Deceiving for Your Truth

Two recent news stories caught my eye for the same reason: both are about instances of the increasingly popular phenomenon of undercover activists deceiving their targets in order to expose some alleged truth about them.

You’ve probably heard of the first: Live Action, an anti-abortion group headed by onetime James O’Keefe partner Lila Rose (pictured), set up a sting and captured a Planned Parenthood employee purportedly encouraging a sex-selective abortion.  The second story tells of a gay activist who got a British psychotherapist to lose her senior accredited status after he posed as a Christian struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction.

It’s not so much the merits of these alleged revelations that interest me, but rather the specific act of lying so as to expose a truth that we see in both cases.  Even if such deceptions are well motivated and fruitful, they betray the deceiver’s disinterest in truth itself.

Truth matters for its own sake, but it also matters for those who would pursue it. If I may creatively borrow a distinction made by Conner P. Williams, activists who lie to expose some alleged truth reveal themselves as ideologues as opposed to people with a disposition toward the truth.  I’ll go so far as to call them relativists because the truth that matters to them is the truth they would expose about their ideological enemies, and not the truth about who and what they are.  Truth, if they’re honest enough to convey it, serves their ideology.  Power, ultimately, is what motivates them and what they seek: power over their political and cultural opponents.

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Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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23 Responses

  1. I suspect that the two perpetrators of untruth you mention (one whose ideology more likely aligns with mine than the other) would argue that their aims are different from or higher than mere truth. I suspect there is some kind of admixture with another virtue. Justice, perhaps? In the case of the former, whatever best expresses the drive to protect the lives of the unborn (using their rhetoric)?

    You recognize it as power, and I am inclined to agree with you on both counts. But for those doing the deceiving, I imagine they’d call it something else.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      No doubt. However, even if an organization deservedly falls or a wrongful practice ceases, you don’t necessarily have justice, a virtue that denotes giving things their due, truth included.

  2. GordonHide says:

    You may have heard of “The Clergy Project”. Apparently there has been more than one attempt to “break in” there in order to “out” the clergy members.

    I guess the next thing is we can all expect to be “frisked” for recording devices whenever we have a conversation with a stranger.

  3. DensityDuck says:

    “Truth matters for its own sake, but it also matters for those who would pursue it. ”

    Hi, I’m here to expose you as a fraud and a charlatan! Mind answering a few questions?

    Hey, where are you going?

  4. Will Truman says:

    I don’t have a problem with undercover work, per se, even when it involves lying. I do think that the context has to be taken into account. I think a lot of people really misunderstood the dynamics involved in Borat, for example. O’Keefe himself has proven to be… unreliable. Just just because he lies to his marks, but also because he lies to his audience.

    A while back, an undercover news reporter busted open a very corrupt police department near where I live. They put $10k of cash in the car, had a state trooper sign off that there were no drugs, went to a town that was allegedly corrupt and lo and behold they found drugs in the car which allowed them to seize it and the money. Is this acceptable? How would we differentiate?

    (Of course, that latter story was back in the days when we had civil liberties when it came to such things. Now, they don’t even need to plant the drugs.)

  5. Jeff says:

    I have no problem with underground investigations. Sometimes that’s the only way to get at the truth. (This is especially true of secretive organizations).

    The problem comes in knowing if the information is presented fairly and accurately. In the case of James O’Keefe and ACORN, we know that it definitely was not — and this makes me doubt Lila Rose, tainted by the same brush.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Sometimes, yes, but, in addition to the ethical issues involved with lying, undercover work can also put those involved in morally compromising positions. It’s ethically dangerous, to say the least.

  6. BlaiseP says:

    Hoffa v. United States says the police can lie. Why shouldn’t anyone else be able to lie? Personally, I’d like to arrange for a serious smear campaign for that little feeb O’Keefe. Following the fine example of LBJ, who wanted to accuse his political opponent of having carnal relations with his pigs, it really wouldn’t matter if it was true or not. It would be enough to see O’Keefe try to deny it.

