My parents taught me, while I was growing up, that liars are not to be trusted. Once somebody lies to you, you know that he has no respect for the truth. Once you know he has no respect to the truth, trusting anything that he says is a mistake. If you had a car that had a tendency to die in the middle of traffic, you would cease to trust it to get you across town, and would certainly find another mode of transportation if lives were at stake. If you asked your brother to watch over your child, and he ‘forgot’ the child was there and went out drinking with his friends, you would cease to trust your child with that brother.
When people give you bad information – and do so over and over again – it follows that none of what he tells you is to be trusted any more. It does not mean that everything he says is a lie (that would make it too easy). Instead, whenever he speaks, you should treat his words as if he said nothing at all.
A few days ago, Austin Cline at About Atheism/Agnosticism in an article titled, "Christian Right Gets Government to Lie about Sex," directed readers towards a Glamour article about a campaign of deception called, “The New Lies About Womens’ Health.”
Note: I do have reason to object to the Cline's title. It is quite possible that there are those on the Christian Right who have a serious devotion to truth. To call all of them liars -- to say that lying is the essence of what they are -- is unfair.
A lie actually requires an intention to deceive. For a speech act to count as a lie, it is not sufficient that it be false. If an adopted child has been raised to believe that the parents who raised him are his biological parents, he is not to be called a ‘liar’ for repeating this falsehood. I hold that it is unjust to charge another with lying without evidence of intent.
If a driver hits another car, and kills the family riding inside, we cannot charge him with murder unless we can show an intent to kill. However, we do not need to prove intent to morally condemn the driver. Was he speeding? Was he drunk? Was he not paying attention to traffic signals? In short, would a morally responsible and competent driver been able to avoid the accident? If the answer is ‘yes’, then we have the basis for moral condemnation. We have reason to say, “This person is not to be trusted behind the wheel of a car.”
When people report falsehoods, we cannot charge them with lying unless we can show an intent to deceive. However, we do not need to prove intent to morally condemn the speaker. We simply need to ask whether a morally responsible and competent thinker would have been able to avoid the false claim. If the answer is “yes’, then we have the basis for moral condemnation. We have reason to say, “This person is not to be trusted to tell us things that are true.”
In the article that Cline points to, the agency not to be trusted is the federal government. Under the Bush Administration, the Federal Government has gotten into the habit of making false claims that any morally responsible and competent thinker would have avoided making.
In fact, Glamour, has found that on issues ranging from STDs to birth control, some radical conservative activists have used fudged and sometimes flatly false data to persuade the government to promote their agenda of abstinence until marriage. The fallout: Young women now read false data on government websites, learn bogus information in federally funded sex-education programs and struggle to get safe, legal contraceptives—all of which, critics argue, may put them at greater risk for unplanned pregnancies and STDs.
Think of our attitude towards a bus driver, his bus filled with high school kids that he is charged with delivering safely home after the school day is over. He comes to a railway crossing with a train coming. Anxious to get home himself, he tries to race the train. Think of the contempt that we would have for somebody who endangered so many young lives.
Yet, this bus driver is an insignificant threat compared to the government agencies who choose to be reckless with the information he puts out for public use.
Several states, including Louisiana, Wisconsin, Virginia and North Carolina, have online abstinence programs that link to a site called abstinencedu.com, which warns that HIV might be able to penetrate a latex condom (patently false), that "condoms offer no protection against HPV infection" (not true) and that "there is no scientific evidence that condoms reduce the risk of becoming infected with the other 23 major STDs" (also false). It even claims that "the Federal Drug Administration [sic] allows up to 4 percent of a batch of condoms to be defective before the batch is rejected!" (Actually, the FDA rejects a batch of condoms if even one-tenth that number are defective.)
I would much prefer – enough to offer it as a moral duty – that when a writer attempts to present a case such as this that they make some effort to back up their assertions. A mere claim that a proposition is true or false is of little use; and it is worthless when one is making an accusation of lying. In making such an accusation, I hold that a writer has an obligation to treat the claim as a lawyer would treat a case in a court of law that he is presenting to a jury. We would not accept a jury to accept a prosecutor’s flat claim that a proposition is “patently false”. The accuser needs evidence, and references to evidence is sorely missing in the above paragraph.
Somebody interested in good scientific information on these issues can check out the John Hopkin’s School of Public Health web site which contains a highly referenced set of pages on condoms that support the claims made above.
The perpetrators in this case are not only those responsible for the abstinencedu.com web site, but also any person or entity (including those in the states of Louisiana, Wisconsin, Virginia, and North Carolina) who reference this cite.
Think back to the example of our school bus driver. After the accident in which the train scattered a couple dozen high school students across the countryside because of the driver’s reckless actions, we discover that the driver had a record. We discover a number of emails and correspondence in which others warned the school of this driver’s history. Yet, the school ignored all of these warnings, refused to check up on the driver, and simply hired him.
We would hold the school officials responsbile for hiring this driver morally responsible, would we not? We would insist that they be fired (at best) or perhaps brought up on charges for criminal negligence for the harm that they have done.
Abstinencedu.com is intellectually reckless. Any government official who insists on hiring intellectually reckless individuals should be held to the same type of moral accountability as the school officials who hire the reckless bus driver.
And those who refuse to hold government officials morally responsible for intellectual recklessness deserve to be the objects of the same moral outrage we would give to those who excused the government officials who disregarded warnings about a reckless bus driver.
Morally, there is nothing to distinguish these two groups. These people, like the reckless bus driver, are getting our children killed. It seems that this is something a person of good moral character would want to prevent.
Also, please note that the person who gives out incomplete or innacurate information is trying to control the lives of others much like the tyrant or the mobster. I discussed this aspect of the problem in the posting “Some Dishonest Advice” on July 18th.