We have all seen it. We have all been there and heard it. A blatantly false, absurdly concluded, and astronomically imbecilic comment from a know-nothing politico, pushing their favorite form of do-nothing horse manure… for the children.
But why? Why are they so dedicated to blatant falsehood? Why do they lie so hard and with such conviction?
It turns out, people are more likely to repeat a lie, one that they even know is a lie, if they feel it could be true. If someone could foresee circumstances where the lie would become true, they are less likely to view the falsehood as being morally incorrect. It is a very ‘Ends Justify Means’ sort of view of the world, and it is something we have some data on now.
It Might Become True: How Prefactual Thinking Licenses Dishonesty
The American Psychological Association has released a study (linked above) that covers what is, in essence, an ideological purity albi to telling a lie. That if the lie is in service to ‘the cause’ you believe in, and that it serves the greater goals of ‘the cause’ to repeat the falsity, the lie isn’t viewed as dishonest or morally affrontory. At least not in the same way as a regular lie.
What would constitute a ‘regular’ lie?
It would be one that caused harm and perpetuated a falsehood that didn’t serve a morally ‘greater good’ in some manner, as identified by ideological preferences. An example would be promising to return borrowed money in a timely manner and not doing so, and having no intention of doing so. That would be universally (or nearly so) seen as a harmful lie, and one that constitutes theft also.
But as we add variables to the base scenario we can change how that lie is perceived by people, and that perception will shift predictably along ideological lines. Just ‘how wrong’ the lie is from a certain point of view can be changed, within certain parameters the lie and the theft will be ‘justifiable’ to more and more people. Remember the lie is confirmed a lie, there is no intention by our hypothetical borrower to pay back the funds despite agreeing to do so and promising to do so. This person has unequivocally stolen money from someone who lent them that money.
Suppose we go one step further and set an amount. The amount lent/stolen is $500, not insignificant by most measures but also not world shattering for many people who would lend it.
But now let’s make the person who lent the money reasonably well off, $500 is 0.5% or less of their annual income, while it represents 2.5% of the borrower’s ($100K+ earning lender to a $20,000 earning borrower). The borrower lied about borrowing and repaying, they have stolen the money.
But you (and I) very likely already came up with several very reasonable situations in which a $20k earner who borrowed 2.5% of their annual income, $500, and being unable to pay it back afterward is little to no fault of their own. Sudden unexpected cost is the nightmare of anyone at any income level who is paycheck-to-paycheck, income to expenses. We then further justify it by how little $500 harms the lender comparatively to how much it helps the borrower. It is quite literally of 5x greater value to the borrower than the lender in this scenario.
Remember, we have established the borrower lied and has stolen the money. However we set our base judgement very differently based on the ‘totality of the circumstances’ as we see them, or in this case as we imagine they could be. Most of us are quick to visualize a scenario that makes the theft more okay. We will still state it is wrong, but we understand and can sympathize. Because of those, we can more morally justify the theft and the lie.
Now, reverse the incomes.
A person who makes $20,000 lends $500 to a person who has an income of $100,000+. Now try and find the moral justification for the borrower. You can’t. Not nearly as easily. The emotive response is much more negative towards the borrower and far more sympathetic to the lender.
The lie, and the theft, remain the same $500 though.
Last version of the exercise, increase both incomes by 10x. Now it’s $500 between someone who makes $200k and $1 million. Now we hardly care who lent it to who. Now we wonder why they’re even bothering over it.
But the lie and the theft are the same confirmed $500. That was a core part of the equation, it is a lie that the borrower will repay the lender.
Circumstantial Morality Scaling
People have fewer ‘absolutes’ than we like to think, or that we will claim. We would state, in the raw, that stealing $500 from someone else and lying about that is wrong.
But by adding three very basic outlines to that situation