The Columns

Mahon Draws Distinction Between Lies and Exaggerations in Political Campaigns

— by on September 16th, 2008

Charging political candidates with lying is an extremely serious charge, and judging them to be telling lies rather than exaggerating requires meeting a very high standard, according to a Washington and Lee University philosophy professor who has defined lying for the Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

James E. Mahon, an associate professor of philosophy at W&L who has written extensively on lying and deception, says that two conditions are necessary for an action to meet the standard of being a lie.

First, the person who is making the statement in question must believe that exactly what is being stated is false. And second, the person must intend for the audience to believe that exactly what is being stated is true.

“That leaves some room for doing things that fall outside of lying, according to the definition that I’ve defended,” says Mahon, who has also discussed definitions of lying and deception in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

For example, a politician who makes a statement that he or she believes to be true, under Mahon’s definition, cannot be called a liar, even if it is found to be false.

“Accusing people of saying things that are false is not accusing them of lying — not yet. You also have to establish that they believe them to be false,” Mahon says.

The distinction between saying something false and lying may seem insignificant. Mahon says that’s not so.

“The accusation that somebody is lying should be made only in cases where those standards are met, because I do believe that anyone who is ever found to actually be guilty of lying to get elected in a political campaign should face incredibly serious consequences,” said Mahon. “When trust, in principle, is lost, it’s very important. If I find that you’ve lied to me, I am now in the position that I can’t trust anything you say.”

Mahon says that it’s possible to accuse politicians of being misleading, of exaggerating, or even of being deceptive, without this being as serious a charge. Moreover, he believes that speechwriters and campaign assistants who craft messages on behalf of their candidates are aware of the dangers of going beyond misleading statements to actually lying.

“I don’t know if that actually means that they have worked on a definition of lying,” he says. “They are simply concerned to avoid saying something that can come back to that candidate as being something he or she believes to be false. Their goal is to plant beliefs in people’s minds without crossing the line of having lied.”

Mahon says that the words “lying” and “liar” are normally morally loaded terms, which do not merely describe an action but evaluate that action negatively.

“This has to do with why we think that lying is wrong,” Mahon says. “Lying is essentially a kind of disrespectful action, an attempt to manipulate somebody, usually for your own end. It also means in politics that if they’re prepared to lie to get into office, then they’re prepared to lie to maintain power. It’s a very, very serious thing to find somebody guilty of having lied. You’re saying, basically, that they are an evil person. You’re saying they are manipulating their audience to get in power, and you’re implying they might do this again in office to maintain power.”

Mahon says that the public will allow politicians and government officials to tell certain lies. For instance, when national security is at stake, the public will permit lies from people who are ultimately going to tell the truth at a later time.