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When Lying Becomes a Virtue, Civilization Declines

Famed social psychology professor Jonathan Haidt has been thinking about the dangers of attesting to something he doesn’t believe. Lying is now necessary, for Haidt to keep his professional standing. 

For others, the stakes are even higher; if they don’t lie, they may lose their job. Nicole Levitt, for example, has been asked by her organization to agree to stipulate “white people are racists.” Doctors have been threatened with the loss of professional credentials or their licenses if they speak publicly about their disagreements with COVID-vaccine orthodoxy.

Haidt believes truth is the telos, the North Star, of universities. Adding a second telos of social justice is impossible. Haidt predicted years ago, “the conflict between truth and social justice is likely to become unmanageable … Universities that try to honor both will face increasing incoherence and internal conflict.”

Recently, Haidt faced a test of his duty to the truth when his “main professional association — the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP)” established a policy for members to present their latest research. At the annual convention of the SPSP, they would have to include a statement explaining “whether and how this submission advances the equity, inclusion, and anti-racism goals of SPSP.” 

Haidt writes, “Most academic work has nothing to do with diversity, so these mandatory statements force many academics to betray their quasi-fiduciary duty to the truth by spinning, twisting, or otherwise inventing some tenuous connection to diversity.”

The new mandate is an “ideological” escalation. Haidt asks us to “Note that the word diversity was dropped and replaced by anti-racism. So, every psychologist who wants to present at the most important convention in our field must now say how their work advances anti-racism.” 

For context, Haidt points out that Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist calls for discrimination as the remedy to racism. Kendi wrote, The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”

Haidt believes Marcus Aurelius offered “timeless advice” when he wrote in his Meditations: “Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust, or lose your sense of shame, or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill will, or hypocrisy, or a desire for things best done behind closed doors.”

In short, Haidt’s professional organization is demanding he, and others, violate their moral principles to stay in good standing in their profession. Academia is no longer a place where diverse views can peacefully coexist. 

Haidt already has tenure. Potential new faculty have to compete not only on academic credentials but on being the cleverest liar; their applications can be scuttled if their commitment to diversity is deemed not strong enough by “ideological administrators.”  

Have we reached the point where, for professionals to succeed, deceit and lying are required character traits?

No doubt, many are lying to keep their jobs and standings. As they try to fit in with today’s woke ideologies, liars are considered virtuous. History will likely not see them as kindly.  

The Man of the System

In his The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith explored how moral sentiments develop, and how that development depends upon societal interactions. A virtuous society arises from individual choices.   

Most of us seek to avoid the disapproval of others, and we adjust our behavior to fit in with norms. It’s in our innate nature, in Smith’s words, “to respect the sentiments and judgments of [our] brethren; to be more or less pleased when they approve of [our] conduct.” When everyone seems to accept woke doctrine, we may feel more comfortable going along than sticking ,by sharing our ideas. 

Smith had contempt for what he called the “man of system” who aims to remake society according to his master plan and social norms even when it may take “great violence” to “annihilate” the existing social order. Such an arrogant person, Smith wrote, “is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.” 

Smith explains, the would-be social engineer:

seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.

Of course, it may be easier to see the grievous errors of political leaders, but Smith’s words apply also to organizational leaders who ignore the consequences of imposing their will on others.

When we are forced to deceive in order to meet the demands of the “man of the system,” we all suffer. Truth and honesty build trust. Trustworthiness is a building block of civil society. Russell Roberts in his book How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life puts it this way: “When you can trust the people you deal with—when you don’t have to fear that your trust will be exploited for someone else’s gain—life is lovelier and economic life is much easier.”

Imagine a world where you can’t trust the honesty of those you encounter. Commercial life would falter, and social life would be strained. Civil society wastes away when trustworthiness erodes.

The decisions we make as we go about our daily lives are the building blocks of society. Getting with the program and lying can have terrible consequences. There may seem to be personal benefits to following the herd, but when the herd normalizes lying, the commercial and social ties we depend on become frayed.

When Lying is Normalized

I first visited the work of Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng in my essay When the Family Is Abolished, People Starve. Jisheng’s book Tombstone provides a graphic description of the government-induced famine that killed 36 million, and the mindsets that produced the famine. One of those mindsets was a complete societal commitment to lying, as a tool to push the “man of system” Mao’s vision of society. A catastrophe was the result of the state’s normalizing lying.

Jisheng was a teenager living away from his rural home. He so willingly accepted Maosist propaganda that he couldn’t rationalize communist policies killed his father. At the time, Jishseng was ready to sacrifice for the “greater good”: 

I grieved deeply over my father’s death, but never thought to blame the government. I harbored no doubts regarding the party’s propaganda about the accomplishments of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ or the advantages of the people’s communes. I believed that what was happening in my home village was isolated, and that my father’s death was merely one family’s tragedy. Compared with the advent of the great Communist society, what was my family’s petty misfortune? The party had taught me to sacrifice the self for the greater good when encountering difficulty, and I was completely obedient. I maintained this frame of mind right up until the Cultural Revolution.

