Friday, April 17, 2015

Reasonable expectations

I'm going to discuss an aspect of deception that I haven't seen discussed in the literature on Christian ethics. Of course, it's quite possible that that's been discussed before, and I just missed it.

i) Deception involves two parties. It often involves the deceiver and the deceived.

There is, however, the phenomenon of self-deception. People can be deceived even when there was no intention to deceive. They misperceive, misremember, or misinterpret what they saw, hear, or read. 

ii) In American law, there's the "reasonable expectation of privacy." That's based on fourth amendment protections. It involves a distinction between public and private space, or public and private communications. For instance, there's a reasonable expectation of privacy in your home, but not in a public park.

Likewise, it's illegal for the police to intercept email, text messages, or cellphone conversations without a warrant. On the other hand, a public or private employee using a gov't computer or company computer doesn't enjoy the same expectation of privacy. 

I'm not a lawyer, so I merely mention this to illustrate a principle. 

iii) This principle has an analogue in the ethics of deception. Is the onus on the speaker or the listener? That depends, in part, on whether there's a reasonable expectation that the speaker's statements will be truthful. Let's take a few examples:

a) TSA agents who ask passengers if they are smuggling a bomb onboard in their luggage. But if a terrorist did have a bomb in his luggage, he'd deny it. 

b) During the Cold War, American employees often had to take loyalty oaths. If, however, you were a KGB spy, you would have no hesitation about taking the oath to maintain your cover.

c) Some jobs involve a security clearance or criminal background check. As such, the application will ask prying questions. But surely there's no presumption that an applicant will truthfully answer self-incriminating questions. 

Now I'm not assessing the moral issue of what you should say in those situations. Right now I'm discussing a separate issue.

Is there a reasonable expectation that if you put people in those situations, they will give honest answers? Clearly not. You'd have to be gullible to believe their answers.

That doesn't mean all or most of them will lie. Rather, only those who have something to hide, something to lose by telling the truth, will be motivated to lie. The point, though, is that the questions themselves fail to sort out who's who. 

There's no presumption that people will give credible answers to questions like that. Indeed, the very people whom the questions are intended to root out will give false or evasive answers. 

To that extent, if you are deceived, that's because you allowed yourself to be deceived. Your credulity left you wide open to deception. It's not so much the deceiver who deceived you, but your willingness to be duped. 

It is foolish to ask certain questions in the first place. Questions like that are not a reliable way to gain information. 

iv) In addition to these special situations, there's no general expectation that you will never be lied to. In a fallen world, some people are chronic liars. Likewise, I suspect most people lie some of the time. Therefore, you have to be on your guard.

This includes high-minded Christians who think it's always wrong to lie. And they take that position as a matter of principle. Some of them have never lied, never will, and never would.

There are, however, some Christians who sincerely take that position, they genuinely mean it at the time they say it, but they only maintain that position because they never found themselves in a situation where the stakes were high enough to reconsider their position. It was something they believed in the abstract. 

Again, my immediate point is not to assess whether this is right or wrong, but whether there's a reasonable expectation that you won't be lied to. You'd have to be naive to think that when you put people to the test, in situations that generate moral dilemmas involving the welfare of loved ones, that you will get truthful answers if those answers conflict with the best interests of their loved ones.

If you take their answers at face value, you were deceived, not so much because they tried to deceive you, but because you had an unreasonable expectation. There's an onus on you not to play the chump. 

v) On a related issue, the ethics of deception is typically framed in terms of the deceiver wronging the deceived. But sometimes it's the deceived, or self-deceived, who wrong the deceiver. By that I mean, it can be wrong to ask questions that put people on the spot. That force them into a moral dilemma. Where there is no good answer.

By "moral dilemma," I don't mean a choice between two wrong actions, but a choice between conflicting prima facie duties. 

a) For instance, suppose a married couple attended the same high school at the same time. Knew all the same classmates.

Suppose the wife asks her husband who he thinks was the prettiest girl in school. Or asks him what he thought of this or that female classmate.

If he gives an honest answer, it may make her resentful or jealous. So don't ask questions like that if you don't want to hear the answer. Don't pose a question where you will resent any reply, whether it's a truthful answer or a diplomatic lie. That's unfair to the respondent. You're putting the respondent in an awkward position where anything he says may get him into trouble through no fault of his own. 

b) I once lived in a house where the next-door-neighbor had a barking dog. A dog that would bark day and night. Finally, another neighbor called animal control. The dog was removed. The neighbor was fined.

Well, the dog-owner went around the neighborhood, knocking on doors, asking who reported the dog. It's a stupid question, since obviously the person who called the animal cops is unlikely to fess up. She had no right to ask that question in the first place.

The neighbor who called animal control was within his (or her) rights to do so. It's not incumbent on the neighbor to defend his actions in that regard. He doesn't owe the irresponsible dog-owner an explanation or justification.

And since he doesn't want the dog-owner to make trouble for him or his family, it's unlikely that he will admit to doing it. When you ask a question like that, under those circumstances,  it's an invitation to be lied to. 

vi) The upshot is that when we evaluate the ethics of deception, we need to take into account whether there's a reasonable expectation that you won't be lied to (or the equivalent). The moral onus isn't invariably and primarily on the would-be deceiver, but sometimes on the would-be deceived. 

Of course, these distinctions are irrelevant to deontologists who think deception is intrinsically evil, but that's not the audience for this post. I'm not attempting to persuade them. 


  1. Interesting discussion. It brings to mind a few things:

    1. The Law of Moses included sacrifices for sins that the people didn't know they committed. While it can be said that this demonstrates a disconnect between sin and intent, I would disagree. We simply lack the introspection to be aware of all of our motives. I don't know if this would be considered self-deception or not. There's a point at which too much introspection is simply not healthy. Better to recognize that total depravity is a true principle.

    2. Police interrogators ask questions with the expectation that they will be lied to so that they can look for clues of how someone lies. So there's a pattern where lies are expected for the purpose of learning someone's "tell".

    3. Negotiators similarly go through the motions of asking questions simply because the questions are expected although the answers will be stock affirmations (or not, such as the case may be). We do this when we install software and are asked if we read the legal agreement, which is lengthy and written in legalese. No one is expected to actually read this or actually understand the implications of all the verbiage. But if you want the software, you have to assent to handing over the legal advantage to the company that produced the software in the event that you inadvertently (or intentionally) misuse the software in some way that the company understands to be a legal or financial liability to them. No one is fooled. No one actually reads these things. It's simply a legal formality to say you did. So it's not really a deception on the behalf of the user.

    4. In the same vein as item 3, I would argue that some of that legalese is an intent to deceive. For example, there is often some caveat in the legal agreement or privacy policy that your personal information will not be used except by the company "and the company's partners". Those "partners" or "third parties" are often the bridge to spammers. They won't tell you that, but such things are intentionally obfuscated by arcane legal and corporate technical jargon. It's also why people often distrust individuals with a natural above-average vocabulary: "I don't understand what you are saying, so I suspect that you are trying to trick me, like those blood-sucking lawyers."