'The Greatest Liar Has His Believers' The Social Epistemology of Political Lying
Ethics in Politics, eds. Emily Crookston, David Killoren, and Jonathan Trerise, Routledge, (2017), pp. 35-53.
28 Pages Posted: 23 Mar 2017
Date Written: March 19, 2017
The old joke goes, “How can you tell if a politician is lying? ... His lips are moving.” Many say that we are now in a “post-truth democracy” where the public “no longer expect or care” whether politicians tell the truth (Stanley 2012). But this leaves us with a puzzle about political speech. If it is true that people do not trust politicians to tell the truth, then it seems to follow that they won’t believe what politicians say and, hence, they won’t do those things the politician wants (e.g., vote for them, support their policies, donate to their campaigns). So, why do politicians bother to lie? In this chapter, we attempt to solve this puzzle by using the tools of social epistemology to explain how and why politicians lie and are often so successful at it.
Our argument in this chapter proceeds as follows: We begin by characterizing political lying as intentionally deceptive statements uttered in a political context by (or in the name of) a politician. We then present Gordon Tullock’s (1967) classical view of political lying — viz., politicians lie when they believe that the benefits of intentionally deceiving a large number of people outweigh the costs, noting some deficiencies in his account. We then consider Jason Stanley’s (2012) claim that politicians no longer intend to deceive the public and are up to something quite different when they lie. We note a number of problems with Stanley’s view of political lying and we explain how even known liars may hope to be believed and, thus, influence voters with their statements. This explanation only goes part of the way, however, in accounting for the ubiquity of political lying. Thus, in the third section of the chapter, we show how politicians are effective in deceiving the public when they target the public qua members of social groups, rather than just as individuals. Finally we conclude by briefly considering some ethical implications of our social epistemological analysis of lying.
Keywords: lying, deception, politics, political speech, social epistemology, applied epistemology
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