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Dishonesty, as a vice, is universal and timeless; according to the Bible, the very first humans on earth committed the first sin of deception. Adam and Eve lied to God about whether they had eaten the fruit of the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden, cementing the human race as one which feels that the burden of truth is too cumbersome to carry, and dooming humanity to a life of sin. Modern liars still carry on this legacy of deception, and rather than seeing “modern liars” as their own association, all living humans are modern liars. Regardless of whether the practice of dishonesty is daily or hourly, small “white lies” or large-scale intentional misdirection, each mortal creature contributes to the act of lying.
Some of these “large-scale liars” were interviewed in the documentary entitled “(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies” – people from all walks of life who share solidarity in the experience of the exposition and chastisement which frequently follows the act of lying. The interviewees also collectively understand the snowball effect of lies, taking on a life of their own and growing exponentially in size as they must be maintained through an ever-expanding mountain of mistruths. All those who were interviewed started with good intentions and seemingly justifiable excuses for their dishonesty, and yet all had to face the consequences that come with lying.
The act of lying along with the question of its morality was viewed to be paramount in the study of humanity and in the success of a society according to author Sissela Bok, who saw this analysis as so crucial that it inspired her first book, aptly named Lying. In this book, Bok defines lying as “any intentionally deceptive message which is stated” (page 13). This broad definition of a lie can be interpreted to include outright deception along with clever misdirection of the facts, incriminating both the individual who lies by omission along with the person who purely states a falsehood. A case which features both types of lying is that of Dis(Honesty)’s Joe Papp.
Papp is a former professional cycling racer whose experience in competitive biking reaches back to his freshman year of high school. His adoration of the sport, along with his undeniable talent, led him not only to countless first-place victories but also to the Olympic Trials. However, due to the approaching academic year, Papp felt deeply impelled to reinvest his time in his education and put his cycling career on hiatus in order to undividedly concentrate on his studies.
After earning his undergraduate degree, Joe Papp said in his interview that he “couldn’t get rid of the ‘bike bug’ and [he] went back to cycling”. Papp began entering races, just as he did before attending university, yet he, unfortunately, found himself slogging behind in competitions in which he had initially believed he would’ve excelled. In confiding this insecurity to a fellow cyclist, he was referred to a doctor who could “help him catch up to the other racers”, thus beginning the habit of “doping” – slang for taking performance enhancing drugs.
In participating in the act of doping, Papp was deceiving those around him by omission, along with outright avoiding the confession of his actions, in order to protect his team and avoid the major consequences which come with his misdeeds. Regardless of his efforts, Papp was caught, tried in court for his crimes, and was consequently banned from competitive cycling for testing positive for steroids along with his shared dishonesty in hiding these facts in correspondence with his team.
But the same question arises for all in cases of deception: Are the lies justified?
For a complete dissection, we turn to Bok’s analysis of “justified lies” in Lying, whether or not such a thing exists, along with which excuses the liar uses. One type of excuses which Bok distinguishes is that in which the liar “offers moral reasons to lie…show[ing] that a lie ought, under the circumstance, to be allowed” (page 75). One of the common lies under this category carries the motivation to establish fairness – “everyone else is doing it, I want to level the playing field”. This is nearly verbatim what Papp expresses in “(Dis)honesty” when he claimed that so many racers were taking the drugs that he didn’t feel that he could be victorious under such unfair circumstances. However, does this motivation justify his dishonesty?
Bok frequently emphasizes in her writing that the main focus of the potential liar should be that of the perspective of the deceived, and that when it comes to lying for the sake of “fairness”, the lies “involve deeply personal views about what one deserves…[therefore] they are extraordinarily prone to misinterpretation and bias” (page 83). A liar’s bias towards himself, even in what he believes to be motivated purely by equality, reveals his true motivation of selfishness. On top of that, Bok recognizes that self-deception to the point of complete justification is much easier when the liar only has to confront his own conscience (which can easily be manipulated), and when those around the liar are partaking in the same practice of deception. This example is very obviously applicable to Papp, whose entire team engaged in the act of doping. This violates two of Bok’s conditions for justified lies – going through one’s personal conscience to decide whether to deceive, and asking trusted advisors about what to do. Although Papp did both of these things, the advisors steered him into his misdeeds and he convinced himself so thoroughly of the lie’s justification to the point of his conscience not leading him to the morally correct conclusion.
Another of Bok’s conditions for justified lies includes what she calls a “publicity test”, which is a perspective shift to how the common majority would view the lie. Unlike many cases of deception, we do know how the public feels about this lie. Since Papp’s case went to court along with the news, all of America was exposed to his dishonesty and misdeeds. According to an interview with Naples Herald, after the court ruling, he was sent many furious, threatening emails, and people he had considered family no longer wanted to speak to him. It’s clear due to his continued use of performance enhancing drugs that Papp hadn’t considered his lie through the lens of the publicity test, otherwise, he may have foreseen such dire consequences. In this regard, Bok would not view the lie as justified, in accordance with the view of the general public.
Something Bok believes is that all people must consider truthful alternatives when tempted to be dishonest, and she emphasizes that lying must be the last resort in all situations. Were there truthful alternatives for Papp? Perhaps not from his perspective. Since he viewed his actions as rooted in fairness, along with the need to conform to the actions of his teammates, he may have believed that doping was the only real way to succeed in his cycling career. Rather than deciding to hold honesty in the highest regard, Papp simply lied to cover his tracks, instead of searching for other ways to be victorious. Once again, Papp’s dishonesty is not seen as justified when it comes to Bok’s standards.
Since dishonesty is such a common practice among humanity, one of Bok’s concerns about a single lie is whether it contributes to the person’s habit of lying. In her eyes, a lie is more justifiable when it’s an isolated event, rather than one of many. Of course, we know that Papp lied multiple times in order to hide his doping, therefore we know that none of his lies were justifiable due to each one furthering him into becoming a dishonest person by nature.
Every single point on Bok’s rubric for justified lies has, quite obviously, been an absolute failure when it comes to Papp’s situation. He did not consider the public’s opinion before partaking in his dishonesty, his personal conscience and the advice of his trusted associates were both corrupted, he did not consider the truthful alternatives in his situation, and each lie he told built up to a mountain which avalanched into habitual deception. From every angle, Joe Papp was not justified in any of his lies, and it’s clear that his deception was not only harmful to him, but to his fans, family, and those who believed in him. It’s imperative for all people to analyze the ways they rationalize their deception, for we all may fall victim to such a fate.
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