Volume 22, Issue 1, Spring 2008
Truth, Lies, and Deceit
On Ethics in Contemporary Public Life
On the one hand, most of us would take honesty to be a key ethical virtue. Corporations and other organizations often include it in their codes of ethics, we legislate against various forms of dishonesty, we tend to be ashamed (or at least defensive) when we are caught not telling the truth, and honesty is often regarded as a key element in relationships. Yet on the other hand, dishonesty, that is, lying and deceit, seems to be commonplace in contemporary public life even amongst those leading figures in our society whom we might otherwise take to be the exemplars of public virtue. So, is the emphasis on truth and honesty just a sham? Does the fact of our actual practice mean that truth and honesty matter only rhetorically, and, if so, does that mean that whatever it is we mean by ‘ethics,’ truth and honesty are not a part of it? What I will suggest is that truth is indeed central to ethical practice, and not only to ethical practice, but also to a properly democratic politics, and that the apparent breakdown in the commitment to truth in public life is indicative of a deeper ethical, as well as political, breakdown.