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The ethics of lying

Man is not what he thinks he is; he is what he hides.

– Andre Malraux, French writer

All hell will break loose when a skilled lawyer asks a witness if he has ever lied in his life as an opening question. The judge will frown, the jury will lean forward, and opposing counsel will explode with righteous rage.

Such questions impinge on the psychological feebleness of every human being. Nobody is supposed to go there. It’s out of bounds to every raised eyebrow. It’s a no-go zone of self-interest, privacy and secrecy.

Isn’t lying freedom of speech, lamented another pathological liar who knew the law. It certainly is freedom of speech as long as nobody’s else’s freedom is at stake exclaimed another liar learned in the law.

Yet, lying has developed into a fine art of concealment and deception. Lying takes so many avatars that it’s hard to catch up. It keeps the judiciary frightfully busy.

The Holy Bible says that Abraham asked his wife Sarah to say that she is his sister, in case he’s killed, when they went into Egypt to evade a famine. Was this ethical? Is it kosher to lie when impending death lurks about?

Watergate set the bar for presidential lies when Richard Nixon insisted he played no role in the break-in. The volume and strategies of lying failed when he became the first US president to resign his office. Self-imposed polygraphs are reliable.

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s attorney, fixer, and felon, lied in open court, again, and got away with it. The ongoing effort to ‘Get Trump’ is more important to subsume a host of lies for political reasons.

And then there was Bill Clinton with his “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.” No impeachment. The Clinton Foundation continues, till today, to rake in millions in donations and contributions.

Is it possible that people of unsound minds take refuge in lying? Could this be the purpose of Article 48 (1)(a) of the Malaysian Federal Constitution which disqualifies people of unsound minds from seeking political office?

But it’s illogical to assume that those with sound minds do not lie! “He who has not sinned cast the first stone,” said Jesus to a hungry crowd waiting to stone a known prostitute. Nobody stepped forward.

Smart politicians escape the claws and talons of the law with clever lawyering. “I don’t remember” was President Reagan exit strategy when quizzed over the Iran-Contra affair.

Being “economical with the truth” is how Lord Armstrong testified and described a British civil servant in the Spycatcher case. A “well-judged falsehood” is another nice British description of a blatant lie.

But then, there are professional liars out there for hire and reward. Experts say a professional liar does his or her research extremely well so that they cannot be caught. That is the stock in trade.

Today, the professional liar hides behind a keyboard. He or she has multiple names. They are invisible to the optics of social media. They usually stay in the twilight zone.

Man landed on the moon. Many believe it was a well-planned lie to fool the world. The sceptics ask: if they landed on the moon, how come they haven’t planned multiple trips since the first landing?

Undercover cops are paid to lie for all the right reasons involving civic purposes. Is it ethical to lie in order to find the truth? Obviously, law enforcement agencies think so.

Results of a polygraph or lie-detector tests are inadmissible in a court of law in most regimes. The police rely on this contraption. Can a machine tap to feel a psychological urge to lie? Does it have AI capabilities?

Lawyers and criminologists expressed discomfort in 2021 when an alleged victim accused a political party president of sexual assault. The media reported that he underwent a four-hour lie detector test at Bukit Aman police headquarters.

Every expert came out swinging about the unreliability of polygraph tests. A June 2024 media report says lawyers are preparing for a hearing at the Kuala Lumpur High Court scheduled for June 2025.

The alleged victim wanted the results of the polygraph admitted in court. The judiciary thought otherwise as the Evidence Act needed amendment to accommodate lie-detector tests as palpable evidence.

And the plot thickens. The public, as usual, is taking bets. The alleged victim’s motive will be a top-of-the-chart element to establish truth or falsity of the matter.

H.L. Mencken put it painfully blunt: “The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.”

It is a sad fact that many systems of government and governance today lives up to Mencken’s observation. Many politicians qualify to fit into this painful mould. Yet the voters keep busy.

Democracy is supposedly government by consent. If so, how come the consent-giver is entitled to bold-faced and blatant lies? Surely consent is made of sterner stuff!

Whether the Honest Services Act keeps a leash, or a noose, over government is yet to be ascertained when verifiable facts can be weighed and measured by clever lawyering.

And then there is that ardent worshipper who insists that lying keeps the Almighty busy and wary. There here-and-now and the hereafter matter.


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