Falsehood in Word is Evil in Deed

Noisy artificial limits of any kind ipso facto engender moral hazard. The classic example is the limited liability corporation, which encourages investors and managers to take risks over and above what they would undertake if their personal liability was not limited. FDIC insurance is another.

But this nomological principle applies everywhere. Wherever a limit is set by men that does not correspond to the limits set by nature and reality, agents are prompted to act as if the artificial limits were the real, natural, true limits: i.e., to lie, even if only to themselves, about what it is prudent or good to do, or else to lend credence to such a lie, and so do wrong, or ill, even if only unwittingly.

This deranges behavior and ruins planning, misguiding economic activity, and setting the whole polis on the wrong course. As a result social action less and less operates to meet the real needs of the people, or of the polis. But those needs don’t just go away. And this creates an opportunity – indeed, a demand – for arbitrageurs, both honest and crooked: you can’t game a system that is not somehow whacked. But no matter how effective they are, arbitrageurs can never fully compensate for the costs society must suffer on account of its political derangement. So errant artificial limits always impoverish, at the margin. In the limit, their effects can be lethal: the limit case of an effective arbitrageur is the successful invader. 

Legal, political, strategic and economic limits are of course not the only sort. Any proposition, about anything, is a proposal of a limit on what we ought to consider as true, and therefore reliable as a guide to action. So any falsehood uttered anywhere in the polis, any pretense not explicitly advertised as such (as with theater, or humor), injures the whole body politic.

Innocent error is of course ineradicable for finite intelligences. Not so for intentional falsehoods, which are uttered despite a conviction of their contradiction. Lies are often more comfortable to believe than truths, but they are more difficult to propose (even though it can seem otherwise). Their utterance must be forced, and this makes lying as it were a supererogatory evil.

Detection of such falsehoods is not often difficult. Most of them fall like tenpins before an honest Gedanken Policy Test. Note: honest. I.e., courageous.

24 thoughts on “Falsehood in Word is Evil in Deed

  1. The ‘natural’ may be replaced by ‘rational’. And ‘artificial’ by ‘irrational.’

    Otherwise a theory of what is natural about personal liability or what is artificial about limited liability–this theory is indicated.

    • In principle, I agree (provided, that is, that I understand what you are getting at). The difficulty is that so many falsehoods are so very rational and coherent, when considered only on their own terms. E.g., Marxism. There are I suppose really possible, thus wholly rational worlds where Marxism could work, but it can’t work in ours.

      • But the natural-artificial is capable of too many interpretations too. Who is to say something is natural or artificial. And why should others accept my reading?

      • Aha! Very good! The forecondition of social coordination is a basic agreement – not a formal contract, but just a shared perspective – on what is real, and what is good, and what is important (this is also a forecondition of personal coordination, of personal order, but that’s a different subject). The whole discourse of society, then – *everything we say to each other* – is ordered to our joint discovery of what is real, what is good, and what is important. The matter of society, then, is first and foremost epistemological.

        Why should others accept your reading? Because your reading is convincing. That’s all. If your reading is true, it is likely to have the ring of truth, and so be more convincing. But, also, if you are extraordinarily successful at life, or if you have made a deep study of some department thereof, or even if you are just strong or good looking, your reading is more likely to be convincing. Any number of factors can contribute to conviction. It’s not a step-wise, syllogistic procedure; more like a function of values across an n-dimensional volume (sometimes characterized as a utility function)(although “utility” is too constrained; “beauty” would be more accurate), which is somewhat idiosyncratic for each of your interlocutors.

  2. “The forecondition of social coordination is a basic agreement”
    In other words, a nation is defined by its moral consensus.

  3. I think that gedanken experiment could easily be attacked by a liberal apologist. Survival, existence is the first value, but is it the final value? If only three nations would exist in the world, could they not agree to leave each other alone and thus be free to be decadent? Furthermore if all three are soft and decadent they do not want to attack each other, do they? It is too dangerous, too manly. So in the real world, is it a good argument for the US or EU that not be decadent because one day Congo may attack you?

    I am just playing advocatus diaboli here, my feelings are actually with you. But I find it hard how to justify it rationally i.e. how to justify power as a moral value once basic survival is ensured.

    • > I am just playing advocatus diaboli here, my feelings are actually with you.
      > But I find it hard how to justify it rationally i.e. how to justify power as a moral
      > value once basic survival is ensured.

      The rational justification is that decadence leads to annihilation, sooner or later. But this argument does not seam to resound with liberals. When I confront european liberals with something in the line: “Well, you are so decadent and weak that the muslims will take over your country and replace your people”, they usually reply something like “We will convince them to be liberals” or “Ok, but we cannot change course anyway, I will remain a liberal”. They blindly follow their liberal leaders into death.

