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Lying and Leadership

The fact that leaders’ ends may sometimes justify violating norms about honesty does not mean that all lies are equal, or that we must suspend our moral judgment in such cases. So how can we judge whether political deception is justified?

CAMBRIDGE – This election season has been marked by frequent charges of dishonesty. During Britain’s “Brexit” debate, each side charged the other with distorting the truth, though the speed with which the “Leave” camp has been disowning its campaign promises, and the “Remain” camp’s claims have come true, suggests which was telling it like it is. In the United States’ presidential election campaign, Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, seldom referred to his closest competitor in the primaries without calling him “Lying Ted Cruz.”

Similarly, Trump rarely misses an opportunity to refer to Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, without attaching the prefix “Crooked.” When she recently delivered a careful speech on foreign policy, Trump responded by calling her a “world-class liar.” But, according to PolitiFact, a Pulitzer prize-winning organization that checks the veracity of political statements, 60% of the claims by Trump that it investigated since he began his campaign have been deemed false or “Pants on Fire” false, versus 12% for Clinton.

Some cynics shrug off such exchanges between candidates as typical behavior by politicians. But that is too facile, because it ignores serious questions concerning how honest we want our political leaders and our political discourse to be.

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