Those who dislike a president tend to emphasize the frequency or skill with which he lies.
During the Trump administration, for instance, The Washington Post kept a running database of the president’s lies and deceptions – with the final tally running to over 30,000 falsehoods. President Joe Biden’s critics have insisted that he, too, is a liar – and that the media is complicit in ignoring his supposed frequent deception of the American people.
The frequency of these criticisms would seem to indicate that most people do not want a president who lies. And yet a recent study of presidential deception found that all American presidents – from Washington to Trump – have told lies, and knowingly so, in their public statements. The most effective of presidents have sometimes been effective precisely because they were skilled at manipulation and deception.
As a political philosopher with a focus on how people try to reason together through political disagreement, I argue that what matters most is not whether a president lies, but when and why he does so.
Presidents who lie to save their own public image or career are unlikely to be forgiven. However, those who appear to lie in the service of the public are often celebrated.
The morality of deception
Why, though, are lies thought so wrongful in the first instance?
Philosopher Immanuel Kant, in the 18th century, provided one powerful account of the wrongness of lying. For Kant, lying was wrong in much the same way that threats and coercion are wrong. All of these override the autonomous will of another person, and treat that person as a mere tool. When a gunman uses threats to coerce a person to do a particular act, he disrespects that person’s rational agency. Lies are similarly disrespectful to rational agency: One’s decision has been manipulated, so that the act is no longer one’s own.
Kant regarded any lie as immoral – even one told to a murderer at the door.
Modern-day philosophers have often endorsed versions of Kant’s account while seeking exceptions from its rigidness. One common theme is the necessity of the deception for achieving an important political goal. For example, a political leader who gives honest answers about a forthcoming military operation would likely imperil that operation – and most citizens of the state engaging in that military action would not want that. The key is that people might accept such deception, after the fact, because of what that deception made possible.
During World War II, the British government sought to deceive the Nazi command about its plans for invasion – which entailed lying even to British allies. The moral imperative of defeating Nazi Germany is generally thought to be important enough to justify this sort of deception.
This example also illustrates another theme: Deception might be permitted when it is in the context of an adversarial relationship in which truth-telling should not be expected. Lying to one’s own citizens may or may not be justifiable – but there seems to be very little wrong about lying to one’s enemies during wartime.
These ideas might be used in defense of some presidential lies.
During the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was convinced that Hitler’s expansionism in Europe was a threat to the liberal democratic project itself, but he faced an electorate without any will to intervene in a European war. Roosevelt chose to insist publicly that he was opposed to any intervention – while doing everything he could to prepare for war and to covertly help the British cause.
As early as 1948, historian Thomas Bailey noted that Roosevelt had made a calculated choice to both prepare for war and insist he was doing no such thing. To be open about his view of Hitler would have likely led to his defeat in the 1940 election.
Before Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln made similar calculations. Lincoln’s lies regarding his negotiations with the Confederacy – described by Meg Mott, a professor of political theory, as being “devious” – may have been instrumental in preserving the United States as a single country.
Lincoln was willing to open peace negotiations with the Confederacy, knowing that much of his own party thought that only unconditional surrender by the South would settle the question of slavery. At one point, Lincoln wrote a note to his own party asserting – falsely – that there were “no peace commissioners” being sent to a conference with the Confederacy.
A member of the Congress later noted that, in the absence of that note, the 13th Amendment – which ended the practice of chattel slavery – would not have been passed.
Good lies and bad lies
The problem, of course, is that a great many presidential lies cannot be so easily linked to important purposes.
President Bill Clinton’s lies about his sexual activities were either simply self-serving or told to preserve his presidency.
Similarly, President Richard Nixon’s insistence that he knew nothing about the Watergate break-in was most likely a lie. John Dean, Nixon’s legal counsel, confirmed years later that the president knew about, and approved of, the plan to rob the Democratic National Committee headquarters. This scandal eventually ended Nixon’s presidency.
In both cases, these presidents faced a significant threat to their presidencies – and chose deception to save not the nation, but their own power.
President Biden, President Trump and truth
It is likely that President Trump lied more than most presidents. What is striking about his lies, however, is that they have tended to be told to defend his own self-image or political viability rather than in service of some central political good.
Indeed, some of President Trump’s more implausible lies seemed best understood as tests of loyalty; those in his circle who repeated his most obvious lies demonstrated their loyalty to President Trump in doing so. Most recently, he has attacked as disloyal those members of the Republican Party who have not repeated his false claims about electoral fraud.
Recent studies indicate that President Biden, thus far, has not shown himself equal to President Trump in his deceptiveness. He has, however, made deceptive and misleading claims on a number of topics, ranging from the costs of particular policies to his own history and early life. These lies seem somewhat unlike those told by Lincoln and by Roosevelt; they seem generally told in the interests of making a rhetorical point more powerful rather than as necessary means to an otherwise unobtainable political goal. They seem, in that respect, less morally justifiable than these earlier falsehoods.
A justification for these lies might be found with reference to practices which – like warfare or politics – necessarily involve conflict and gamesmanship. No one would expect honesty from the enemy side during warfare, and perhaps one should not from opponents in politics either. Some political philosophers have thought that, when politics becomes an adversarial game, politicians might be forgiven when they seek to deceive the other party. President Biden might rely upon this idea, and could note that the Republican Party is less open to bipartisan negotiation than at any time in its history.
Even this last justification, however, may not be enough. Lying to one’s political opponents might be permitted in an adversarial context. The lies told by presidents are often addressed to constituents, and such deception seems harder to justify.
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And finally, even the most important of lies must be believed for it to be justifiable; a lie that is immediately recognized as such is unlikely to achieve the goal justifying that lie. This is an increasingly difficult burden. Modern presidents find it more challenging to lie without having their lies recognized as untrue than presidents serving before the advent of social media and dedicated fact-checking.
If presidents must sometimes lie to defend important political values, then, it seems as though the good president must be both able to lie and able to lie well.
This is updated version of an article first published on September 17, 2020.