Is a looney lie governed by a different ethic than a sane one? Isn’t a lie always a lie, even if written by a looney writer?
This is not a new topic. I wrote a blog on Sep. 9, 2018 titled “What Does Truth Isn’t Truth Mean?” I wrote one on Sep. 11, 2019 about the “Ethics of Writing Lies.” And on Oct. 8, 2020, I wrote “Ethics of Writing Fake.” This new effort at sorting the ethics of truthful writing is prompted by the 2021 rage of so-called writers writing looney lies about corny conspiracies. The most recent condemnation comes from a highly placed politician. “Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Monday [February 2, 2021] blasted Georgia GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s embrace of ‘loony lies and conspiracy theories’ as a ‘cancer for the Republican Party.’”
While not mentioning names, Sen. McConnell said, “Somebody who’s suggested that perhaps no airplane hit the Pentagon on 9/11, that horrifying school shootings were pre-staged, and that the Clintons crashed JFK Jr.’s airplane is not living in reality,” McConnell said in a statement first shared with The Hill. “This has nothing to do with the challenges facing American families or the robust debates on substance that can strengthen our party.”
In 1907, Mark Twain reportedly said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” It took us 114 years to go from damned lies to looney ones. Overall, I’d rather we stuck with damned lies than move on to looney ones, at least from an ethics perspective.
In both cases, the ethics of lying would seem self-evident. But they aren’t. Scholars and philosophers say a lie is not always immoral. We should pause and remember that morality is the mother of ethics, while truth may be only a first cousin. Most people understand that while not condoning an unpleasant fact. Sometimes a lie is necessary to maximize benefit or minimize harm. “It may be immoral not to lie. … Altruistic or noble lies, which specifically intend to benefit someone else, can also be considered morally acceptable by utilitarians.”
“White lies” are told to be polite or to stop someone from being upset by the truth. Psychologists tell us people lie and some lie more than others. This is explained or forgiven because “most people are mostly honest most of the time. Taken together, studies seem to support the notion that while the average person is entirely honest across a typical day, the majority of people (95 percent) cannot go an entire week without telling at least one falsehood.”
So if abstractly, lying is not per se immoral and white lies are commonplace, where does that place looney lies in the hierarchy of ethics? “Looney” means crazy or silly. I suppose to be an effective politician you need to be both crazy and silly. Otherwise, how can you appease constituents and nail down votes? Most constituents tell white lies, some like loony ideas, and a large number are crazy, at least politically speaking.
But that seems more a cop-out than an ethical assessment. Ethical tests for speaking and writing in public settings do exist. Elected politicians take oaths of office. Take members of Congress. Please, take members of Congress. They all swear or affirm they will “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.”
An oath taken to “bear true faith and allegiance” means what it says—true, not lie. Allegiance, not attack. Support and defend, not tear down. Without reservation or evasion. These ethical hallmarks define the way truth is melded to public service. And the oath of office is an ethical promise as well as a practical one. So we have at least one identifiable group of people who ought, at the risk of failing their oaths, speak and write the truth.
As for corny conspiracies, that is not so straightforward. There is nothing unethical about speaking or writing about conspiracies, as long as they are true conspiracies. When you modify the term conspiracy by adding the word “theory” to it, the twist begins. A conspiracy theory explains an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy by “sinister and powerful groups, often political in motivation, when other explanations are more probable.”
What exactly does “corny” mean in the context of conspiracy theories? The word “corny” means trite, banal, or mawkishly sentimental. As in, “It sounds corny, but as soon as I saw her I knew she was the one.” But in the context of Sen. McConnell calling out another member of Congress—one who took the same oath he did—is different. The conspiracy theories he was talking about were not just corny—they are dangerous to “we the people,” the politicians we elect, and the democracy we hold dear.
The most volatile conspiracy theory facing us today is the widely disproven conspiracy theory known in low circles as QAnon. It is a conspiracy theory that alleges, “President Trump is waging a secret war against a pedophilic ring of ‘deep state’ elites linked to the Democratic Party. Less absurd but more insidious claims, for instance, that COVID-19 is a hoax, are also part of the QAnon movement.”
I know this is too deep into the woods, but here is an epistemic view from a really deep thinker.
The philosophical discussion on conspiracy theories has mainly concerned epistemic questions, but some authors have also considered the desirability of conspiracy theorizing . Creating and disseminating conspiracy theories is a mental and social activity. Thus, it is natural to ask whether it is a fair and desirable activity.
It is generally known that our attitudes toward conspiracy theories can have important consequences. The worldview common to conspiracy theorists seems to be both frightening and reassuring. On the one hand, belief in a conspiracy may lead to fear or sorrow and cause pessimism and cynicism, as conspirators are by definition seen as bad . On the other hand, the view that we live in an ordered universe in which large-scale conspiracies are common may give us hope that the world is not as absurd and chaotic as it sometimes seems. The worldview typical of conspiracy theorists promises a world that is meaningful rather than arbitrary. While the explanations of social events provided by historians and social scientists tend to refer to all kinds of accidents and unintentional side-effects of collective actions, conspiracy-based explanations refer to plans that were successfully realized.
On the lesser hand, conspiracy theories typically pit the rights of the individual against public utility in a way that sidesteps questions of the common good and transforms cooperative enquiry into a battle of self-interest between individuals.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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 Juliegrace Brufke and Scott Wong, The Hill, 02/02/2021. https://thehill.com/homenews/house/536850-mcconnell-says-taylor-greene-a-cancer-to-gop-Country?
 Juha Raikka, “On The Ethical Acceptability of Conspiracy Theories,” pp 77-86. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-04633-4_6