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Lying and Intention in Public Administration

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard Jacob
April 28, 2017

Judging from the number of articles devoted to the topic, lying is pervasive in many organizations. Newell’s account of the former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s “clearly erroneous” sworn response to Congress and Army officers’ “mutually agreed deceptions” indicate that public service organizations aren’t exempt from the lack of courage evidencing itself in this vice.

Most articles identify excuses explaining why people lie. Daum offers ten, adding the farther up the vertical hierarchy one ascends, it’s increasingly likely one will lie. Haudan argues these lies respond to fear, eight in particular.

What virtue requires…

Discussing why people lie—especially when adverse consequences are the result of good decisions—Anscombe argues that people lie because they intend to lie. Anscombe blames modern moral philosophy for providing two excuses for lying, neither of which is virtuous.

The first excuse—”I had no other choice”—seems irrefutable. But it deflects attention away from an individual’s intention and toward toxic organizational cultures that are characterized; for example, by others’ “clearly erroneous” statements and “mutually agreed deceptions.”

Of this excuse, Anscombe observes it represents a “mental state.” This person didn’t intend to lie and wouldn’t have lied… had the situation and circumstances been different. Yet, the fact remains: This person lied, irrespective of the mental state. What does that fact indicate about this person?

However, there’s one problem: It cannot be stated unequivocally that this individual intended to lie.

The second excuse—lying for the sake of something else, for example, “I lied so that I wouldn’t get fired”—invokes the consequences, the “end” justifying the “means.” In short, this person feared a negative outcome, as Haudan observed. Yet, the fact remains: This individual also lied. What does that indicate about this person?

But, did this individual intend to lie? This second excuse complicates matters. Unless this person was explicit about the intention, it was implicit, making it difficult to impute the intention categorically. Besides, as consequentialists argue, if the outcome was positive (ethically good), who’s to argue?

The lesson? Keep the intention secret. However, that spawns the kind of organizational culture typified by the fear Haudan believes to encourage lying. More ominously, ethical malignancy can metastasize, morphing into new, more toxic and virulent ethical cancers—”vices”—like:

  • Increased mistrust;
  • Putting self-interest ahead of the common good; and,
  • Sabotage.

Virtue ethics doesn’t accept any excuse, so Anscombe’s solution—the only virtuous thing to do—is to reveal one’s intention. Whether implicit (keeping the intention private) or explicit (making the intention public) isn’t germane. Just admit the truth: “I intended to lie.”

For Anscombe, this admission identifies a character where integrity hasn’t “made its home,” that is, “become habitual.” Instead, this individual categorically intended to exhibit the character of a liar, evidenced in the lie. Having now admitted one’s malignant intent, the question is: Will this individual change by allowing virtue—in particular, the virtue integrity—to make its home in his or her character?

Realizing the personal and professional costs that may result from this admission, perhaps that’s why people intend to lie.

Ethical leadership and building ethical public service organizations…

If the number of articles devoted to lying in organizations provides an accurate diagnosis of what’s ailing them today, truth telling doesn’t appear to be a “core competency” in many organizations.

To change those organizational cultures encouraging “near epidemic of truthlessness” (what Steven Colbert called “truthiness“), some articles offer administrators techniques to curb, if not end lying. For example, Haudan suggests using humor so people can “safely have the critical conversations that most of us don’t know how to have.” Those conversations will enable people, in turn, to overcome their fears, be vulnerable and explore the truths, he maintains, “with which we are creatively dissatisfied.” Haudan’s advice for administrators:

“Next time a hard truth is staring you in the face, instead of turning away in fear, look at it head-on and create a picture—a visual representation—of your challenge. Find the humor in your truth-telling and kick down your barriers once and for all.”

ASPA’s Code of Ethics suggests instead to cultivate the virtue of integrity in professional practice by “maintain[ing] truthfulness and honesty.” Integrity will evidence itself when public administrators:

  • Do not compromise truthfulness or honesty for advancement, honor or personal gain;
  • Resist political, organizational and personal pressures to compromise ethical integrity and principles and support others who are subject to these pressures; and,
  • Accept individual responsibility for their actions and the consequences of their actions.

Anscombe’s prescription to ameliorate lying presupposes public administrators possess the desire to demonstrate integrity. When tempted to lie, they will deliberate about the character of the person they want to be and they want their followers to respect and emulate as well as the kind of organizational culture they want to build. Public administrators will then intend to exhibit personal and professional integrity as well as take full responsibility for the outcomes, especially when good decisions result in bad outcomes.

That’s some pretty tough personal and professional medicine! But, it’s absolutely necessary, Anscombe would argue, if public administrators are to be cured of the vice of lying and to cure the organizational cancer of lying—the vice evident in the lack of courage it exhibits—threatening to deplete their own and their followers’ wealth of virtue as well as that of their organizations.


Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a Professor of Public Administration at Villanova University, Acquisitions Editor of Public Integrity, and Chair-Elect of the ASPA Section on Ethics and Integrity in Governance. His research interests include organization theory, leadership ethics, ethical competence, and teaching and learning in public administration. Jacobs may be contacted at: [email protected]

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One Response to Lying and Intention in Public Administration

  1. donald Reply

    April 28, 2017 at 12:57 pm

    very well done piece Rich

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