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Loss of Trust Born of Low Lies and High Causes

August 23, 1987|Martin E. Marty | Martin E. Marty, a professor at the University of Chicago, is senior editor of The Christian Century magazine

CHICAGO — As the Year of the Lies begins to fade, the casualties--an entire U.S. public--are busy judging the effects of deceptions. Lying goes on all the time but in 1987 people as different as Jim Bakker, Gary Hart, Joe Niekro and Lt. Col. Oliver L. North made the living of lies or the telling of falsehoods a prime-time topic.

All lying creates victims as well as problems for victims. "Don't lie!" is perhaps the first moral counsel a child receives--from parents, teachers, preachers and, they say, God. The lie breaks the pact of trust between humans. Jesus paid the power of the lie a great compliment when he called the devil "the Father of Lies." Philosophers such as Immanuel Kant focused on the lie as the basic test of all morality.

It helps us sort out the problems lying creates if we deal with two classes, both common in 1987. First are the low-grade lies told for low causes. The second are high-risk lies told for Higher Causes, words we have to capitalize. It is comparatively easy to deal with the Bakker-Hart-Niekro type of low lies. I do not want to minimize the destructive effect of them, or their Wall Street counterparts, which also make regular news. Frequent lies, celebrity lies, commonplace lies, lies by our heroes--all make it easier for us to turn cynical or casual about falsehoods and the pact of trust weakens. Yet these remain low-grade lies.

The high-risk, high-grade lies, on the other hand, are the wrenching legacy of the year, particularly from the Iran- contra hearings. They raise the most fundamental issues of security and trust. And a wise person won't trust anyone who finds it easy to resolve the issues they raise.

Fawn Hall, North's secretary, condensed the case memorably when she defended the shredding of documents, an act that covered up North's deception. Hall claimed that in a Higher Cause, "sometimes you have to go above the written law."

President Reagan himself suffered in the new climate he helped create. In the President's Aug. 12 speech after the hearings, he only said that "lies, leaks, divisions, and mistakes" had occurred. Had he lied? Who can say?

Polls reveal that 57% of the public was not convinced they had been told the truth. Yet many felt that if Reagan had deceived, it was for the Higher Cause of supporting the "freedom fighters" in Nicaragua, and maybe the President knew best.

While citizens kept fingers crossed or brows furrowed in suspicion as Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter forgot everything that looked deceptive, they were treated to open admissions of lying by North himself. As part of the "good, the bad, and the ugly," North claimed that "lying does not come easy to me but I think we all had to weigh in the balance the difference between lives and lies. It is not an easy thing to do."

North-haters and North-lovers alike, if they are serious, will likely agree with his last eight words. If "lives" represent the Higher Cause, then "lies" may save them. North's deliberately crafted line poses the Higher Cause issue in a dramatic, comprehensible way.

At two extremes, two sets of people find the issues posed by such lying an "easy thing." One set simply turns all moral questions over to idolized leaders. When leaders deceive, followers have to be confident about their heroes' judgments. They cannot worry about the destruction caused by exposure, the weakening of the pact of trust in society. The Higher Cause dominates all.

The second set is more morally serious. These are the absolutists who say, "Never lie!" Philosopher Kant poses the classic test. Your friend knocks on your door and asks you to shield him. A murderer is pursuing him and would kill him. So you take him in. The murderer then knocks and wants to know if your friend is in the house. You tell the truth, at the cost of your friend's life, because truth-telling always has to be right.

Almost all of us allow for some Higher Cause possibility, and that's where things get sticky, as they did in the Iran- contra affair. The Higher Cause that led to those lies was based on the felt need to deceive, even under oath, a Congress, though that Congress was directly responsible to us, the public. This calculation led to deception of colleagues within the same Administration, some of whom, like the President himself, had been charged by voters with still higher-level responsibilities in pursuit of noble causes.

Stickiness complicates, it does not dissolve moral seriousness. A classic argument against absolutism was the case of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian theologian who became a victim of Hitler. He knew the need to lie to the Nazis, in order to protect lives and try to bring down the regime. Imprisoned, Bonhoeffer worked on a book, "Ethics," which included these lines:

"It is only the cynic who claims 'to speak the truth' at all times and in all places to all men in the same way," but who therefore "in fact, displays nothing but a lifeless image of the truth."

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