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When Lying Is a Good Thing: You Can't Handle the Truth!

When Lying Is a Good Thing: You Can't Handle the Truth!

10 Mins
March 31, 2011

March 2005 -- "You can't handle the truth!" says Jack Nicholson in the climax of the 1992 movie A Few Good Men. This is a good theme for movies because it names a universal concern: that moment when I know a crucial piece of information that I may or may not decide to let you in on.

It is also an important theme for a philosophy student to think about, for the same reason. It is an issue in which art is doing what art is supposed to do—making us aware and making us care about a moral issue—and philosophy is doing what it is supposed to do—helping us make the right decision.

Generally, honesty is a good thing. Everyone says so, but Objectivists—having a new moral code to explain, defend, and apply—have to come up with convincing new reasons to defend honesty, reasons based on self-interest. The Objectivist position has to cover four different kinds of cases: fraud perpetrated on others for gain, dishonesty toward oneself, dishonesty to defeat the bad guys, and dishonesty toward others for their own good.

D.W. Griffith considered movies a new language. He had a point: we have now had a hundred years to learn the grammar of film—establishing shots, close-ups, reaction shots, fast editing, and so on—and also a common vocabulary of film. Moviegoers all over the world, speaking no common verbal language, all know what is meant by the scene in which Rhett carries Scarlett up the stairs, or Victor Laszlo leads the crowd at Rick's in singing the "Marseillaise," or Citizen Kane's giant lips say "Rosebud!"

When is telling a lie a good thing?

Films, like any form of fiction, give us more information in their parables than a philosopher's one- or two-line hypothetical, and give it more convincingly. A college seminar can shoot the bull so airily about the hypothetical question: Should the relationship of parent to child be considered one of ownership? I was present at that actual discussion, and the group decided yes, parents own their children. It was just a college seminar question, after all, and they were not in the least bothered by their own outrageous conclusion. But would the same group of students have felt so cool and unattached if they had been watching the episode of M*A*S*H* in which a Korean farmer sends his daughter ahead of him as he plows his field…which is mined? His family is hungry, and he can spare one daughter more easily than he can spare the spring planting, apparently. The student will be more engaged emotionally by a film than by a dry discussion of abstractions, and will therefore take ideas more seriously.

Wall Street is a typical cinematic product of the altruist world. The moral, in a nutshell, is that greed leads to downfall. American capitalist materialism, yadda, yadda, yadda. But the real mechanics of the story focus on dishonesty: if you are dishonest toward others, they are not going to just take it; they will defend themselves, and since dishonesty means pitting yourself against facts and truth, you lose.

In few instances might dishonesty be warranted? Two possible excuses for not telling the truth are that your listener needs to be led to discover this particular truth himself, and that in war no honesty is owed to one's sworn enemy. The first is heard in the familiar words of Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Why didn't she tell Dorothy the simple procedure for getting back to Kansas? "Because you wouldn't have believed me," she explains. "You had to learn it for yourself." That reasoning flies if your listener is a child and you have responsibility for that child's enlightenment, but not if your listener is an adult.

The chilling mirror image of Glinda's "You wouldn't have believed me" argument is President John F. Kennedy's retort when his girlfriend, Judith Exner, threatened to blow the whistle on their affair: "No one will believe you." Young Bill Clinton was taking notes.

The second excuse, that this is war, was explored in a movie called Sergeant Rutledge (1960). An African-American army sergeant on a cavalry post in Arizona goes AWOL after a white girl is raped and murdered. A white captain captures the sergeant, brings him back for trial, and finds that a white man actually committed the crime. Why, then, did Rutledge flee? Because he was black, and circumstantial evidence placed him at the time and place of the crime. As a black man, he had no hope for a fair trial, and riding for the Mexican border was his only realistic option. Fleeing for the border makes a suspect look guilty, but a black man knows he is going to be lynched anyway, so he has nothing to lose. Like lying, fleeing is the act of a guilty man, but the sergeant cannot be blamed for deciding that, in effect, "this is war": race war. Rutledge can expect no justice and is therefore under no moral obligation to act innocent, just as in war you owe the enemy no honesty—you must deceive him at every opportunity.

Wearing a mask also signifies a lack of innocence. But the Lone Ranger wears a mask, not because he is a bandit, but because he must hide his identity from the bandits until he can capture them. This creates the wearisome necessity of constantly reassuring everyone he meets and telling them not to be alarmed by the mask. Like Sergeant Rutledge, he cannot act normally because he is at war. It is, he hopes, only a temporary necessity.

