Society

When Politicians Lie - A Philosopher Deconstructs The Latest French Scandal

Rhetorical outrage and new codes of ethics have followed revelations that France's Budget Minister had a secret Swiss bank account. But there may be other, more subtle lessons to learn.

Protesting the lies
Protesting the lies
Roger Pol-Droit

PARIS - Let's leave aside the public shock and all the talk of political earthquakes and outrage stemming from the case of Jerome Cahuzac, the now former French Budget Minister who finally admitted last week -- after four months of vehement denials -- that he'd stashed money in Swiss bank accounts.

How the whole affair looks to me, as a philosopher, is that at the very heart of the affair, two antique notions majestically preside, a huge Janus-like statue of “Truth” and “Lies,” surrounded by all the accompanying moral judgments of rigor, the glorifying of honesty and vilification of all of that which deceives.

Of course, no one can deny the situation is grave, that the discredit cast upon the political class is deep and troublesome. Still, we should not slide into simplification. The republican ethic does indeed need some magic potion, but imparting moralizing lessons is obviously not the solution. Moreover, the whole affair, from the lie, stubbornly maintained, to the final confession, under the pressure of facts, may actually be edifying and pedagogic. Point by point, the most classic definitions are indeed illustrated.

Truth? “Adaequatio rei et intellectus”, in Thomas Aquinas' words, namely: adjustment, proper correspondence between what is and what one thinks. In this sense, only the sentence “I do have a bank account abroad,” from Cahuzac's mouth could have been the truth. Instead, an illusion, an entirely contrary assertion, a lie. The latter is the exact inverse of the definition of Truth, given by Thomas Aquina's Summa Theologica: “He lies, the one who thinks something in his soul and tells another thing by words or signs.”

Whatever the circumstances, such contradiction between what the mouth says and what the soul knows constitutes a major sin, according to the theologian. The lie mocks the speech, soils the possibility of even speaking truly. Lying is therefore betraying -- but not only of those whom the speech is addressed to, adds German philosopher Immanuel Kant. One becomes a traitor to oneself, and by extension to all of speaking humanity, as only the truthfulness of speech can become universal truth.

This Kantian position suggests an impossibility of a “right to lie” altogether, even in situations where it may appear as a moral duty. Then again, here is a basic lesson recalled by this affair of state. But there are others.

There is also the confession. As modern French philosopher Michel Foucault demonstrated, confessing does not only unveil real facts, or pronounce true words at last, but also reveals, necessarily, the previous lie, the insolent and enduring concealment. That is to say, it highlights the insult done to all, and first in this case to the people. In fact, it turns Truth itself into something doubtful and easily manipulated, undermines confidence by shaking the foundations of public debate. This inevitably leads to the multiplication of the public demonstration of shock, cursing and condemning -- and simplifications.

Indeed it would be wrong to believe the idea of “truth” as only a synonym of “not lying.” The notion is doubtlessly vaster and more diverse. Truth has been, by turns, eternal and divine with Plato, unreachable and unknowable with the Skeptics, logical, deductible and formal with scholastics, factual, empirical, merely human with the philosophers of the Enlightenment, illusory but vital for Nietzsche...and so on.

At the same time, lying is not always perceived as evil, or even immoral: the fact of consoling a fatally ill person or helping undocumented foreigners hunted by the police, may morally legitimize false words. Therefore it is worth remembering that there are good lies, bad truths, constructive denials...just not today.

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