28. The Noble Lie [QP]

“A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” – Vladimir Lenin

Researchers have found that within an ordinary ten minute conversation people will tell three lies. Naturally, the subject matter concerned is some petty deception about a job opportunity or some book that someone may have read, but the lies that concern us are those that rob us of the truth that we think we are entitled to; in short, lies told by politicians. In the Republic, Plato muses that there needs to be some political measure to keep the three social strata of the city in line. Successful social stratification may have to be built on a lie. In the Republic, it is a fictional tale that the guardians of the city recount to the citizens:

While all of you, in the city, are brothers, we will say in our tale, yet god, in fashioning those of you who are fitted to hold rule, mingled gold in their generation, for which reason they are the most precious — but in the helpers, silver, and iron and brass in the farmers and other craftsmen. – Plato, Republic Book III.

It is no unfamiliar concept. In fact, a contemporary observer would suggest that politicians are constantly deceiving others for their own personal gain or for the supposed ‘greater good’. If you are of the deontological mindset, you would believe that lying can never be sanctioned under any circumstances whatsoever. Conversely, as a utilitarian, you would believe that such lies, however unscrupulous and expedient, may necessarily be in the world’s best interest. These two normative ethical theories, equally valid, both seem to be giving a different answer to the same question: Can lies be noble?

One might go so far as to suggest that all religions hitherto have been noble lies. This statement appears to be a disparaging remark about religion, but really it is exalting religions. Thinkers such as Nietzsche and Freud were of the belief that men were by nature quite violent and aggressive, and thus, these religions posit themselves as regulative measures to attenuate these animalistic instincts in humans. They may not be verifiably and unequivocally true, but in the state of nature, unreliable and unforgiving, propping up values such as charity and goodness, may have been what was needed to preclude our violent tendencies. The pious fictions we encounter in the Bible for instance, can be inspired by altruistic concerns for mankind.

The lies we tell our children might be considered noble. We wish to spare them from the brutality, envy and rage of the world and it is justifiable to delay their loss of innocence. The German philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his beautiful yet cryptic work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, states:

6.54 My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)
He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright. – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Telling children to be ambitious and caring, in an overly competitive and indifferent world, may be more justifiable than ruining relatively harmless illusions that they may have about the world.

In summation, Plato’s Noble Lie, although certainly wrought with serious political implications, is hardly a foreign concept to us. People seem to forget that deception is not dismissive and careless; it often arises out of too much concern for how we want the world to be and how we might want people to feel. That is not to say that politicians are the ultimate moral compass, but it does help us understand the precarious nature of international relations and how important tact is, especially in these tumultuous times.

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