Thursday, March 10, 2011

On the Primary Philosophical Problem for Right-to-Know Qualifications on Lying

Besides the position that one may do evil that good may come, the only real alternative that was put forward as an alternative to the broadly Augustinian position (that no telling of falsehood with an intention to deceive is good) was the broadly Grotian position (that no telling of falsehood with an intention to deceive someone who has a right to know is good). Except for Janet Smith's essay there was pretty much no effort whatsoever to defend this position directly; it was always assumed that if the Augustinian position failed that the Grotian position would automatically be shown to be true. This is false, but even supposing it were true, it was clear enough that the Grotian position was favored for delivering the conclusion that people wanted (because it was assumed that it would deliver it), rather than because people had a positive reason for accepting it -- the symptom of this being that people showed no indication whatsoever that they were even aware of the obvious problems raised by adding a right-to-know qualification.

The most obvious of these is the fact that simply adding the right to know qualification leaves the account incomplete -- so incomplete that no conclusions whatsoever can be drawn from it. This is because bringing rights into the mix massively complicates the discussion. We can say nothing about what follows from a right or a lack thereof without knowing three things:

(1) the ground of the right to know in general
(2) the grounds of the right to know being relevant in particular cases
(3) the nature of the obligations for respecting the right to know

If none of these are stated, it isn't even clear that the Grotian position differs from the Augustinian: if you were to think of the right to know as limited but grounded somehow in our rational nature so as to be indefeasible, then your right to know position would simply be a wordy variation of the Augustinian position.

In order to make any sense of the Grotian position, then, we need to know what establishes the right to know in general, what makes it salient to particular cases and not to other cases, and what kind of obligation we have because of it. Different accounts of this are possible, and which account you choose will radically affect everything else in the account. Grotius himself, for instance, grounds it in what he calls 'liberty of judgment', which people by a sort of implicit contract owe to everyone else simply by speaking in the first place. Because of this, everyone's right to know is a right not to have their liberty of judgment harmed by someone who is directly conversing with them. The result is that it is always wrong to tell a falsehood except (1) where the person you are conversing with has consented, or can be reasonably presumed to have consented to your falsehood; (2) where the person whose liberty of judgment would be impaired is a third party (i.e., someone different from whom you are actually talking to); (3) where a right recognized as more cogent by common consent of mankind would be violated by not doing so; (4) where the person in question cannot accept the responsibilities of liberty of judgment. This fourth is one of the more disturbing features of Grotius' account: on his account it is always and everywhere permissible to deceive children and the mentally ill, simply because they are children or mentally ill. In any case, there are a number of vaguenesses in this account that aren't necessary for Grotius's project of grounding international law and are therefore never cleared up. (The nature of liberty of judgment, for instance, and how exactly it is supposed to be harmed by falsehood.) This is true, in fact, of pretty much every right-to-know account of lying that I have ever seen: the earliest history of it consists entirely of Protestant jurists trying to establish the grounds for certain recognized obligations of international law, and because of that they never discuss it farther than is necessary for that purpose. But that leaves the account inadequately developed for application to individual life. Later Protestant moralists trained in this strand of jurisprudence take it up, but never (as far as I have found) in such a way as to fill in the gaps -- mostly they simply discuss it for a paragraph or two in passing, or develop it enough to handle this or that particular case and then pass on. And Catholic moralists since then who have picked it up, it seems to me, have taken it up with far less critical thinking than their Protestant predecessors, who at least put some real thought into the subject. You will search in vain for a serious account of this right among Catholics putting this position forward, despite the fact that it is the linchpin of the whole position, and despite the fact that no one can even tell what the position actually is until we know the grounds, conditions of relevance, and obligations that are associated with it. And again, differences on these points make a very big difference; it seems clear enough from comments made that at least many people wouldn't accept Grotius's own account, which just leaves their 'right to know' completely orphaned and ungrounded unless something robust replaces it.

This is a remediable problem, but it is also a problem that impedes any actual progress on the question until it is fixed: if no one can even say what your position is, it's already a non-starter. There are other, more general reasons to worry about right-to-know qualifications in lying, or at least of certain kinds of right-to-know qualifications, since some force sharp divisions between the nature of the lie and the intention, and others essentially make it almost impossible to lie, and others make it virtually impossible to know whether anyone is really lying, and yet others, like Grotius's, make it permissible to deceive people with false statements simply because of the type of person they are. But whether any of these are cogent or not in a particular case depends entirely on the nature and source of the right in question, and the nature of the obligations that have to be met in order to show a proper respect for the right.

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