By Crispin Sartwell
The last refuge
of scoundrels is their own minds.
Let us consider questions raised by two of our current scandals. First,
did George Bush or Dick Cheney lie about Iraq's weapons programs in order to
bring us to the point of war? Did Tom DeLay oppose limits on internet gambling
because of gifts from gambling interests?
The answers to these inquiries appear to turn on the beliefs and desires
of the people in question. To lie is to know that some claim is false and then
to assert it anyway. To be bribed is to take a certain action because one has
been paid to take it - it entails that money constituted one's motive.
Let us suppose that telepathy is impossible. In that event, the only
decisive witness on the question of whether you have lied or accepted a bribe
is you. When people are accused of these trespasses they typically react with
outrage, much as Cheney and DeLay have done, and without the power to read
their minds, we're not going to be able to see whether this outrage is feigned.
The idea that culpability rests ultimately inside people's heads seems
irresistible. Intention, for example, is the difference between murder and not
murder. But the idea also has deeply paradoxical consequences.
Lying requires that I believe that what I am saying is false. So if I
could convince myself that it's true, or even merely confuse myself about
whether it is true or not, I wouldn't be lying. That is, evaluating actions by
intentions rewards self-deception.
That is the function of
things like extremely poor intelligence, in every sense of the term. It may be
that only an idiot would believe the testimony of the Iraqi dissident
code-named "Curveball" to the effect that Saddam had mobile
biological weapons labs. But if you are that idiot, then you're not a liar when
you use this testimony to justify an expenditure of lives. You are exactly as
decent and honest as you are stupid.
It is a truism that a quid pro quo is impossible to prove. Tom DeLay has
built a career on this fact. If he can convince himself that he's not making
direct exchanges - that he'd do the same anyway, or that he's been convinced by
the arguments - then he can in perfect innocence keep the cash flowing like
one can come to believe something just by wanting to believe it. But you can
cultivate evidence on one side and ignore evidence on the other. You can listen
to people who say what you want them to say and ignore or bludgeon people who
disagree. Once you cultivate such a technique, you have opened a path to
Here is one important lesson of such observations: Virtues that concern
human action presuppose virtues that concern human beliefs. You cannot be a
decent person without a capacity for withering self-reflection, and the
necessity for such virtues increases with the power you have over other
Most of us are skilled at exonerating ourselves, at believing anything
that props up our self-image in the face of the evidence. You believe your own
excuses, or you re-describe your actions: you were drunk, it was silly, you
didn't want it to turn out that way, you couldn't help it, you meant it in a
good way. For the most part such things affect only a few people and are
relatively harmless ways of preserving one's self-image.
But when your decisions affect everybody, average self-deception becomes
the destruction of actual people.
do not examine with an especially critical eye evidence that favors your own
position, if you do not train especial suspicion on your own beliefs and
actions when they enrich, flatter, or excuse you, you've got no business
running the country.
Indeed, in comparison with someone who cultivates the art of
self-deception, an outright liar is straightforward and relatively innocent.
So let's stop asking whether Cheney or DeLay are lying and start
electing people who display some rudimentary capacity for self-reflection.