Speech Matters: On Lying, Morality, and the Law, by Seana Valentine Shiffrin

To ensure freedom and public trust, institutions must prioritise veracity, says Andrew Hadfield

February 26, 2015

We all know that we should try not to tell too many lies. Even so, most of us are not really sure how strong the ethical imperative to avoid lying is, whether it is ever permissible to lie, or why exactly we should not lie.

Immanuel Kant is routinely cited as the philosopher most strongly opposed to lying; he claimed one had a duty to tell the truth even to the murderer at the door asking for help to locate a victim. In her provocative, densely argued and important new book, philosopher Seana Valentine Shiffrin argues that Kant has been misinterpreted and that he demanded no such categorical imperative. Rather, she claims, Kant suggested that it was “one’s duty to refrain from making false declarations” (emphasis in original), which means that one can mislead the would-be murderer but must try hard to avoid telling outright lies.

The reason is that in telling lies one breaks a basic contract: a respect for other people as autonomous rational human beings with whom we wish to interact on as equal a basis as we can. Lying does not simply negate particular moral designs and goals, but more significantly “degrades the foundation of our moral agency” and destroys our relationship with the world. However, she argues, it is never a good idea to attempt to legally regulate lying because lying rarely threatens free speech as such and establishing harsh penalties for lying is invariably counterproductive. Prevention is a much better strategy than cure, and we need to work hard together to “protect and strengthen the effectiveness of our communicative practices”. Agreeing standards of conduct is far more significant than imposing penalties for failing to live up to them.

Shiffrin’s concern in the punningly titled Speech Matters is to show how telling the truth is fundamental to maintaining the cherished goal of freedom of speech. Lying undermines the basic level of trust necessary to maintain not only individual relationships but also a viable public culture. She analyses two major institutions, the police and universities, to show how both need to foster and maintain a level of truth-telling that ensures public confidence. Universities, under threat from a managerialist and consumerist culture, must recognise that they function “as a public forum in which independently minded speech is invited for its own sake” and not attempt to direct discussion because certain answers are known in advance. It is a lesson that policymakers in higher education should heed more carefully than they usually do. Like the police, universities must act as a beacon for the rest of society, labouring under higher standards and maintaining truthfulness and freedom of speech.

Speech Matters is not an easy book to read. It is carefully and painstakingly argued, and it is more technical than many more populist works that deal with lying. And, although the text includes many deft touches of sly humour, its focus on US case studies will doubtless be of more limited interest to UK readers. Nevertheless, it is a work that has much to tell us about how we should run an open society and the roles that individuals and institutions should play within it. As Shiffrin reminds us, “We should be far less casual about lies, as a moral matter, than we are.”

Speech Matters: On Lying, Morality, and the Law

By Seana Valentine Shiffrin
Princeton University Press, 248pp, £24.95
ISBN 9780691157023 and 9781400852529 (e-book)
Published 28 February 2015

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