      Plus, I’m quite sure that no amount of rational explanations will get us our of our current situation.

    • Survival is not the final value; but it is the forecondition of any achievement of any other values, as the post that originally proposed the Gedanken Policy Test made clear.

      If you have three nations all exactly the same and all equally decadent, then you have no identified difference between them that you could test with the Gedanken Test.

      The Test is not run on the real world, because in the real world its set-up cannot be achieved: there are no completely equivalent social organisms in the real world. Nevertheless:

      So in the real world, is it a good argument for the US or EU that not be decadent because one day Congo may attack you?

      The question answers itself, no? Of *course* the US or EU would do better if they were not decadent, whether the Congo was the proximate threat, or some other factor of reality. Decadent societies are weak and vulnerable to extinction *by definition.*

      • However death can be virtuous. Martyrdom for instance could be used as a counter example to the arguement that survival is necessary for virtue. Also the question can be raised as to what sense of survival you are referring to. Since we and our societies are all in God’s thoughts eternally and pleasing him is virtuous, techinically if we were to do one good deed that resulted in us getting snuffed out in the very next moment, we and our good act would survive eternally. Especially since our souls are immortal dying in this world does not mean the end of our careers in virtue. Likewise does the fact that the tribe of Danaans acheived vengeance for the kidnapping of Helen mean they were superior to those they vanquished. If so is it not odd that the rest of Europe from Rome to Iceland chose to claim descent from the Trojans rather than the long-haired Achaeans. And what of the survival of the memeory of the Numantians because of their deaths. Anyway, I do not believe that one’s success can be used as a way to measure the goodness of any act.

      • These are all good points, but they are as it were beside the point of the Gedanken Policy Test. The point of the test is not to see what sort of society is most likely to achieve excellences of one sort or another, but rather what sort of society is not likely to work in the first place, thus preventing the realization of any excellences at all. A society that has vanished on account of its lethal policies cannot generate either scoundrels or heroes, cannot achieve anything, even martyrdom. How many martyrs – or anything else whatsoever – are the Shakers likely to produce?

        St. Clement of Alexandria addressed this very question in his essay, The Rich Man’s Salvation, wherein he recognized that if all the Christians gave away all their property, the religion would utterly vanish in a matter of a few years, with the result that very few souls would be saved. He argued that the Dominical injunction to the wealthy young man to do just that had therefore to be interpreted more narrowly in order for the Church to have the wherewithal to fund evangelism, and charity; and that in any case if everlasting life could be bought for a mess of pottage, then the Atonement would have been superfluous.

        The Test is not designed to ascertain which policies will likely succeed, but which will likely fail. But it cannot tell us whether a society that had avoided all the lethal policies would definitely survive in the real world. It can tell us only which societies are *likely* to survive, *all other things being held equal* – which, in the real world, they never are. Thus in the real world, Trojan society may have been superior to Akhaian society – indeed, much of the grandeur and tragedy of the Iliad lies in the poignant realization that, aside from Paris, they might indeed have been just that – but, history is not tidy. Good men and virtuous cultures are vanquished by not so good men and wicked cultures.

        Not only do bad things happen to good people, but vice can at least seem to lead to success, at least in worldly terms. So success in the real world is not a completely reliable indication of virtue. But then, even arranging the terms in that fashion is getting it backward, as all utilitarianism does. It’s not that worldly success is a fairly reliable indication of virtue, but that virtue is a fairly reliable indicator of worldly success.

      • Forgive me if I am misunderstanding, as I can be rather daft at times, but to create an example of test let us say that Lizard men from Alpha Centauri came to Medieval Cornwall and said that if the Cornish people converted to the Alpha Centaurian religion and denounced Catholicism the Lizard men would use their advanced weaponry to subjugate the whole world under the authority of the Cornish and that if they refused The ravenous reptiles would exterminate every man woman and child in Cornwall and offer the deal to the Bhutanese instead. So the Cornish can choose one of two policies.

        A. Convert, Damning their souls but achieving absolute supremacy over the whole earth for their tribe.


        B. Refuse and be totally annihilated.

        As I understand it, the Gedankan policy test would support the former and Justice would demand the latter. To support the test over justice would seem to be submitting to utilitarianism; to support justice over the test would make the test useless against leftists, since they usually try to argue from their perverse notions of morality.

      • I really appreciate the way you all are pushing back at me on this. It forces me to think, and I always learn from that.

        Skeggy, the Test doesn’t tell you what you should do. All it tells you is how your proposed policy will work out in the real world – the real *sublunary* world. But there is nothing in the Test that will tell you whether your proposed policy is either virtuous or wicked. It would have told Horatio that he ought to stand aside and let the Etruscans across the bridge, but he decided against that course, effectually laying down his life for the sake of the City (never mind that it was not in the end taken up, for it was indeed laid down).

