Monday, December 05, 2016

The paradox of lying

In On what matters. Volume One, pp. 277-78 Derek Parfit writes:

‘[According to Kant] “It is wrong to act on any maxim of which it is true that, if everyone accepted and acted on this maxim, or everyone believed that if it was permissible to act upon it, that would make it impossible for everyone successfully to act upon it.”
Turn next to lying. Herman writes that [Kant’s statement] “seems adequate for maxims of deception ... Universal deception would be held by Kant to make speech and thus deception impossible.”
Korsgaard similarly writes “lies are usually efficacious in achieving their purposes because they deceive, but if they were universally practiced they would not deceive ...” ’,

so Parfit, and he continues:
‘But no one acts on the maxim “Always lie”. Many liars act on the maxim “Lie when that would benefit me”.’

So far so good. It’s not only true for liars but for all deceivers like corrupt people, people who give themselves bonuses which they don’t deserve, and so on: If everyone benefits at the cost of others, no one benefits. Then you can better stop deceiving, for everybody would be better off if no one deceives. However, if only some deceive, the deceivers are better off and the victims are the losers, even when they don’t notice it.
But here we have a problem that looks like the liar’s paradox: “All Cretans are liars, said Epimenides, himself a Cretan”. For if everybody lies, it’s almost sure that everybody knows it. Then we’ll give what someone says the opposite meaning of what it actually means. But then the opposite meaning becomes the factual meaning of the words. However, it remains possible that everybody is basically a liar but doesn’t lie always but most of the time. It would living together make quite complicated, if not impossible.
What when only some people lie (at least sometimes they do) or only some people are corrupt (sometimes)? Then lying or being corrupt can be effective. But how far does it go? Take the case of corruption. If in a society nobody is corrupt with the exception of only a few, these few are better off and as a whole this society flourishes, as practice shows. But to the extent that corruption grows, a society becomes worse off (in the sense that most people it in are worse off), and in a very corrupt society, everybody suffers, with the exception of some “happy few”, and the society tends to fall apart or to be ruled by the “happy few” who are the most efficacious in their corrupt practices. But where are the limits that divide societies that are well off because there is only little corruption from societies that are rather well off, because corruption is present but not disturbing, and these from societies that are undermined by corruption? It’s like the Sorites’ paradox: How many grains of sand make a heap? Or how many grains of sand must we remove from a heap of sand till it is no longer a heap?
Parfit tells us that ‘no one acts on the maxim “Always lie”. Many liars act on the maxim “Lie when that would benefit me”.’ That’s a philosophical answer but practice shows that deceiving like corruption can become endemic in a society. Then in the end nobody will profit by deceiving (I am convinced that also the “winners” of deceiving would be better off if they would stop deceiving). Nevertheless everybody continues, for who stops first will lose anyway.

Find here be way of illustration the Corruption Perceptions Index 2015 by Transparency International:
Reference: Derek Parfit, On what matters. Volume One. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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