Friday, September 28, 2018


I've see a few Christians object to Kavanaugh's confirmation, not because they think his youthful indiscretions are disqualifying, but because he lied about them. I'm discussing this because it raises some general ethical issues over and above the Kavanaugh psychodrama. 

A terminological clarification before I proceed. I use "disqualifying" as shorthand for conduct deemed to disqualify someone from certain types of employment. Although "youthful indiscretion" is sometimes a euphemism, I'm using it, not in a minimizing sense, but to classify misbehavior that's not deemed to be serious enough to be disqualifying. Misbehavior that's disqualifying is more serious than a youthful indiscretion. 

For people who take the aforesaid position, I have the following question: 

If a youthful indiscretion isn't disqualifying, why is lying about a youthful indiscretion disqualifying? 

Let's consider some possibilities:

1. Perhaps they think lying is intrinsically wrong. Therefore, while the youthful indiscretion is insufficient to be disqualifying, lying in itself is disqualifying. 

i) On that view, even if the individual committed no youthful indiscretions whatsoever, lying would preemptively disqualify him from further consideration.

ii) Although I don't have any scientific stats at my fingertips, it's my impression that most people lie some of the time. If lying is permanently disqualifying, that would result in massive unemployment. Or is it only disqualifying for certain kinds of jobs? If so, what kinds of jobs? 

2. Perhaps they think that while the youthful indiscretion is insufficiently disqualifying in its own right, and lying is insufficiently disqualifying in its own right, the combination crosses a threshold. 

3. Does lying automatically mean a person is dishonest? Some people are habitual liars. Other people are truthful if you don't threaten their family or livelihood. Many people will lie in predictable situations. Whether lying is always wrong is different from whether lying makes the liar generally dishonest or untrustworthy. Those are separate issues.

Sometimes people can get into trouble for doing the right thing. Suppose I know that someone won't cover for me if I'm at risk of getting into trouble for doing the right thing? Paradoxically, his honestly would make him untrustworthy in that situation. I know he won't lie to protect me, even though I did nothing wrong. 

Once again, that doesn't settle the question of whether lying is ever morally permissible (or even obligatory). But it does complicate the issue of what make someone a friend you can rely on in pinch. If they're so honest that they'd expose you to harm for doing the right thing, are they friendship material?

4. Suppose a person is questioned under oath as part of a background check. Supposed they're asked if they ever engaged in sexting. Suppose they did engage in sexting when they were a teenager, but they outgrew that. But the question poses a dilemma:

i) If, on the one hand, they lie, that might be a crime. If, on the other hand, they tell the truth, that might be confessing to a crime. On the one hand they risk perjury while on the other hand they risk self-incrimination.

ii) Suppose it wasn't a crime. Even so, that's asking them to divulge embarrassing information that could still be used against them. And it may be completely irrelevant to the job they're seeking. 

Why should they be required to answer unfair questions on pain of perjury? Why should they be punished for lying in response to a question that the investigator had no right to ask in the first place? Why should they be disqualified for lying when the question is unfair and harmful to them, while there's nothing in their past conduct that will be harmful to others in the future? 

Even–or especially–if you think lying is intrinsically wrong, then entrapment is wrong. Pushing someone to the limit, then blaming them for the situation you put them in. They wouldn't do that if you didn't corner them. If you induce them to lie, who's at fault? They wouldn't lie if you didn't ask them unfair, damaging questions.

I'm not talking about someone who already did something gravely wrong, and you're questioning them to find out more. Rather, I'm talking about a scenario in which the interrogation itself is threatening to the respondent, quite apart from past behavior. 


  1. Replies
    1. Well, one allegation I've seen is that he lowballed how much he drank in high school and college. My post doesn't require us to assent to that claim. Even if we grant that claim for discussion purposes, my argument still goes through.

  2. Flynn was charged with lying to the FBI, and not charged with anything else.

    Papadopoulos was charged with lying to the FBI, and not charged with anything else.

    Talking to the FBI creates crime.

  3. Speaking of the FBI, Uncle Joe Biden said it best: "The FBI explicitly does not, in this case or any other case, reach a conclusion, period!" Biden's one minute speech is worth watching.

  4. Interesting. This speaks to the issues I've been thinking through.