The Bodyguard of Lies


Review of Why Leaders Lie, by John Mearsheimer

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013

Ever wonder how the tank got its name? During World War I Britain secretly developed this machine. Hoping to conceal this development British leaders said it was a water tank to bring water to the front lines. The real name for the machine was a “landship.” In addition, as part of concealing the real destination--the Western Front--each tank bore the legend “With care to Petrograd” in Russian letters. Sir Henry Wotton , a seventeenth-century British diplomat, said an ambassador is “an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” In March 2003, Secretary Rumsfeld said that we knew Saddam had WMD because “we know where they are.”

This, quite short, very readable book is filled with many amazing, and to many of us I suspect unknown, cases of lies told by leaders of states to other states and to their domestic audience. There is much in this book to learn even if the author was surprised by the fact that “there is actually not much lying between states.” One of his tasks is to provide an analytic framework to explain this, and other, factual claims about lying in international politics.

Mearsheimer is a distinguished political scientist who has written a number of influential books including The Tragedy of Great Power Politics and The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. After a brief discussion of how to define lying--to which I shall return--he classifies lies into seven types--inter-state, fearmongering, strategic cover-ups, national myth-making, liberal lies, social imperialism, and ignoble cover-ups. A chapter is devoted to each of these lies explaining in more detail the nature of the lie, its intended audience, its motivations, and what outcomes are expected. In all cases the leaders who tell the lies do so because they think it is in the national interest to do so. There may be international lies which are done for selfish, or personal, reasons but Mearsheimer does not think there are many of these, and he explicitly excludes them from the scope of his explanatory theory.

My concern is with lies that leaders tell for the good of the collectivity, not for selfish purposes. Thus, when I use the term international lying, I am talking about strategic lies, not selfish lies. (11)

He concentrates on four issues about international lies: The classification of types of lies;the motives for the different types of lies; the circumstances that make each type more or less likely; and the potential costs of lying

About each of these topics he has interesting things to say. He provides us with hypotheses, gives enough historical evidence to make it plausible to test these--as opposed to other--hypotheses. And he leaves it to other scholars to test these hypotheses with more and better data.

Some of his hypotheses are the following. Leaders usually lie because they believe lying promotes the national interest--not for selfish or corrupt reasons. The most dangerous kinds of international lies are those that leaders tell their own citizens. Leaders of democratic states are more likely to lie to their citizens about controversial policies then undemocratic leaders. This last finding is interesting because, unlike many social science results, it is surprising.

Either out of naivety or cynicism I would have guessed the opposite. Mearsheimer gives a number of reasons why this finding might be true. Democratic leaders must pay more attention to public opinion because they have to win elections. They are more likely to lie to cover-up a controversial policy because they are more exposed to questioning of their actions. There is a norm that leaders should provide information for thinking about policies. This makes it harder to hide the downsides of controversial policy without lying. 

Mearsheimer says early on, “Lest I be misunderstood, I am not saying that lying is a great virtue and that more international lying is better than less. I am merely saying that lying is sometimes a useful instrument of statecraft in a dangerous world.” (12)

So far, so good. Or perhaps, better, so far, no “good.” What about the ethics of lying? What about condemning leaders who lie? Does the end justify the means? If the end is the “national interest” what is that and should we always promote it? Is the ability to lie a virtue for a leader? If the state is an evil one, is promotion of its statecraft a good thing?

To quote another person associated with the University of Chicago--Philip Roth, “Now vee may perhaps to begin.”

Mearsheimer recognizes that to determine how much lying states engage in it is necessary to define lying. If, for example, we counted all forms of deception as lies there would be a lot more than if we insisted upon a statement being made. 

Here is Mearsheimer’ definition. “Lying is when a person makes a statement that he knows or suspects to be false in the hopes that others will think it is true. ”(16) I think this is quite close to the definition that most ordinary people would give if we think that “in the hopes” is roughly equivalent to “intends.” But, as one might guess, each and every part of it has been challenged as either unclear or not necessary by philosophers who work on the definition of lying. 

Making a statement? Was there lying involved Operation Mincemeat, the scheme by the British to deceive the Nazis about the Normandy invasion, by planting a dead body with a fake letter in his pocket, off the coast of Spain. Planting a statement is not making one.

Knows or suspects to be false? Suppose I assure you that P, where I don’t have the slightest idea whether it is true or false? Lying or bullshit?

Hopes (intends) that others will think it is true? Remember Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf , the spokesman of Saddam, who said at a press conference, “There are no American troops in Baghdad” while American tanks rumbled past the room.

For Mearsheimer’s purposes--counting international lies and providing a theoretical framework for understanding when and why they are likely to be produced--his definition is fine. But if we were engaged in the normative issue of when such lies are justified, or even obligatory, matters become more complicated.

What does Mearsheimer have to say about the morality or lying? After defining utilitarianism as the view that “lying sometimes makes sense, because it serves a useful purpose” in contrast to the “absolutist” who thinks lying never makes sense, i.e., is never justified, he goes to to state his view.