When it's war and you must deceive the enemy, but your Christian upbringing makes you uncomfortable telling lies, you cross your fingers. The Lone Ranger himself was the victim of this maneuver in one episode of the TV series, and when the little boy who told the lie confessed that he had crossed his fingers when telling it, the Ranger retorted that that is a little boy's trick. Nothing shames a little boy like telling him that his behavior is that of a little boy. Interestingly, the crossed fingers—another form of what Catholics are doing when they cross themselves—can also be used to show that you are telling the truth, as well as protecting yourself from God's wrath when lying, as the boy does. In Leni Riefenstahl's famous documentary, Triumph of the Will (1935), you can see the serried ranks of newly graduated German army officers taking their oath (to Hitler personally, not to Germany) with the right hand held up and the first and second fingers crossed. It signifies that they are calling upon Christ to witness their oaths.

Seven Days in May (1964) shows several types of honesty parables. Colonel "Jiggs" Casey (Kirk Douglas), having uncovered a plot to overthrow the government, informs the president (Fredric March) of the impending coup and is sent back to the Pentagon with "the thankless task of informer." Casey has to deceive his boss, General Scott (Burt Lancaster), who is planning the coup. This is deception in self-defense—that is, in defense of the Constitution, and to defeat the bad guys. This is war. A Colonel Henderson, working for Scott but unaware of the treasonous purpose of his orders, is asked by an investigating senator: "Do you know Colonel Casey at the Pentagon?"

"Sure, I know Jiggs," replies Henderson.

"Do you trust him?"

"You name it, he can have it. Why?"

Sometimes dishonesty is warranted.

Now, that is an interesting way to put it: "he can have it." Henderson means that he would trust Casey with anything he owns. And it is only because of that trust, which Casey has earned, that Henderson springs the senator from captivity and gets him back to Washington, thus helping to foil the plot. That shows one of the big arguments for honesty—from the point of view of self-interest. Casey has built up a track record of honesty and trust that pays off big time in the clinch. And you never know when the clinch might come.

But when the president confronts Scott with evidence of his treason and demands his resignation, the president tells the general that nothing will be said about the real reason for the resignation. He will announce their differences over foreign policy as the rationale for demanding that Scott resign. "If the real reason ever got out, this country would go right down the drain," he says. So the president does not, in the clinch, trust the people with this information—that they had come within an ace of a coup d'etat. This act of distrust would come back to haunt that president, I imagine, because I don't think anything that big could be kept from the people very long, and the president would look the worse for having foolishly tried to conceal it. The people would not, thereafter, say of that president, "You name it, he can have it."

In the TV movie The Missiles of October (1974)—as in the real-life events on which it is based—President Kennedy tells his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, that he must keep Pierre in the dark about what has been going on during the past few days. "Sorry, Pierre," he says, "but I can't put my press secretary in the position of lying to the press. Believe me, you are happier not knowing." It seems a strange distinction to make, since Pierre knows that he is lying to the press—he just doesn't know exactly what he is lying about.


On the subject of honesty, Peter Keating, in The Fountainhead , is just one of many characters who show the consequences of dishonesty toward oneself. As usual, the novel says it better than the film. Despite all the palaver about the so-called rape scene in that novel, there are many other scenes that no one talks about. One of my favorites is the sad scene toward the end where Keating shows Howard Roark his paintings. Roark gives Keating the bad news straight: You waited too long. If you had started painting when you were young—if you had done with your life what you wanted to do, not what your mother pushed you into—you would have been happy and successful today as a good painter, instead of washed up as a mediocre architect. Roark has been asked for the truth, and he gives it. He is more honest with Keating than Keating has been with himself. Keating fails to take Polonius's advice to his son in Hamlet: he was not true to himself, and he was false to every man.

Executive Suite examines several problems in business ethics. An investor looks out the window and sees that a certain chief executive officer has dropped dead of a heart attack on the street. He immediately calls his broker and sells his shares in the CEO's company. He is very pleased with himself, but the other man in the room shakes his head and says, "Some ways it don't seem right to make money."

