Should the President Ever Lie?

Recently, an interesting question was been posed here:

“Is it ever justified for a President to lie? If so, when?”

The question is deceptively simple. However, it is complex and depends heavily on what one means by “justified” or “to lie.”

The American Heritage Dictionary defines a lie as “a false statement deliberately presented as being true; a falsehood.” Webster similarly defines a to lie as “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive.” These are both consistent with St Augustine’s definition of a lie as a “false statement uttered with intent to deceive.”

However, these definitions are too narrow. They depend on a lie as being a false statement. It is possible to make technically true statements that taken together are used to convey a false impression, to make the listener have a false belief or understanding. The technical truth of a statement is not a sufficient defense against the charge of lying. Indeed, the statement need not have been uttered at all. It is possible to mislead someone with a wink, a nod or even a carefully selected silence.

Webster’s second definition of a lie is broader and better, “Something meant to deceive or give a wrong impression.” For our purposes here let us posit five necessary components of a lie:

  1. The act involves communication, whether written, oral, or by some other act.
  2. The act is a serious one, not simply a joke or part of a game.
  3. The person acting intends the communication to be taken as the truth, while knowing it is false.
  4. The person is not acting under duress.
  5. The recipient of the information has a right to the truth.

Most would probably have little problem with accepting the first three components as being necessary for an act to be considered a lie. The fourth condition is meant to excuse the situation where a person has a gun to one’s head and is forced to utter false statements. For an act to be morally judged, the person must be acting freely. It could probably be argued that in such a situation there is no intent to deceive so there is no lie, but I want to make this exception explicit.

The final condition is a little more problematic. There are situations when silence is not sufficient to protect a trust and making a false statement is necessary to protect it. For example, John comes to his friend Joe and discusses medical problems in confidence. A third person, James, later comes to Joe and says, John is acting strangely and inquires as to whether John is having medical problems. James really has no right to the information. If Joe indicates that he is not free to speak about the issue, he will convey to James the impression that his initial guess is true. This is a situation where Joe’s silence is not sufficient to protect a trust. If Joe makes the false statement that he knows nothing of such problems, in this case, he protects a trust with John, without really breaking his trust to James. James had no right to the information to begin with.

What then about a president? A president has a broad moral trust with the public. In meeting this trust, his obligation is to act in the public interest and not necessarily in his own personal interests. Given the definitions of a lie given above, I can see no situations where a lie is justified. For most matters that involve national security, silence would seem to be sufficient most of the time.

However, it is possible to imagine in a national emergency where a president might release false information for the purpose of deceiving an enemy and indirectly also deceive Americans. Such an act would not be a lie because there is no intent to deceive anyone with a legitimate right to the information. It would be acting in fidelity to another higher trust. Ultimately, the truth would come out and it would be up to the people to decide if their trust had been violated.

The answer to the originally posited question is no. There is no reason for a president to lie, if the concept of a lie is properly understood

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.