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Media Ethics: Lying and Art. * Sissela Bok. 1999. Lying. New York: Vintage Books * Jeremy Campbell. 2001. The Liar ’ s Tale: A History of Falsehood, New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Lying.

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media ethics lying and art

Media Ethics: Lying and Art

* Sissela Bok. 1999. Lying. New York: Vintage Books

* Jeremy Campbell. 2001. The Liar’s Tale: A History of Falsehood,

New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

  • No single lie undermines a liar’s integrity; however, the problem is that most liars see their lies as trivial and underestimate their risk.
  • After a while, lies seem easier. Moral distinctions can coarsen. Liar’s perception of risk of getting caught become warped.
  • Lies beget more lies, which increases the risk of getting caught.
  • Although initially, lying can give people power, when they are caught and are no longer trusted, their power decreases substantially – to zero.
  • There is a parallel between deception and violence. Both are means not only of survival but also of unjust coercion.
  • Two perspectives: The deceiver as hero, the deceiver as villain.
  • The hero warrior uses deceit to survive.
    • Machiavelli
  • Bok accepts Aristotle’s view that lying is “mean and culpable” and truthful statements are preferable to lies in the absence of special considerations.
  • Lies require an explanation, truth does not.
  • Trust in some degree of veracity is the foundation of relations among human beings; when trust shatters or wears away, institutions collapse.
  • Two points of view:
    • Absolute
    • Special considerations
  • Absolute –Never, under any circumstances
    • Kant
      • Question: You give someone shelter in your house from murderer. Murderer asks “Is he in your house?”
    • Duty to victim higher than duty to tell the truth—special circumstance.
  • Utilitarian approach – Weigh moral choices according to “greatest good for greatest number.”
  • Approach to moral conflict: Use common sense. Weigh lies based on the degree to which lie will do harm or cause unhappiness.
  • In other words, no absolutes. Depends on consequences.
  • However, this approach is unsatisfactory for deciding complex issues with many people involved.
    • Death penalty, for example.
  • White lies – harmless lying.
    • Social practice
    • Cheerful interpretation of depressing circumstances, show gratitude for unwanted gifts – “do no harm.”
    • Triviality of an isolated lie differs from a practice of small deceptions adding up to a big lie.
    • Evasion, euphemism, exaggeration (advertising).
  • Excuses for lying:
    • “Just kidding.”
    • “I didn’t mean it, I was drunk.”
  • Justifying
    • “I lied because…”
  • “Do no harm”principle.
    • A lie that hurts is malicious
    • A lie that has benefits is an “official” lie.
      • Politicians
      • Lawyers
  • If a lie rectifies an equilibrium, it is fair.
    • OK to lie to protect the innocent or a source.
  • But lying can come from self-deception. “If I believe it, it’s not a lie.” Tell small, justifiable (to themselves) lies, they soon believe them.
    • No harm intended, “good reasons.”
  • Vitally important principle: You should not lie when telling the truth will accomplish the same thing.
  • Public scrutiny: John Rawls refers to publicity as a way to test moral choices.
    • A moral principle must be capable of public statement and defense. A secret moral principle, or one which could be disclosed only to a few people could not satisfy this condition.
    • Fairness. Ethics or moral choices agreed to by reasonable people.
      • Challenges liar’s self-deception and privately held assumptions and hasty choices.
    • OK for survival, but don’t extend deceptive practices.
  • Rules of the Game
    • In times of crisis, deceiving an enemy is acceptable.
    • In times of war, deception is expected.
    • In games of chance, if the players consent to the rules, and deception is part of the game.
    • In business, like in war, there are rules that are accepted.
      • Game Theory
  • Lying, evasion, euphemism, and exaggeration vary from one family to the next, from one profession or society to the next.
    • No immutable laws.
  • You can decide to rule out deception whenever honest alternatives exist and you canbecome more adept at thinking up honest ways to deal with problems.

You can learn to look with care at other choices when deception seems the only choice.