  7. Do you think it is unethical for a cop to go undercover? How about a news journalist like Datelines To Catch a Predator?

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      At the very least, it’s ethically dangerous, as undercover work can put one in morally compromising positions. It may in cases be justifiable, but there’s always a moral cost, an unethical aspect to what’s being done, when truth is sacrificed.

      • What about when the truth is being exposed? I don’t know where you stand on the abortion debate but I feel it is pretty obvious their is a liberal media that will not report on anything bad against Planned Parenthood or Obama. LA citizen journalism in a way is good for society because it keeps these clinics on their feet.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          Exposing truth can be an honorable goal, but it can also be detraction. Seems to me the question here is the means: what means, if any, may not ethically be done to expose the truth?

  8. There is often going to be some ethically questionable means that’s the only way to obtain or realize a certain good. I think part of what you’re asking, if I read you right, is that are there some goods–like the Truth–that ought never be sacrificed, regardless of the means. If that’s what you’re asking, then I think my answer is maybe, but “the Truth” is not necessarily one of those goods.

    You suggest, almost as an aside, that the two examples you cite are attempts to deceive in the name of finding or exposing the Truth. I’m unfamiliar with both examples outside of what you disclose in this blog post, but they don’t seem, to me, to be examples of people deceiving to find the Truth. Or rather, the “Truth” they seek to find / expose is an instrumental one to a larger means. In the first example, I suppose the person in question probably thinks his exposure of the Truth saves lives (those of the unborn). In the second example, I suppose the person in question probably thinks his actions will help gay people be more fully accepted. In other words, in the second example, exposing the therapist is a means to an end that the gay activist wants to accomplish. (By the way, without having more information–and I didn’t click on the links to read more–I think both actions can be criticized as unwisely compromising the Truth when the desired for ends are not proximate enough to justify sacrificing Truth.)

    As Russell suggested above, it’s easy to get “embroiled in the battles at hand,” and, I add, to be quick to compromise first principles to obtain an end that doesn’t require such compromises or that isn’t worth such compromises. And as you point out, “justice” is “not necessarily” the result of any compromise. But sometimes justice, or something else that is good, is indeed the result and might not have been accomplished save for the sacrifice of the principles.

    At the end of the day, I’ll have to come down on agreeing with your last paragraph. The issue might be one of “disposition toward” something (say, Truth over Power). And the two examples you cite do seem to neglect a certain disposition toward proof. My main qualification is that given the circumstance, even one disposed toward Truth may find it necessary to sacrifice it (the Truth, not the disposition) for something else and yet still not be a “relativist” in the easy to criticize sense of “changing one’s morals when it is convenient.” (It is, I suppose, “relativist” in the sense that the person holds certain values higher, relative to others.)

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I am open to entertaining the justifiability of deceit for the sake of truth when such means are the only feasible means of obtaining some good (e.g., exposing criminal behavior), but even in such cases, because truth is sacrificed, there is a moral cost, an unethical aspect to what’s being done.

      I want to address your comment about relativism, but I think I’ll do so in a separate post.

      • This response, and your response to Andrew Anerson above, pretty much sums up most of what I was trying to say in my poorly worded comment.

        I am interested in hearing more about your thoughts on relativism. I look forward to the post.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          I had hope to work it into today’s post, but that didn’t happen. Let me take a quick stab at clarifying my meaning. Such activists are in practice relativistic because their actions imply that truth itself doesn’t matter; rather, truth matters relative to the harm it brings their targets.

  9. “if I read you right, is that are there some goods–like the Truth–that ought never be sacrificed, regardless of the means”

    Err….I should’ve said “regardless of the ends.”

    • And I should’ve written this as a “reply” to myself.

    • Another erratum:

      “You suggest, almost as an aside, that the two examples you cite are attempts to deceive in the name of finding or exposing the Truth. ”

      I realize now you were not suggesting this. In fact, you were suggesting they were seeking power, even if in the name of truth.

      I’m not my usual alert self this morning 🙂