Unyielding Lies

Meihe Chen, A yield sign, https://commons.wikimedia.org/

I began watching a hearing last night before going to bed and was fascinated with how people yield to other people. I like the word yield. I use it often. Sometimes, I use it like this: Did you not see that friggin’ yield sign? I did that today.

In my car, using different words, I pondered what makes people ignore yield signs when they’re obvious and there’s actually traffic to yield to. What is it? Do these people enjoy taking risks? Is it simply ignorance? Confidence couldn’t explain it, could it?

Unidentified painter, c 1790, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Kant is one of the philosophers we use to teach moral theories. He’s one of the big ones (along with Aristotle and Mill). Everybody talks about him. Nobody reads him. Nobody reads, period. Right? You can, if you’d like, here. Anyway, Kant wants us to not make exceptions of ourselves. In other words, if we do something, everybody should be able to do it. I can’t be special. When exploring what this means, we often discuss lying because everyone understands lying and its different degrees.

We can have something like lying, for example, when we just don’t disclose information. We can feel good because, if they’d wanted to know, they would’ve asked. We can also have white lies like when we tell a new writer they’re doing great even though great’s probably not the right word. Then we can have those lies that everyone would likely condemn. If you said someone were a murderer and you knew they weren’t, that lie is outrageous. It’s worthy of our anger. I’d probably call you nasty names.

Kant’s like, “Don’t. Don’t lie.”

“Can I lie if it’s for good?”

Kant shakes his head. “Nope.” This is the absurdity of my writing (remember what Russell said about stupid men’s reporting?).

He said, “A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.”

You can’t lie because if you lie, regardless of the reason, then everyone else will be able to lie and if there is any merit to having truth or trust in relationships, lying should be avoided. So, hard truths? Yes. White lies? No. You can’t even lie to save lives.

That sounds extreme, but it goes back to this idea that you can’t make exceptions and, really, to who actually bears responsibility for those actions we find immoral. If you don’t lie to save a life, your truth didn’t cause the death, the killer did.

So why does it anger me so much when people don’t yield? It’s because they’re making exceptions of themselves! Kant was right! Then again, I saw them not yielding and I didn’t hit the brakes. Could have have been they missed the yield sign, didn’t see me, or made those awful things humans occasionally make called mistakes.

This relates to yesterday’s post about Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as you’ll see with the progression of this project, the systems in which we all live and the rules by which we play. When people believe rules don’t apply to them, what are they actually saying? What should be the appropriate response? When we discuss justice, are we discussing fairness? Does that allow for exceptions? Does it allow for mistakes?

For more on lies, see Lying by Sam Harris. It’s short and lively and will make you think about lying in ways you likely haven’t.

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