I look at international lying from a strictly utilitarian perspective, mainly because there are compelling reasons that justify it and, not surprisingly, we find a considerable amount of it in the historical literature. Many people seem to believe that there are circumstances in world politics where it pays to lie. This is not to deny, however, the importance of examining the moral dimensions of this phenomenon. Nevertheless, that task involves a different set of calculations and considerations, which lie beyond the scope of this book. (11)

I find the first sentence very obscure. Does he mean that there are compelling reasons to justify the utilitarian perspective? Does he mean there are compelling reasons to justify looking at lying from that perspective? What is the “it” that we find a considerable amount of in the historical literature? International lying? A strictly utilitarian perspective? Looking at lying from a strictly utilitarian perspective?

Matters are not helped by the fact that he is making a distinction between utilitarianism and the moral dimension of lying. The latter is beyond the scope of his book. But utilitarianism is almost always thought of as a particular type of moral theory. I think I understand what is going on here. For Mearsheimer, utilitarianism is just a way of thinking about things in terms of whether they produce certain useful results for the liar, or those whose interests he is promoting.

But what does he mean when he says lying makes good sense? Here are some examples. occasionally makes good sense for leaders to lie to their own people,... President Kennedy was right to lie to the American people about the deal he cut with the Soviets.... [T]hat lie helped...avert a possible war between the nuclear superpowers. (66-67)

it made good sense for NATO policymakers to tell the Soviets that the alliance would use its nuclear weapons to defend Western Europe, even if they thought that was a crazy idea. (37)

If he only used “makes good sense” as a way of saying “produces useful results” this would be fine. But in the first quote he says Kennedy was “right” to lie. This sounds like a moral claim; the ones he was going to avoid.

I think it is fairest to Mearsheimer to think of making (good) sense as always meaning making good strategic sentence, i.e., likely to lead to benefits for the nation they lead. This is how he uses it in an NPR interview.

SIMON: And is it always wrong for leaders to lie?

Prof. MEARSHEIMER: No. It sometimes - I'm sad to say - makes good strategic sense for leaders to lie not only to other countries but even their own people. The fact is that strategic lying is a useful tool of statecraft.

So, if we were thinking about personal lies, lies told by non-state actors to non-state actors, then a Mearsheimerian might say: Look lots of people think that there are circumstances in which it makes good sense for people to lie. It leads to benefits for the liar. There are lots of cases of people lying to others. I am going to look at personal lying from this point of view -- call it utilitarianism-- as whether it has benefits for the person lying. I don’t deny that it is important to examine the moral dimensions of lying. But that is beyond the scope of my book.

In either case --international or personal lying -- one has to have a definition of lying. The definition should make it possible to determine how often lying occurs, how often it has the benefits thought to accrue, what are the costs of lying, and so forth.

But it may be that useful definition for descriptive purposes distorts things when it comes to the moral dimensions of lying. The selection of the initial definition may rule out, or make more difficult to understand, what makes a lie wrong, when it is wrong. Or so I shall argue.

Mearsheimer’s definition of a lie--making a knowingly false statement in the hopes others will think it true--makes the hope/intention of the liar to bring about a certain consequence in the mind of the hearer--a false belief--an essential component of a lie. So any explanation of the wrongness of the lie will have to rely exclusively on that intent to bring about a certain consequence of the lie. The wrongness of the intent is a function of the badness of what it tries to bring about--false belief. Why is false belief bad? Because we need true beliefs to promote our welfare and avoid harms. This is the explanation given by utilitarianism considered as a moral theory.

Now this theory may, in fact, be the correct explanation of the wrongness of lying. If so, the definition plays a proper role. But, if an alternative explanation is correct, one which gives no, or much less weight, to the intent to deceive, then the definition will have ruled out examination of an alternative explanation.

What might be such an alternative explanation? One which argues that lying is wrong independently of whether the lie is intended to change the content of the hearer’s mind. It is wrong because the speaker is inviting the listener to take the speaker as presenting the content of the speaker’s mind. He is being truthful. He is authorizing the listener to take his statement as an expression of his beliefs; not necessarily their truth-value. In fact, this authorization still holds even if, by some chance, what the speaker believes false turns out to be true.

It is because of the importance of being truthful to the discovery of what goes on in the minds of other people that we value honesty as a virtue. And because of the importance of this access to the minds of others for prudential as well as moral reasoning, we regard the turning of our main channel for access to the minds of others into one for concealing such access as deserving very strong condemnation. Not, perhaps, the absolutist condemnation of a Kant, but something closer to it than we are initially inclined to think warranted. Such a theory is presented in an important new book by Seanna Shiffrin, Speech Matters.

I present this alternative theory, not because I want to argue that it is correct, but as an example of the way in which definitional issues are tied to normative ones. Mearsheimer’s definition--which is not intended for moral purposes--may be fine for his empirical investigations. But it might be the wrong one for using in the search for justifications and condemnations of international lies. The empirical truths about international lies and the moral truths may have an overlapping, but not common, subject matter. 

Posted on 6 April 2016

GERALD DWORKIN is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of California, Davis. In 2016-17 he will be the Brady Distinguished Visiting Professor of Ethics and Civic Life at Northwestern University.