Saintly lies and the devil that lurks in double talk

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Nothing so much undermines public regard for politics and business as the increasingly widespread practice of equivocation. In the light of the spectacle surrounding the Hutton report, this wisdom should be extended beyond the tale of St Athanasius.

Catholic children, instructed in the lives of the saints, learn of the ingenuity of St Athanasius. While fleeing his unrighteous persecutors, he encountered ruffians; not recognising him, they asked: “Where is the traitor Athanasius?” “Not far away,” he replied, and continued his escape.

I am not much impressed by the blessed Athanasius, and suspect many readers will feel the same. The story has force only if the prohibition on lying is absolute. Immanuel Kant, the philosopher, agonised over whether it was permissible to mislead one’s prospective murderer. The economist Adam Smith was troubled by the notion of reneging on a promise to give a highwayman one’s money rather than one’s life.

But lesser mortals have fewer scruples. We would forgive St Athanasius if he had wilfully sent his enemies in the wrong direction, and we suspect a just God might feel the same. Many of us tell untruths in less extreme conditions. The person who has never said: “That dress really suits you”, “I don’t mind that you were late” or “You’ll be better soon” is ill equipped to cope with daily life.

To find St Athanasius’s behaviour edifying, we must also believe there is a sharp distinction between ambiguity and falsehood. Edmund Burke first accused an 18th-century British government of economy with the truth, and two decades ago Lord Armstrong, Britain’s top civil servant, extended the meaning of the phrase: he claimed that a government official might not only leave things out, but also equivocate.

Bernard Williams, the late philosopher, encapsulated the notion of equivocation in his last book*. The speaker hopes the listener hears a false interpretation of an ambiguous statement, while consoling himself that an alternative interpretation of the same words might be true.

But if equivocation is to seem to say one thing and mean another, it differs very little from a lie, in which you actually say one thing and mean another. Yet the notion that the distinction between falsehood and equivocation is important has swept across business and political life in the past two decades. Accountants prepare financial statements that are correct in detail but misleading in aggregate. The ill-considered language of Andrew Gilligan, the journalist whose reports sparked the current spat between the British government and the BBC, is minutely dissected but wider issues of veracity and misinformation remain unexamined.

Those who equivocate do not respect their audience. St Athanasius may be entitled to argue that his hearers had no right to the truth. But this defence is not available to the politician who misleads the voters or the businessman who cooks the books. And the contempt of the speaker for the hearer is reciprocated. Nothing so much undermines public regard for politics and business as the increasingly widespread practice of equivocation.

Advisers must bear much of the blame. It is not an accident that so many of the characters involved have backgrounds in law or accountancy. A lawyer is properly concerned with the precise interpretation of words, an accountant with the exact presentation of figures. But much of what lawyers and accountants do today schools their clients in equivocation. They help them prepare statements that, while formally accurate, are intended to flatter or deceive.

Officials must sometimes lie. The finance minister who seeks an orderly devaluation cannot announce his plans, the general must withhold the order of battle, all leaders must give encouragement even when they feel despondent. But these lies may be told only in limited circumstances and from honest motives. The security of the state should not be confused with the personal embarrassment of its officers.

Public confidence can be restored only when it is recognised that most people see no significant moral difference between falsehood and equivocation. Telling the truth means that the same thing is in the mind of the speaker and the mind of the hearer. And St Athanasius was justified not because what he said was literally true but because the circumstances he encountered made it permissible for him to lie.

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