Well, is it or isn't it? The seller could say that he was just lucky to have learned of the CEO's death before anyone else did. He is trading on the difference between what he knows and what others know—and that is what lying and related matters of honesty boil down to. When you lie, or omit to tell all you know, you are trading on the difference between what you know and what your victims know. You are getting them to do something inimical to their own interests by telling them an untruth or allowing them to go on believing an untruth. You are setting yourself against them, either as an enemy or at least as a competitive adversary playing hardball. You can say to your victims, "Next time you will know to investigate before you invest." But perhaps you are really saying, "Next time you will know not to trust me." That is where you cross the line from adversary to enemy, and from building a track record—a reputation—that will pay back later in support from others to building a track record that will get you shunned by the people you need to do business with in the future. There will be consequences you cannot avoid—which is the theme of Wagner's "Ring" cycle. No one ever wove a more tangled web than Wotan.

Lincoln said, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time." Even if you could, you put yourself in the position of needing your victims to be at once smart enough to produce what you want and dumb enough to be cheated out of it repeatedly. This is the weakness of the liar pointed out in John Galt's speech. And if you counter that by saying you need only limited success at this strategy, then you are admitting low self-esteem and even low self-interest. A man determined to achieve great success needs business associates who are too smart to be fooled. Andrew Stockton, in Galt's Gulch, tells Dagny Taggart that he knows he is hiring, in Ken Danagger, a possible future competitor. "That's the only sort of man I like to hire," Stockton says.

Deception is sometimes necessary in wartime.

Here, Ayn Rand 's morality is revealed as one of positives over negatives, thou shalts over thou shalt nots. Yes, you might get away with lying and cutting a few corners some of the time in business, but if your focus is on doing what you should, rather than on not doing what you shouldn't, then you will get good at what you do, which will minimize your need, as well as your perceived need, to do what you shouldn't. Lawyer Milton Gould , called the foremost litigator of his time, cultivated friendships with judges. When asked by a reporter whether he had ever traded on these friendships in the courtroom, Gould replied, "Does Willie Mays have to bribe the pitcher?" This—the Willie Mays principle—cuts through many a Gordian ethical knot. Instead of agonizing over temptations, grow to the point where the temptations don't loom so large because you simply don't need them. Temptations loom large only because you don't.

Now let's turn to the so-called little white lie. Some cinematic characters give defenses for their lies, and part of the power of fiction lies in forcing the viewer to wrestle with his own conscience and ask himself, "What would I have done?"

In A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson plays a Marine commander who believes he is doing his job, but he has misidentified his responsibilities and prerogatives. They include upholding the honor of the Corps, but not faking that honor by covering up a crime. Accused of not telling the truth about a crime committed in [under?] his command, he replies to the prosecutor, "You can't handle the truth!"

As you would expect, this theme has been used many times in movies and before that in plays. Two thousand years ago it was the theme of Oedipus Rex, of which at least three movies have been made. One 1967 Italian job starred our own Alida Valli (Kira in We the Living). In that play, the hero has to live with an uncomfortable truth. The interesting moral quandaries I have in mind, though, are those of characters who must decide what truths another character should die with.

Or vice versa, in the case of a dying man deciding not to tell his wife he is dying. In The Pride of the Yankees (1942) Lou Gehrig (Gary Cooper) has just been told he has ALS and is going to die. He tells his sidekick (Walter Brennan) and his doctor not to tell Mrs. Gehrig (Teresa Wright). They agree, but of course when she walks in and looks at their long faces and evasive eyes, she immediately asks, "When is Lou going to die?"

I was appalled to learn, several years ago, that lying to the dying is actually the traditional medical practice in Russia. In the United States, the doctor tells you and your family your prognosis and gets you all started making the decisions that you have to make about your impending death. This serves practical purposes if you are an adult, but doctors still tell the truth to all but the youngest children, just because they are human beings. But in Russia, honesty bows to mercy and the adult is treated like a child who "can't handle the truth."

The temptation to pre-edit another human being's reality, out of a desire to spare him anguish, is explored in scenes from several other films. In Old Gringo (1989), Ambrose Bierce (Gregory Peck), an American writer who disappeared in 1914, fictionally pops up in revolutionary Mexico. In one scene, he is volunteering as a nurse in a field hospital of Pancho Villa's army. A wounded soldier fearfully asks Bierce, "Am I going to die?" Without hesitation or apparent emotion, Bierce simply says, "Yes." The soldier dies. Someone asks Bierce why he didn't tell the man a merciful lie. Bierce explains: "This man was a poor peasant. He's been lied to all his life. He deserved the truth, for once in his life."

