the hive works. Intruder! Attack!

      I think some of this tangentially ties in to what I said earlier on another post about purity of thought. The ideology must be protected at all costs.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 11, 2015 at 1:47 pm

        Hardly an attack piece. I go through an analysis of lying and seriously consider that Carson is probably not lying. That is hardly ideology protection. If I was just interested in bashing Carson, I’d just bash him and not even consider the other possibilities.

        While there is probably a certain satisfaction in just jamming all criticism into one uniform lump, it leaves out important distinctions between how I considered the matter with Carson and how it was handled by, for example, some of the actual left in the media.

        • WTP said, on November 11, 2015 at 2:13 pm

          Oh, so you were defending Carson against the lies and distortions of the Politico attack piece. Then what the hell are you guys complaining about Magus & TJ?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 11, 2015 at 1:26 pm

      Because it was untrue.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: