Kant, lies and polygraphs
If these stories sound like practical jokes to you, you’d be right. Henry and his brother had hidden a tape-recorder in the bushes with recordings of their own voices reversed and slowed down, with gaps to ask questions in followed by appropriate answers. The robed figure was Henry in costume. At one of the hoax-victim’s 21st parties his mum, in the middle of her speech, suddenly turned on Henry and said “what was all that spooky stuff, Henry? What really happened? Did you know about it?” Henry was too mortified to reply. Fifteen years later and his friends still don’t know that it was a prank.
To be called a liar in our culture is a voracious insult. But statistically all but the most scrupulously careful of us tell several lies every day. An American study showed that around 38 per cent of social encounters between college students involve some kind of deception. About 10 per cent of what we say to our partners is untrue. Yet despite its ubiquity lying is largely regarded as a moral transgression. So is it ever ok to lie?
Neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris says no. In his book Lying, Harris argues that our day to day lives can be made resoundingly better if we don’t tell lies, not even little ones. In the manner of Immanuel Kant, Harris believes the truth is always a better option than the lie. If your friend wants your opinion on their shitty band, terrible dress sense, or their unbearable mother, you should tell them, or politely decline to answer. To do otherwise is to disrespect your friend by choosing what you think is appropriate for them to believe is true. Harris says: “To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication.” The term “brutally honest” is therefore the opposite of what is actually going on when you respect someone enough to tell them the truth. So far so good. But Harris believes that even in extreme cases, even with Nazis at the door and Anne Frank in the attic, there are ways of telling the truth that are preferable to lying. This sounds psychopathic, bar, perhaps, true statements such as “I wouldn’t tell you even if I knew, and if you take another step I’ll put a bullet in your brain.” By lying, Harris argues, you shift the burden of combatting evil onto others. Hopefully few of us will ever have to face a situation like this. I found Harris’s book convincing in all but the life-or-death situations, so, with the ethics of lying bouncing round in my brain, I went to talk to Dr Lisa Ellis, from the Otago philosophy department.
Dr Ellis is a fan of Immanuel Kant and agrees mostly that avoiding telling lies is a good thing. She explains, “Kant makes it possible for you to engage with total strangers on a basis of mutual respect. Any time you encounter somebody new, if everybody is subjecting themselves to the moral law, each person can be confident that they won’t be subjected to any attacks on their dignity, that they won’t be presumed to be dishonest, that any promises made will be kept. It really is a wonderful thing for imagining a world in which you can stand up as a dignified and honourable human being without having any previous experience of everybody.” This much is difficult to argue with.
The extreme cases, however, are problematic. Dr Ellis thinks the tricky answer to avoid lying to the murderer has “a kind of cheesy feel” and upholding a moral law over your friend’s life may make you “a bit of a monster.” But she agrees, in a way, with the respect given to the murderer, as Kant’s ethical system involves treating people as ends and not means.
Dr Ellis is more lenient on white lies than Sam Harris. She says many white lies are responses to “Gricean Saids”, when there is a difference between what is said or asked and what is meant. So when you tell your partner, “You look good today, honey,” it’s not judged against some abstract criteria, it’s just a reassurance of affection. Nobody expects it to have reference to some serious truth claim.
Taking every question perfectly literally would be a social mistake. Dr Ellis explains: “It would be like picking up the wrong fork. It’s just socially insensitive. And Kant, by the way, was famously socially insensitive. He had a tin ear for social nuance. If I’m walking out that door and I ask my husband how do I look, and I really want to know according to some abstract criteria, I can use the language so he knows I’m not doing the white lie game. Fortunately he’s socially apt.”
I played a terrible solo piano gig recently. I felt like shit at the end of it. The few people watching – mostly my friends – told me it was good. They may have been lying. In this case I am glad if they were. I needed my self-esteem boosted, and they did it. Thanks, buddies.
When thinking of the ethics of lying I became interested in lie detectors such as the polygraph machine Moe gets hooked up to in The Simpsons. The polygraph is still used by police in parts of America to interrogate suspected criminals. I was surprised to find several articles on stuff.co.nz calling for an increase in use of the polygraph in New Zealand, and particularly in hiring staff. The polygraph measures the physiological reactions that supposedly occur when the person it is attached to is lying. It measures changes in sweating, breathing, and heart-rate. Advocates of the machine believe that deceptive answers to questions will produce different physiological responses in those associated with non-deceptive answers. Though much of the scientific community consider the polygraph to be pseudoscience, the National Academies of Science found in 2002 that polygraph testing can determine lying from truth telling at rates better than chance, but below perfection, in people untrained in countermeasures. But despite advocates claiming 90 per cent validity in the use of polygraphy, most members of the judicial and scientific community doubt its usefulness. The spy Aldritch Ames famously passed the CIA’s lie detector test with flying colours. Twice. Serial killer and necrophiliac Gary Ridgeway also came out of a polygraph test looking like an angel. He was later convicted of the murder of 48 women, and is suspected of having killed around 90. But you don’t have to be a psychopath to fool the machine: there are tricks that can easily be learned to “beat” the polygraph, including some nifty sphincter clenching (seriously). The National Academy of Sciences declared in 2003 that the majority of polygraph research was “unreliable, unscientific, and biased.”
I looked up polygraph operators and found one willing to talk to me. Barry Newman is an ex-policeman who runs a polygraph service in the North Island. Their motto is “confirming the truth”. For between $300 and $700 he will hook volunteers up to his polygraph machine to help them clear up personal questions concerning fidelity, theft, fraud, pre-employment, personal screening and any issue involving matters of honesty and integrity. The process takes 2-3 hours and includes an interview on personal, background information. He backs his results with “independent supporting evidence”. There are no surprises; all questions asked on a test are thoroughly reviewed with the examinee prior to any testing.
Barry is certain that his polygraph is a tool for good. He says: “I don’t initiate it – people come to me wanting to prove their innocence, or wanting others to prove their innocence. The polygraph not only identifies the deceptive but also vindicates the innocent”. He says, “Polygraphs are effective. They have a 96-98 per cent accuracy rate. “Accuracy” is a misleading term – it’s not about being truthful or deceptive, more that charts can appear inconclusive. The remaining two per cent of results are “inconclusive” which means there are not enough points to make the determination of “truthful” or “deceptive”. These “inconclusives” are not errors.”
I liked Barry a lot and was grateful that he talked to me. He is an honest man who believes he is offering a good service with his polygraph machine. But I did find his insistence that the machine was highly accurate slightly chilling. I asked about cases I’ve heard of where people claim to have “beaten” the polygraph, or have been falsely accused of lying and later shown to have been telling the truth. He replied: “If someone claims to be able to beat the test they are obviously a deceptive person, and their “cheating” actually means they will fall into this inconclusive area. If they claim to beat the test it is merely because the results were “inconclusive” and to a deceptive person, that is a victory because they were not found “deceptive”.” He assured me that nervousness has no effect on the polygraph, as it reacts to adrenaline and physiological responses to individual questions.
When I asked if he feels any ethical dilemmas in using the polygraph he replied: “I don’t know about helping the community but it helps those people as individuals. It can help them to move on, can clear up years of doubt, it can resolve family conflicts that have been festering for years. I don’t feel any ethical issue at all as the entire process is a voluntary one.”
While I’m still sceptical about the efficacy of polygraph testing, I don’t see its use as less valid than many other inaccurate ways we judge each other’s behaviour, through gossip, clairvoyance, or “bad vibes”, not to mention other forensic tools and processes. As Barry says, “Nothing is 100 per cent. The polygraph is as good as you can get. It’s statistically better than fingerprinting or witness statements.” Perhaps the thing Barry and his polygraph really offer is a “brutally honest” outsider’s opinion on a situation.
I asked Dr Ellis for her (speculative) opinions on Barry’s polygraphing. She replied: “From a pure rights perspective if people want to voluntarily be polygraphed I think they should have the right to. Just like if I want voluntarily to go and get reiki. I think one thing that he might disagree with me about is that I think moral virtues are socially inculcated. I don’t think they’re natural, or at least not wholly natural. So if you were raised in a family where deception was necessary for survival and everybody learned very young to be successful deceivers, you’d have a totally different reaction to the polygraph test than if you were raised in a family where truth-telling in a very strict sense was honoured. So I have my doubts about the connection between the infinitely nuanced, complex social practise of deception, and something so straightforwardly physical. I’m sure he’s measuring real physical things. If you pay him then you can discover what your heart-rate is, and how much you’re sweating.”
“But think of the tragic situation where the relationship’s got to the place where they want to establish themselves on a basis of truth validated by something outside like a polygraph. Putting aside all the dysfunction of that, what about the case where there is that one error? That’s Shakespearean-level tragedy. Let’s say he has half of one per cent error rate; that means if most of the cases are really strongly emotionally confected then if he has a client a day he’s got at least a tragedy a year.”
Me: But wouldn’t any judicial
system have errors?
Dr Ellis: Oh yes. For sure. Absolutely, or worse. There’s no denying that. Study after study. There are so many innocent people on death-row in the United States, for example. Eye-witness accounts are notoriously unreliable, line-ups are notoriously unreliable. There are many innocent people behind bars. And even if you discount error, the more clever criminals are the ones outside and the more hapless people are the ones who are inside. Certainly eliminating the polygraph machine is not going to
Sam Harris’s final words on lying are powerful: “Lying is, almost by definition, a refusal to cooperate with others. It condenses a lack of trust and trustworthiness into a single act. It is both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood. To lie is to recoil from relationship.” In the movie The Invention of Lying the characters inhabit a world where nobody can lie. Everything the characters think comes out of their mouths, even if it is incriminating, embarrassing, or hurtful. This is silly – you don’t have to say everything you are thinking in order to be an honest person. In fact if you did that you’d be a horrible person. I wondered whether our society needs lies to function smoothly.
I asked Dr Ellis: “Do you think
the world would be better
off without lies?”
Dr Ellis: “Oh no certainly not!”
Me: “Certainly not?”
Dr Ellis: “No! Nietzsche was right about that. No, we really need to be able to move in a social world in a sophisticated way. We’re really advanced creatures, I mean if you think of us as on a continuum with all the other creatures and there’s no serious difference in kind between our particular species and the ones that are pretty close to us, we’re still really lucky to have this complex social reality. And without lies we would lose it.”
So should we adopt Sam Harris and Immanuel Kant’s view that lying is always morally reprehensible? Or a more relaxed attitude to lying that allows for the nuances of human experiences as social animals? I like the idea of sticking closely to Harris’s blanket rule – until I’m asked a question to which the answer may offend or embarrass somebody. The awkwardness and chance of offending a friend or acquaintance can seem overwhelming in the moment it is needed, but in the long run it is better to have a policy of truthfulness for
the sake of respecting yourself and the people you care about.
I’ll finish with another ghost story. I was 17 and my boyfriend was in the process of moving into a dingy old house that he and his flatmates were joking was haunted. I decided to invent a ghost. I suppose I wanted to get the attention of my boyfriend’s cool flatmates. I went into the kitchen, screamed, and ran to my boyfriend in the other room. I told him I’d seen a ghost in a shadowy corner – just a torso floating that moved an arm and started to turn around toward me. He panicked and we drove away, he terrified, me happy that I’d pulled off a good joke.
What I hadn’t thought about was the prospect of having my ghost story told by my boyfriend over and over again during our three-year relationship. Every time he started telling it at parties I’d feel the shame of my lie grow inside me. My bogus ghost story may have contributed to any number of people’s collected evidence for believing in the paranormal. But I didn’t want to admit to having lied.
Recently I was talking to my ex-boyfriend, who was happily telling his new girlfriend about the time I saw a ghost. I decided the time had finally come to tell the truth. I said “I’ve been meaning to tell you, I made up the ghost story. I lied. I’m really sorry.” He was shocked but thought it was funny. I felt stupid but it wasn’t so bad telling the truth. The ghost of that lie has finally been laid to rest.