Deception: An Ethical Inquiry

Updated on November 1, 2018
Elliot Lamb profile image

Elliot is a lifelong student of philosophy with an annoying dependence on sarcastic humor to help him get through the day.

What Constitutes Deception?

Most of us probably have a general perspective on whether something is deception or not, but let us explore a detailed description so as not to make the mistake of having different ideas.

So, to what degree of consciousness must one have for an action to be deceptive? Is lying only deceptive when we are aware we are lying? Better yet, is it still lying if we don't know the truthfulness of the statement? It is a common phrase to say of one that they are "deceiving themselves", which means consciousness is not a traditional requirement of deception. It seems irrational to think that one could somehow deceive themselves while being aware of the deception. At that point, it would simply be negligence. Given this, I am partial to encompass the act of lying, both intentional and unintentional, within deception.

Lying deals with verbal deception, so what about deception through action? The first example of a sort of "physical deception" that comes to mind is that of physical sports. Juking in football is a quick false step in order to make the man in front of you think you are going a different direction than you actually are. Almost any physical sport has this same type of anticipatory deception. The idea of making fake moves in order to trigger a certain reaction from an opponent is a tactic which has been around for quite some time. What about deceptive actions not intended to overcome an opponent in some way? Picture the classic example of two people preparing to jump side by side into water. The two start forward together, one of them inspired or moved only through the presence of the other. Only, at the last moment, the other individual stops, leaving the first one to go into the water alone, despite expectations. This sort of action does not incur any type of advantage over someone. In fact, underneath the surface layer of fun and games, it almost seems like deception for its own sake. So, put simply, taking advantage of another person's expectations to get a certain result is deception put into action.

But, like with the earlier conundrum with lying, how do we treat involuntary physical deception? If a person does some action and another person reacts based on their expectation of the other person, then it seems at first glance to just be the fault of the expectation. The only way I can currently see to defend the case of lying is to argue that in that case, the deceiver is intentionally giving something to another party with the intention to be believed. That two-sided participation may constitute the lying as deception, while the physical case is only a one-sided participation, that of the expecting person.

Then we have deception which I see as most prevalent in modern society, that of character obscuring. This is the process of falsely positing one's character or personality to those around them for social purposes. If one takes careful observation of the world around them they will see this type of deception everywhere. This is the girl pretending to like somebody, but despising them in reality. This is the guy pretending to enjoy hanging out with his friends when he would really rather be home with his family. This deception need not even be as middling as those examples. Little nuances of projection are common. I see this type of deception as essential and constitutive of our modern social climate.

I have most likely omitted much in my brief description, but this is the general understanding of deception I will work with.

Deception As The Uniform Of Modern Society

The society of the modern liberal (not as in the antithesis to conservative) world is one built upon a foundation of normalization. There are accepted ways of living, substantiated by the state, which guide our choices. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I believe it creates an interesting dynamic between the individuals in such a society and their sense of identity.

It is my observation that a majority of people in our modern world adhere to the aforementioned norms. But, I also observe that a large percentage of people like to view themselves as unique or "special". Everyone wants to believe in their individuality, but we are often shaped similarly by the constraints of subjectivity allowed by the norm. This creates a disjunct in how we operate in such a world. We simultaneously desire to be "apart" while solidifying the "together" of normality.

Obviously, much of our character is shaped by these processes of society, but it is also important to understand that we each have individual experiences that are particular to us. So while we are shaped in a sort of "social image" we are developing beneath the surface a perspective that is unique to our self-experiences. Thus we have variation in character that is developed separately from the discipline of normality. Alas, this poses a problem for personal identity. The subsurface character traits are not in line with the established normality. If I am to survive in the modern world, I must maintain those norms, but I am nudged by my internal traits to act outside of those norms.

The answer, then, is deception. We must obscure the undesirable aspects of our character from public view. We must proclaim certain beliefs and opinions so as not to become outcast. For that is the risk we run by not putting out character through a social filter. Things which are alien or incompatible with the norm of the social body pose a threat and so must be excluded.

Can Deception Be Used For Right Reasons?

Immanuel Kant has a somewhat extreme philosophy or morality which states something along the lines of only take those moral actions which you can will to be universal laws. When applied to something like lying, he explicitly argues that lying in any capacity and for any reason is morally unacceptable. This means that if a man comes to your door looking to kill your friend who is hiding in the basement, and he asks you where this friend is, you are morally obligated to tell him.

I find Kant's imperative to be extreme to the point of absurdity, so what then would be acceptable uses of deception? One might say that as long as your intention is for something good to happen, or you expect something good to happen, then you are right to use deception. This, however, seems a bit vague. One can hypothetically commit any use of deception, even one which results in harm to others and be in the right as long as their intention is for their concept of what is good. Therefore, we would either need a concrete conception of "good" or would need to rethink our formula for moral deception.

Suppose another formulation. Deception is morally acceptable when it is done explicitly for the protection or lessening of harm to other persons. Here we have the specificity not found in the previous one, but we need to define what constitutes as harm. We need to decide if harm refers to physical harm, or if emotional harm included as well. If it includes both, then we have a formula that seems quite agreeable. Aside from the concerns of how certain one needs to be of the actual harm to be prevented.

Depending on where one places the value of moral action will determine how one defends moral deception. I see it in terms of looking at the intention of the action and the actual consequence of the action. I am personally inclined towards intention as being most important as it feels more agreeable with natural human fallibility.

I am not so bold as to try and posit the absolute moral defensibility of deception. I am simply here to outline basic perspectives of how one might look favorably on the moral use of deception.

Deception As Is Commonly Used And Perceived

Moral defenses aside, I feel confident claiming that deception is most often used without any moral intention. Often it is a tool for seizing an advantage, tricking someone, personal gain, etc. For those so inclined, deception is a valuable social tool which opens potential avenues that would otherwise be closed.

This is not a political discussion, but often times deception is associated with politics and politicians. There is never any shortage of lies or empty promises in the world of politics. Such a case is simply an example of deception used to gain success.

I do not feel the need to imagine many scenarios for someone to understand the use of deception I am talking about. Deception is used selfishly, recklessly, and indifferently. However, despite being used and seen dominantly that way, deception itself is not necessarily "evil". My perspective sees it as simply another social tool, albeit a powerful one. I understand that many may not see deception with the moral neutrality I do, so I very well may be misguided.

That said, it is obvious that deception has so far been used as a tool for negative ends, hence its status as an immoral thing.

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