Jisheng explains how the communists aimed to “engineer” the “human soul:” 

The government’s monopoly on information gave it a monopoly on truth. As the center of power, the party Center was also the heart of truth and information. All social science research organs endorsed the validity of the Communist regime; every cultural and arts group lavished praise on the CCP, while news organs daily verified its wisdom and might. From nursery school to university, the chief mission was to inculcate a Communist worldview in the minds of all students. The social science research institutes, cultural groups, news organs, and schools all became tools for the party’s monopoly on thought, spirit, and opinion, and were continuously engaged in molding China’s youth. People employed in this work were proud to be considered “engineers of the human soul.” 

Young people experienced the most thought control, and as a result, dreamed of nothing but communist ideas which erased intrinsic human values:

In this thought and information vacuum, the central government used its monopoly apparatus to instill Communist values while criticizing and eradicating all other values. In this way, young people developed distinct and intense feelings of right and wrong, love and hate, which took the shape of a violent longing to realize Communist ideals. Any words or deeds that diverged from these ideals would be met with a concerted attack.

In 1959, the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai pronounced Mao “the representative of truth.” Jisheng writes, “Divergence from Mao’s views was heresy, and since the government had the power to penalize and deprive an individual of everything, the merest thought of discontent prompted an overwhelming dread that in turn gave rise to lies.” 

Much the same, during the pandemic, we heard Fauci declare, “I represent science.” As one doctor put it, “support of the scientific process has been replaced with blind faith in things claiming to be ‘science’ even though they do not follow the scientific process.” 

Totalitarians demand the truth be ignored. Now, as then, people are incentivized to demonstrate loyalty to government policies. Jisheng describes the duplicity of “officials and intellectuals”:

Dread and falsehood were thus both the result and the lifeblood of totalitarianism: the more a person possessed, the more he stood to lose. Possessing more than the average person, officials and intellectuals lived in that much greater fear, and demonstrated their ‘loyalty’ to the system through virtuoso pandering and deceit. The lies they spun in official life, academia, and the arts and media enslaved China’s people in falsehood and illusion. 

To support Chinese industrialization, vastly inflated crop yields were reported and Jisheng writes, “anyone who dared question the accuracy of these reported crop yields risked being labeled a ‘doubter’ or ‘denier’ engaged in ‘casting aspersions on the excellent situation,’ and anyone who exposed the fraudulence of the high-yield model was subjected to struggle.” 

The worst part of the character of individuals was called forth, “people would not hesitate to lie or sell out their friends for the sake of self-preservation and promotion.” Those who dissented, or merely refused to lie, were subject to physical violence.

Historically, under authoritarian Chinese emperors, dissenters who remained silent were tolerated; there was no need to lie. Jisheng explains that silence was no longer possible under totalitarian Maoism:

Under the imperial system of earlier eras, people had the right to silence. The totalitarian system deprived people of even that right. In one political movement after another, each person was forced to ‘declare his stand,’ ‘expose his thoughts,’ and ‘bare his heart to the party.’ Repeated self-abasement led people continuously to trample upon those things they most cherished and flatter those things they had always most despised. In this way the totalitarian system caused the degeneration of the national character of the Chinese people. 

The results of this “degeneration” were, in Jisheng’s words, “the insanity and ruthlessness of the Great Leap Forward and the Great Cultural Revolution.” Those who look for suffering to be offset by social gains may ask about the great accomplishments. There was no trade-off; the Chinese totalitarian system, in Jisheng’s view, achieved nothing of value. 

Tombstone documents how horrors were enabled by a “totalitarian administrative process” magnifying “the will of the senior leadership… at each successive level, while the voices at the lower levels were suppressed by increasing degrees. In this way, erroneous policies were intensified by both positive and negative feedback, until disaster resulted.” Without markets, and without the voicing of dissenting views, even the most ruinous policies could not be corrected.

Why Jisheng wrote Tombstone is instructive:

The authorities in a totalitarian system strive to conceal their faults and extol their merits, gloss over their errors and forcibly eradicate all memory of man-made calamity, darkness, and evil. For that reason, the Chinese are prone to historical amnesia imposed by those in power. I erect this tombstone so that people will remember and henceforth renounce man-made calamity, darkness, and evil.

Today there is little appetite to look at the consequences of policies destroying not only freedom of speech but freedom of conscience. The right to speak and even to hold a view has eroded. The Chinese are not alone in suffering from “historical amnesia.” Today, Americans are refusing to learn from past totalitarian regimes. Just as in Mao’s China, “nothing of value” will be achieved from today’s woke “leap forward.” Just as in China, the moral character of Americans is being degraded. As more and more of us remain silent, morality degrades, and the social order on which we all depend loses its capacity to facilitate human flourishing.