More than ever before the US presidential election and Brexit were fueled by lies and misinformation. Lies from politicians lies from the media and lies from everyday citizens. Candidates were smeared, and words ascribed to them that were taken out of context to paint a particular picture or words never uttered by that person in the first place were superimposed on their images to show that it was a direct quote from them. The question we need to ask here is how people who are influential and hold positions of power can justify knowingly lying or misleading those who look to them to lead? The answer may be very simple; the answer could be that they are selfish, greedy people who are working only in their own best interests with total disregard for the people that look up to them or the people that they are responsible for. This answer can easily be applied to some of those who hold positions of power and influence. But let us presume that this isn't the answer for the majority. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are trying to do the best that they can for those that their words influence. To dissect this kind of person we need to take a peek into the world of John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism.
John Stuart Mill was a 19th Century English Philosopher who was an advocate of a school of morality known as Utilitarianism. Very simply put, Utilitarianism states that the best course of action is the one that leads to the flourishing of all sentient beings. An action can only be judged by whether it’s outcome leads to a sum increase in well-being for all sentient beings decreasing suffering or the opposite. Mill states that lying is one of those actions that should be looked at in this consequentialist way. We can only judge the morality of lying by looking at the consequence. Mill does state that in the greater scheme of things lying can decrease trust, integrity, and virtue in society so it should be avoided; but he proposes exemptions to this. Mill permits lying when the act of lying stops a sum decrease in the well-being or happiness of sentient beings.
An example often used is the following, Imagine you are living in Nazi Germany and you are hiding a Jewish family in your attic. An SS officer arrives at the door and asks you if there are any Jewish people in your house. You know, based on what was going on at them time that telling the truth will probably end up in the suffering of the people in your attic and lying will stop them suffering. Mill would say in this situation, lying is the morally correct course of action. This view is in contrast to absolutist views like Kant who would say lying is wrong in any circumstance. Kant, in his Categorical Imperative, tells us to treat ourselves and all other rational beings with respect, treating someone as an end-in-themselves and not as a means to an end. According to Kant, treating someone as an end-in-themselves involves not interfering or restricting them as a free, rational chooser. Common kinds of acts that interfere with people as ends-in-themselves are: lying, stealing, brainwashing, and physically forcing people to act or not to act. Lying, stealing, coercing, etc. interfere with people’s free will and their ability to make rational choices as ends-in-themselves, they are kinds of acts that fail to treat people with respect. Therefore, they treat people merely as a means to our ends. We have a perfect duty not to treat ourselves and others simply as a means to another end. Kant would say it is always wrong to lie to the SS officer because we are taking away his right to make choices based on the facts.
Following on from Utilitarian morality, it is easy to see how our politicians and leaders can lie to us and deceive us even when they have our best interests at heart. People on the political left and people on the political right each have their own visions on what increased well-being for humans looks like. Clinton and her supporters see Trump and his vision for society as abhorrent and believe whole heartedly that his leadership will lead to an increase in unhappiness and a decrease in well-being for all. Trump and his supporters believe the same thing about Clinton and her worldview. Both sides then lie and spread misinformation because these actions they believe are morally right if it will stop the other getting into a position of power where they can implement their view on society and cause a decrease in happiness and well-being.
So what is the solution? How do we make informed decisions when everyone is lying to us and manipulating us? The first thing we need to do is look at ourselves; we need to stop lying to ourselves. Evolution has created in us many errors in thinking, more commonly known as logical fallacies. We need to learn to recognise these errors in our own thought processes and eliminate them. Only then can we rationally and logically dissect and examine opposing views and see which ones are rooted in truth and facts and which ones are not.
Shkar Sharif is the head instructor at Tiger Crane Kung Fu in London. Any other questions, ask!