When shoud politicians lie and when is it allowed?

When should politicians lie, and what do we do about it?

Why is it morally bad for politicians to lie? What do dharmic principles have to say about this? And how do we move towards a more truthful world?

Author:
Pravar Petkar
Publisher:
Elephant Ideas
Date:
December 21, 2021

Background

In 2016, Vote Leave campaigners in the UK told the public that remaining in the EU would bring about a mass wave of immigration of criminals from Turkey. This was nothing but a lie and one which brought about Brexit. Five years later, the after-effects of this decision have been acutely felt in a shortage of HGV drivers to transport fuel.

Lies by politicians clearly have a major impact on our lives. But why are they morally problematic from a dharmic lens, and what does dharma tell us about stopping them?

Key Points

A dharmic approach to assessing political lying is neither purely deontological nor purely consequentialist. As the treatment of Yudhishthira’s lie to Dronacharya in the Mahabharata shows, it is a mix of the two approaches. In an assessment of whether political lying is in line with dharma, the importance of truth in a democracy has great weight, but truth should be considered here in objective and not relative terms.

When assessing whether lies by politicians are justified according to dharma, three key principles apply: a qualified form of ahimsa, that the consequences of any action should benefit all, and that for democracy to function well, citizens must trust the state to provide basic necessities. The lies concerning Turkey in the EU referendum campaign of 2016 were not justifiable, but national security considerations may justify lies in other circumstances.

Neither judicial review, nor political methods of accountability, nor the media can hold politicians to account for their lies. The most dharmic solution is to significantly improve citizenship education in schools so that citizens can become more responsible and engage in forms of citizen journalism. Decentralised fact-checking has its advantages but does not cater to the development of all, with current models requiring users to pay in order to use their services.

Implications and Future

We can reflect on the effectiveness of our current systems of accountability in challenging lying by politicians, and to give more consideration to alternative options that sit outside the political system. More thought needs to be given at the level of government policy to how citizenship education should be reformed so that it can better equip citizens from a young age to challenge politicians and act as a genuine force of accountability within the state.

Footnotes

Michiko Kakutani, The Death of Truth (William Collins, London,  2018)
Peter Oborne, The Assault on Truth (Simon & Schuster, London, 2021)