        So the Test is not dispositive, only indicative. It is not a tell for Justice, but for practicality. If Justice demands that you sacrifice your life, then the Test is not going to be relevant to your situation.

        I doubt it would be very effective against doctrinaire leftists in any case. As an apologetical weapon, the Test can work only on adversaries who are not already morally committed to leftism, or who are exceptionally reflective and honest. But it can work on the audience of the debate.

      • I have some additional thoughts on the important question Skeggy has raised.

        Where Justice and phronesis come into conflict, we must of course choose the former. Yet nevertheless it must be said that under God’s purveyance, the world and its history are generally so ordered that, for a consistently phronetic people, such conflicts will likely seldom arise – this being one of the main benefits of phronesis in the first place. A people that had consistently applied the Gedanken Policy Test would, e.g., be far less likely to end up subject to the choice between survival and apostasy.

        Should the opportunity of martyrdom arrive, we ought to welcome it gladness, and don the laurels of victory with joy, praise and thanksgiving. But we are commanded, not to seek martyrdom, but to be fruitful and multiply, and then to baptize all nations in the Name. We are to thrive, and evangelize, so as to maximize Heaven’s everlasting yield of beauty. This mission can be accomplished only by phronetic people: gentle as doves, wise as serpents. And to fulfill this mission, we are commanded to order our affairs according to Laws that properly pertain to this world, rather than to Heaven. God’s Law for us here below is suited to this world as gate and forecourt of Heaven (that is what “profane” means), rather than to the Holy of Holies itself. The Law given to us in Scripture is not the Law for Heaven, but for Earth; or rather, it is the Law of Heaven for Earth. In Heaven, e.g., there is no marriage among men and women, except insofar as they partake of the marriage between Christ and his Body the Church. But on Earth, marriage is a sacrament enjoined upon all our sexual relations, as limiting and ordering them to their proper ends. Scripture instructs us on its proprieties, and the traduction of marriage is a mortal sin.

        A good husband must lay down his life for the sake of his wife and children, if need be. But then, a good husband will be so canny, so worldly wise, so prudent, politic, and phronetic, as to follow intelligent, rational policies along the way that will make it extremely unlikely that his family will ever find themselves in a pickle so dire that his death becomes their best option.

        So likewise for peoples and nations. A nation that finds itself confronted with a choice between apostasy and survival is either fantastically improvident and foolish, or horribly unlucky. The latter sort of case does as I have said of course repeatedly arise, wherein a good and virtuous and phronetic people is deleted from the world, through no fault of their own. Phronesis is no guarantee of success. But it does improve the chances of success: of fruitfulness, of prosperity, and of the cultural vigor needed to underwrite the evangelization of the world.

      • I agree with much of what you say. Obviously it is better to be competent rather than incompetent and survival is generally a good thing. However, in addition to the extreme case of apostasy or death which I tried to use to tease out a principle, there are many conceivable instances where making the just choice will lead to a lessened probability of survival. For example, let us imagine a North Korean man who needs to feed his family. He can become a guard to a labor camp which would require him to torture and kill innocent people who were only imprisoned because a distant relative did something the regime did not like, but would get plenty of food for himself and his family or he could take his slim chances on farming in a famine stricken land. Similar examples could be created for whole tribes or nations. Each time they chose justice over pragmatism they would then become more vulnerable and their likelihood of having to make similar choices would thus grow. Eventually they may find themselves on a course to destruction such that even if they repudiated all their other choices and decided that survival was paramount they would still reach the same end. Even if this is the case I would argue that justice should take precedence over long or short term survival. Now, if a liberal were arguing that stopping the free movement of people across nation borders is immoral and their faced with the rebuttal that said action will probably hinder a nations long term viability, it would be justifiable for the to reject that argument because morality outweighs practicality. Thus the argument should be about whether such immigration is a moral good or not. Likewise St. Clement’s argument to which you referred to is sound only because he had already shown that the accumulation of wealth was not intrinsically immoral. So that the Gedanken Policy test would only be of use on issues that have been shown to be morally neutral. How many issues worth deciding at the national level would be morally neutral is also another relevant question.

      • Thanks again for pushing back on this, Skeggy. I see what you are getting at, but I think your critique is aimed, not at a *policy* test, but a *decision* test. There is an important difference between asking what one should do in response to a given particular situation, and asking what one should do in general. In every particular situation, both the honest liberal and the honest traditionalist will agree that one ought to do the right thing, even at the cost of one’s life. That’s what happens when policy drives decisions.

        The Gedanken Test aims to answer the question, what ought our policies to be? Those policies, as applied to particular decisions, will then tend at the margins either to enrich and nourish society, or impoverish and starve it.

