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Is it Ever Ethical for Public Officials to Lie in the Name of the Public Good?

May government officials lie for the public good? Responses to the COVID-19 crisis raise this question. President Trump was accused of downplaying the pandemic to avert panic, as were other leaders across the world including Xi Jinping in China and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. No matter how noble or well-intentioned, it is never appropriate for government officials to lie in the name of the public interest.

Lying is considered wrong. Yet white lies, such as “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” are accepted to promote happiness. Lies to children, the ill, or vulnerable are deemed okay to protect them. Hyping a resume or product is defended to get a job or sell a product. At one time it was acceptable to lie to dying patients so as not to discourage them, but that is no longer a permissible medical ethics practice. Despite a general cultural admonition to tell the truth, we create many exceptions to that rule.

Do these exceptions extend to public officials? Is there a just lie? Should elected officials be allowed to lie to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic to shield them from bad news, prevent panic, or encourage them and make them feel better? However tempting, lying in the name of the public interest is wrong.

“You can’t handle the truth” is the most famous line from the 1992 movie A Few Good Men. Lying for the public good is premised upon this notion. The public cannot handle the truth, candor can be destructive, and lying will produce more good than bad. Lying to the public, for good reason or intention, promotes good social outcomes in dire times, such as with the death and suffering associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are several problems with arguing that lying to the public is ethically permissible.

One, the correctness of lying is justified is left up to public officials and not the people to decide. How do we know they are making the right decisions about what the public can bear if the latter lacks the information to make a judgment on what is right or wrong?

Two, how do we know the public official is lying or withholding information for the right reasons or motives? It is easy for an official to say that their motives are well-meaning, but is that always the case? Might not the basis for withholding information be to hide mistakes, avoid accountability, or simply further one’s own electoral or political interests? Letting public officials decide on the rectitude of their lies is a form of conflict of interest, letting them be the final judge of whether they are acting in the public good or abusing their position.

Three, once a public official has lied, they have lost all of their credibility. Years ago a local school superintendent lied to the public about a possible shooter in that district. In closing the schools the superintendent offered a different reason for the closure. Afterward many said they could never trust the superintendent again. How would they know in the next emergency or even routine decision whether the answer was truthful or a lie? In part, the erosion of public confidence and legitimacy of government stems from questionable veracity.

Fourth, lies might put more people at risk than telling the truth. People act in reliance on the information they receive from public officials. Giving false or misleading information may force people into making choices or assessing situations that put them at more risk than would telling the truth.

Five, in a free society the public is entitled to the truth and adults need and deserve correct information to hold the government accountable and make the appropriate decisions. Lying for the public good treats adults like children, asserting they and not adults know what is in their own best interest.

Overall, perhaps withholding information to protect privacy is permissible and when at war to protect troops or trick the enemy. But intentional lying to the public is never justified as an ethical policy choice.