Is it moral to lie to the populace for their own good?



There is a discussion in the History arm of StackExchange that got sidetracked into the merit of brainwashing society for their own good, as advocated in Plato's Republic. IMO that side track deserves a separate discussion in the Philosophy arm of StackExchange, therefore here we are.

There have been many arguments by historians, philosophers, politicians, and laymen about the relative merits of different political systems, including anarchy, democracy, oligarchy, monarchy, etc. Plato seems to advocate oligarchy; most people today favour democracy; however, more often than not, one sees the following curious amalgam of democracy and oligarchy.

Namely, the system is often setup in a manner that leads people to believe that they live in a democratic society, that their voice matters, and indeed many minor things are decided by popular vote get hyped up beyond any proportion by the media. However, all the important things are decided by oligarchy and are never publicised.

A fair comparison would be a parent of a 3-year old who would present the child with a false dichotomy so that the child would make the parent's choice, for the child's own good, while still believing that the choice has been made solely by the child.

An example of that would be the deal between FDR and Churchill regarding Lend-Lease and extension of US Navy patrol into the Atlantic, which was in direct contradiction to the strong desire of US populace to remain completely neutral.

This raises a couple of questions.

  1. Is oligarchy that presents itself as a democracy compatible with liberty for all?

  2. Is it moral to lie to the populace for their own sake?

Please discard Kant's categorical imperative against lying in general for the purpose of this question.


Posted 2013-10-18T15:41:31.933

Reputation: 1 951

Even if we discard Kant's fallacious argument that there is a categorical imperative to not lie, would other Kantian formulations of moral action be acceptable answers here? – Paul Ross – 2013-10-18T23:24:08.530

For 1. I'd suggest: No, but neither is a democracy. See the SEP: "And so it is hard to see how any political decision making method can respect everyone's liberty."

– None – 2013-10-18T23:39:18.783

For 2. I'd suggest to also look into the SEP, starting from "According to all of the definitions of lying so far considered," if you want to save some time, but preferably the whole entry. (You'll need to think about what it "means" to lie, and also perhaps what "own sake" in this case means, as in: how do the individual sakes add up, or compare otherwise. There's probably a SEP entry for that as well. :))

– None – 2013-10-18T23:50:51.313



In his robot series, Asimov tells a story of a system where the world economy was planned by a computer system which had intricate knowledge of supply & demand. Some discrepancies start turning up—overproduction and underproduction occurs against the design of the system, such that certain people are driven out of business. It turned out that these people were threatening the good of the system and/or the computer's existence (I forget), and the computer was undermining those people for the good of everyone.

To answer your question directly, I will invoke Alisdair MacIntyre's After Virtue to say that it depends on one's telos, or final purpose. Is the goal for the entire population to increasingly understand reality? If so, it seems like lying to them would hinder this purpose. If, on the other hand, one merely wishes to maintain a stable society, then perhaps lying would accomplish that. Then again, perhaps it is too hard to keep a lie hidden, with the result of stuff like Snowden's NSA leaks; if the risk of this is too high, then the cost of lying might be too high. So even if the goal is social stability, we aren't guaranteed that lying will ever be better than telling the truth.

If you'd like more detail on why MacIntyre (and I) think morality depends on teleology, see these two comments.


Posted 2013-10-18T15:41:31.933

Reputation: 2 904

Interesting. As a political activist who has run for public office, I've come to believe in the importance of truth - to the extent that I'll speak the raw truth knowing full well it will torpedo my chances of getting elected. (Then again, the election system is rigged to prevent my election, anyway, so what have I got to lose?) But at the same time, I'm painfully aware of the almost incomprehensible stupidity of the "sheeple." It makes me wonder if there might be situations where a leader has no choice but to lie, especially when dealing with citizens who can never be educated. – David Blomstrom – 2017-10-02T22:16:20.203


This is not as difficult as we make it. The lower three quartiles of the population's IQ distribution also happen to be the ones that will panic and act irrationally if confronted with a horrific event predicted or in situ, so it is simply a matter of remaining open and honest with the public, but scaling the extent to which news events of this nature are allowed to go viral over the web.

Those that can help will be asking specific enough questions in the expectations of those with greater intel regarding the situation, who are currently seeking specific enough answers concerning the situation in the aim of minimization of any negative outcomes of the imminent or anticipated event.


Posted 2013-10-18T15:41:31.933

Reputation: 443


Plato specifically conceptualizes oligarchy as equating to rule by the wealthy, and considers it as a degenerate system of government (The Republic: Book 8). From his point of view, what is important is not as much how large a group rules, as what guides that group's leadership. His ideal is when the rulers are guided by wisdom and benevolence --it doesn't matter how many or how few of them there are. When, and only when, the rulers are guided by wisdom, it is fine --in Plato's view --for them to lie to the people (the "noble lie," Book 7) as long as they are guided by the people's best interests.

Is this kind of a government compatible with "liberty for all"? Plato would probably argue yes, but with a definite twist. True liberty, for Plato, is being freed from your own worse nature, addictions, animal desires, and so forth. So he would consider it freedom to be prevented from doing bad things. But that's an utterly different definition of "liberty" than most people would use. If you're thinking of liberty as the freedom to do whatever you want at any given time, then having a shadowy group of people pulling strings behind the scenes --even in your own best interests --is probably not tremendously compatible with that.

Chris Sunami supports Monica

Posted 2013-10-18T15:41:31.933

Reputation: 23 641

I can totally see what wave length Chris is coming from – Adam – 2019-08-29T17:22:59.507

Excellent point Michael wealth of an individual is very much irrelevant to the significance of their impact in future historical proceedings – Adam – 2019-08-29T17:24:43.200

@Michael - What makes this confusing is that Plato uses the term "oligarchy" specifically to mean rule by the rich. I've substantially edited my answer and reworked it to address your concerns. – Chris Sunami supports Monica – 2019-08-29T18:13:39.310

1I have to clarify that by oligarchy I meant a relatively small group of people, under 1% of the population, that make major decision for the state, those members not necessarily drawn from financial elite. I would consider meritocracy an oligarchy as well, and it seems that Plato advocated for merit-based oligarchy. – Michael – 2013-10-18T21:10:55.670