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.