        Confronted with an immediate adventitious decision, the liberal retreats to abstract moral generalities that make no sense as carried into actual practice (or else, more likely, he makes an unprincipled exception). The archetypal example is the liberal who sat behind the shoe-bomber on the plane, and who considered reporting him to the stewardess, but decided he would rather die at the shoe-bomber’s hands than live in the sort of society where people were judged on the basis of whether they intended, or appeared to intend, to murder hundreds of people.

        The Gedanken Policy Test attempts to confront the liberal social engineer with the likelihood that the implementation of the policy he proposes will tend to lead to the replacement of his own liberal sort of society with another, wherein the policy he proposes would never be considered by any sane person – i.e., to a *totally illiberal* society.

        If, mirabile dictu, a liberal should come to a realization that his liberal policies spell the doom of all liberal policies, he at least might begin to question whether his liberal policies truly do make sense in the world as it is.

      • So the Gedanken policy test is to demonstrate the self-contradictory nature of liberalism on grounds that they will accept?

      • If we are using it as an apologetical weapon in our discourses with liberals, yes. But it can be used by anyone, to test any policy. Had it been used by our tradent forefathers to test the first liberal policy innovation (whatever that was), we might never have gone down the road to liberalism.

        The Test is designed to reveal any disparity between the perceived justice of a policy and the justness of its effects. It doesn’t matter what standard of justice, or what utility function, you use for your criterion of what counts as an acceptable outcome of the Test. If the Test shows that your ostensibly just policy proposal will lead to unjust results, then either the policy is lethal or your notions of justice disagree with the order of being.

  4. Kristor,

    Many policies advocated by right liberals also fail pretty quickly: e.g., the universal franchise, popular Senatorial elections, laws against discrimination in the workplace, and so forth.

    Not obvious. Is it really so that technicality of senatorial elections is at all significant?

    But in asking our interlocutors to engage with us in a gedanken test, we must therefore ask them to abstract themselves from the particularities of history, so that they are able to see the two experimental subjects as tokens for real societies.

    This kind of abstraction applied to practical problems, I find very problematic. It is very reminscent of the universal
    thinking beloved of the Left and opposed to the spirit of Right, that is respect for the particular in its history.

    • You are right to be wary of abstract thought. But what the Gedanken Policy Test tries to do is focus thought on the project of ascertaining the concrete, practical effects of a specific, particular policy upon one of two cultures that are otherwise exactly alike. The reason that this calls for abstraction from the particulars of history is that immersion therein tempts us to compare societies that are *different* – these being the only sort that history furnishes to our analysis – so that the effect of the Policy Test is swamped by the other differences between the societies. In this very thread, careful thinkers have fallen prey to that temptation, comparing Troy to Akhaia, and the UK to the Congo. But the point of the test would be to compare, e.g., the Congo that has implemented the policy in question with the Congo that has not. And it asks what the concrete effects of that policy would be, so that the answer it is seeking is concrete, rather than abstract.

      Rather than appealing to sweeping abstractions like Equality or Fraternity, as the Left loves to do, it appeals to concrete effects of specific policies. In other words, it seeks to answer the question that social engineers almost never ask: “What could possibly go wrong?”

      You ask whether such right-liberal proposals as popular Senatorial elections are really that susceptible to the Test. To me, they are. They are trickier to test than left-liberal policies, which all blow up instantly, but they are still testable. They may or may not make differences that are important; that’s a different question.

      • You could not apply the test unless you knew the society pretty deeply. Just one datum: the English introduced trial by jury to Bengal province of India when it was brought under East India Company administration in 1765. But trial by jury did not work and was later withdrawn and even now it does not exist in India.

        The reason was extreme fragmentation of Indian society on caste lines plus a much higher endemic level of corruption. But the English that had 165 years of experience in India at that point, they failed to realize that the trial by jury would not work in India.

        So, the test you propose is hardly possible for mere mortals to essay.

      • Sometimes the Test is indeed quite difficult to apply, as I noted in the original post. That does not mean it is impossible to apply. You are quite correct that it would be easier to apply to a familiar than to an unfamiliar culture. Its first, best use by a culture would presumably be in the administration of its own affairs. Wherever it is used, any difficulty in discerning the effects of a policy should indicate that, as unpredictable or ill-understood, the policy is imprudent, and should not be implemented.

        There is nothing really special about the Test. It is just a formalized procedure, one among many, for trying to answer the question, “what could go wrong with this idea?” Such tests are standard operating procedure in engineering processes proper. They are rarely used when it comes to social engineering. Presenting the Test as an apologetical weapon for Traditionalists is a way of trying to insert a bit of rigor into that process of social engineering, which as mediated dialectically is fit for apologetical techniques.


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