  • You can use the test of publicity to help set standards.
  • You can be aware of efforts to dupe you.
  • The stress on individualism, free choice, competition, material success greatly increase pressures to cut corners.
    • To win an election, outsell the competition, increase income
  • Many people feel caught up in practices they cannot change.
  • Public and private institutions, with their huge power, must help decrease pressure.
    • Corporations’ codes of ethics
    • Professional codes of ethics
    • University courses
  • Bok: “Trust and integrity are precious resources, easily squandered, hard to regain. They can thrive only on a foundation of respect for veracity.”
bok summary
Bok: Summary
  • First, consult your own conscience about the “rightness” of an action. How do you feel about it?
  • Second, seek expert advice for alternatives to the act that creates the ethical problem. Experts can be alive or dead (philosophers). Is there another way to achieve the same goal that will not raise ethical issues?

Third, if possible, conduct a public discussion with the parties involved in the dispute. If they cannot be gathered, conduct the conversation hypothetically. The goal of this conversation is to discover How will my action affect others?

jeremy campbell
Jeremy Campbell *
  • Deception can no longer be seen as an artificial, deviant, or even dispensable feature of life.
  • It is a natural, inevitable, and relentlessly necessary part of our world.
  • As art and fiction have increasingly come to dominate our culture, we have obtained a dissatisfaction with the thinness, the inadequacy of literal truth.

* Jeremy Campbell. 2001. The Liar’s Tale: A History of Falsehood,

New York: W.W. Norton & Co.


We have a sense that litreral truth fails to do justice to the rich possibilities of language and experience.

  • Deception is inherent in our nature, according to Campbell.
    • And Theodore Levitt
  • “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” Picasso
    • Painting
    • Fiction
    • Movies
    • Theater (Shakespeare)
    • Docudramas, documentaries
    • Reality TV
aesthetic scale
Aesthetic Scale *
  • Serious artists and producers who are careful about the integrity of their craft and insistent that audiences have a better insight into meaningful human life.
  • Writers and producers who want to provide the most popular product possible – care little for lofty artist visions -- they want to attract the largest possible audience and make money.

Between the demands of art and the marketplace are a host of moral questions that media practitioners face every day.

  • “Triviality destroys at once the robustness of thought and delicacy of feeling. No enthusiasm can flourish, no generous impulse survive under its blighting influence.” Louis Brandeis.

* Media Ethics. 2012. Christians, Fackler, et al. Glenview, IL: Allyn & Bacon


Thus, in the media (TV, Internet, print, film, e.g.) intent is, once again, the key.

  • Is the intent to deceive, to only make money, to titillate without a morally acceptable theme.
    • Is no one treated as fodder for another’s exploitation? (Kant)
  • Entertainment is where we go for refreshment, for advice on how to live our lives, or for escape.
    • Our own failures and fears are forgotten in a good story.
    • Entertainment puts color on the canvas of life.
  • However, our entertainment choices do have an impact on our lives – on who we want to be.
    • You choose the person you will become, which has an impact on other people.

The entertainment you select or produce invariably promotes some moral values and degrades other values – directly or indirectly (implication or innuendo).

  • Be honest with yourself and be true to your intentions:
    • Exploit others - Elucidate
    • Appeal to prurient interests - Educate
    • Make money - Make art
    • Enlighten - Uplift
    • Entertain - Persuade

Moral awareness and self-awareness are vital:

    • Endangering lives is wrong (immoral).
    • Bilking consumers and audiences is wrong.
    • Dehumanizing individuals, races, and religions is wrong.
  • If the entertainment you choose or produce is deepening understanding and appreciation of your own and others’ lives, that’s good.

If your entertainment is wasting your gifts and skills, subverting your sense of human empathy, and weakening your trust in truthfulness, that’s bad.

  • Do no harm.
  • Choose what expands, enriches, deepens, and discerns.
  • Avoid time-wasting drivel and soul-shriveling nonsense.
  • Moral wisdom knows the difference.

Must it be either/or on the aesthetic scale?

  • Can you combine art and commerce?
  • Great artists learn to do both.

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