In The Right Stuff (1983), John Glenn (Ed Harris) is in orbit, and an indicator light at Mission Control shows that the heat shield on his capsule may be loose. He is about to retrofire, which will slow his capsule from orbital speed and bring it down into the atmosphere, where it will burn up if the heat shield falls off. The man in charge—apparently one of Werner von Braun's Peenemuende group and used to mindless Prussian obedience—tells the capcom not to let Glenn know of this danger. But the capcom is Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn). (In NASA the "capcom"—capsule communicator—is always another astronaut and does all the talking to the astronauts in flight.) It has been established before this that the astronauts, especially Shepard, are at odds with the scientists over whether the astronaut in the Mercury Program is to be a pilot, and actively fly the spacecraft, or just a passive "subject" of experiments in flight. Shepard glares daggers at the white-coated scientist and growls, "He's a pilot! Tell him the condition of his vehicle!"

But in both the movie and real life, this was not done. Glenn was told to skip the part of the flight plan where he jettisons the retro package after retrofire. Since the retro package was strapped onto the heat shield, its straps might help hold the shield on if it really were loose. Glenn asked whether there was a reason for this, and the capcom replied, "Not at this time."

Glenn made it. The heat shield stayed on. Apparently this was just another of the many false alarms caused over the years of space flight by over-sensitive indicator lights.

Movies have also explored possible addenda to American brutal honesty and respect for individual sovereignty. In Apollo 13 (1995), Ed Harris is back at NASA, but as Gene Kranz this time, not John Glenn. Kranz was the no-nonsense lead flight director who vowed to stay at his post until Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise were brought back safely to Earth in their crippled spacecraft.

Again, re-entry is the problem. Guidance tells Kranz that the spacecraft is "shallowing" as it approaches Earth, that is, it is coming in at too shallow an angle. The angle is still in the acceptable range, but if it gets any shallower the spacecraft will hit the top of the atmosphere and skip off it like a flat stone on water. Then the astronauts will run out of oxygen before they can retrofire again.

But this time it is even worse than that: since the service module is not working, they have had to use the lunar module's engine to retrofire, but now they have jettisoned the lunar module and have nothing with which to retrofire again in any case. One chance is all they have. That being the case, when guidance tells Kranz about the shallowing, Kranz asks, "Is there anything they can do about it?"

Guidance says no.

Kranz grimly replies, "Then they don't have to know about it, do they?"

Why tell a truth that can make no difference?

Like Pancho Villa's peasant soldier, the astronauts have no decision they can make and therefore no practical need for this information. But unlike him, they have not been lied to all their lives, and so they do not qualify for Bierce's last-minute grace (kind of a secular extreme unction). And, unlike him, they will, it is hoped, be back on Earth in a few minutes anyway, whereupon they can brief and debrief all they want. It would serve no purpose but cruelty to tell them of the shallowing now rather than a few minutes from now. Dignity and sovereignty are not compromised, only prioritized for a few minutes.

One more movie that comes to mind is a Spencer Tracy film, although I don't know the title. I saw only a minute of it on TV years ago. In the scene, Tracy is comforting a dying man and telling him of God's mercy. The man says, "You mean all that stuff wasn't just bunk?"

"Oh, no," Tracy replies, and assures the man that all the Sunday school stories about God's love and grace are true after all. The man dies happy.

This situation is totally different from telling a dying man he is dying, so he can get his affairs in order. Even if he could have delivered a lecture on the nature of faith and reason, Tracy should not have done so, if this man were a lifelong believer and about to die in a minute anyway. Now is not the time to try to undo in a minute the teachings of a lifetime. Let him go in peace. As the doctor in Gone with the Wind tells Scarlett: "Melanie is going to die in peace! I don't want you easing your conscience by telling her things that don't make any difference now!"

And yet…and yet… shouldn't Melanie and the dying man make that decision for themselves? Don't they have that right? Not for the sake of Scarlett's unburdening her conscience or Tracy's desire, if any, to show off his rhetorical skills and erudition, but because those two characters, like the peasant, have a right to the truth. The problem is, though, what are they going to do with that truth in their last moments on Earth, when they may have other issues they want to talk about more? But that is also their decision.

If I am ever in that position, I say let the truth be told though the heavens fall. But if I have only seconds left, and I am listening to Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony, I might tell you to can it for now and shut up.

Fred Cookinham
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Fred Cookinham
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