The battle over Obamacare has led me to think about why folks lie when the truth would presumably do. To be more specific, the debate over Obama’s health care proposal has been marked with criticisms based on what have turned out to be false claims. For example, there was the infamous death panel rumors. As another example, there was Joe Wilson‘s factually incorrect charge that Obama was lying about illegal aliens and health care. Naturally, this use of false claims is nothing new. For example, John McCain was subject to false claims about him having a black child. Other examples include the false claims about Obama being a secret Muslim and not being a natural born American citizen.
Being a philosopher, my goal is to find truth. As such, the ease with which some folks deal in lies is especially disconcerting. In fact, this sort of activity marks someone as my nemesis. As a professor, part of my job is to teach students to reason, to assess claims and to be intellectually honest. Those who create and manipulate with lies are thus my most obvious enemies since they go against all that I try to do and teach. This, of course, is not a new thing. The war between the sophists (those who taught people to sway the masses so as to achieve success by any means) and the philosophers goes back to the ancient Greeks.
Of course, the sophists did not (and do not) see themselves as villains. After all, they argued that truth (especially moral truth) was relative and that what matters is success. If good and evil have no objective basis, then it does make sense to simply aim to achieve success-defined in terms of money, fame and power (but, if there is no objective value, why prefer these things over their opposites?). Perhaps the folks who cast untruths today have the same sort of view: they are merely using a tool (false claims) to achieve success as they see it. Of course, they cannot then claim to be serving a higher good (since they do not believe in such a thing). They are simply acting in a selfish way to get what they want (or what the folks who supply them with coin want).
Of course, some folks no doubt believe that they are telling noble lies. That is, they are using untruths as tools to achieve a greater moral good. For example, the folks who attacked McCain, Obama, and Obamacare might believe that they had to tell such untruths so as to try to protect the United States from McCain, Obama and Obamacare. Of course, the obvious reply to this is that if these men and plan are so bad, then there would seem to be no need to present untrue claims to attack them. The truth should suffice. If the truth does not suffice, then it might be suspected that the men and plan are not that bad.
Then again, some folks say untrue things simply out of ignorance. These folks cannot be taken to be acting out of malice (unless they refuse to learn out of malice, thus falling into a malicious sort of ignorance). While these folks should take steps to be informed before speaking, perhaps they can be excused on the basis of being incompetent. If so, they should be taken aside and educated in the hopes they will be less foolish in the future.
To close, an obvious reason why folks lie is that it is easy and it can be effective. In terms of being easy, just making up something negative (or positive) is far easier than doing actual research. For example, reading over the health care proposals and carefully assessing their impact and consequences would be hard. Making up claims about death panels or illegal aliens is wicked easy.
In terms of being effective, untrue claims can work quite well. This is especially true in the case of people who are already afraid or angry. After all, they are already inclined to think the worst and hence easily swallow such claims. Such folks also tend to be ignorant as well. Since they do not have the actual facts, they have little defense against the untrue claims (and they also tend to lack critical thinking skills as well). For example, most folks have not read through the health reform proposals, hence when they hear that Obama plans to have death panels or pay health care costs for illegal aliens, they might well accept such false claims as true.
One of the main advantages of an untruth is that it can, unlike reality, be carefully crafted for maximum effect. After all, going after real flaws or problems requires that the flaw or problem really exists. But, a false claim can easily be made to appeal to the target audience. For example, some folks are afraid of Muslims. Inconveniently, Obama is a Christian. So, all one needs to do is just make up the false claim that he is a secret Muslim.
A false claim can also be inflated with hyperbole, giving it even more emotional impact. True claims are, by their nature, lacking in such hyperbole.
Given the effectiveness of lies, it is hardly shocking that folks who value only success or believe the ends justify the means, or wallow in ignorance are quite happy to employ them.