CAMBRIDGE, MASS.: “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie.”
Those words, attributed to George Washington at the age of 6, appeared in the fifth edition of Mason Locke Weems’s “The Life of Washington,” published in 1806.
In case you’ve forgotten the details of the story: Young George cut down a cherry tree, and when confronted by his father, he confessed, “I did cut it with my hatchet.” Even as a kid, the nation’s first president knew that lying was wrong. He told the truth.
It doesn’t matter that the story was a myth. What matters is that it resonated: Lying was taboo.
The point was previously driven home by James Iredell, a respected lawyer who became a Supreme Court justice, in the North Carolina debates over ratification of the Constitution. Discussing the grounds for impeachment, Iredell said that a “president must certainly be punishable for giving false information to the Senate.” What is most noteworthy is the emphasis on honesty — on the need for the president to tell the truth.
Washington’s greatest successor was nicknamed “Honest Abe.” Abraham Lincoln’s wife wrote a friend that he "is almost monomaniac on the subject of honesty.” Lincoln was a controversial figure. But Reverend Albert Hale, from the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, Ill., reported, “I have never heard even an enemy accuse him of intentional dishonesty.”
As Lincoln himself put it, “I am glad of all the support I can get anywhere, if I can get it without practicing any deception to obtain it.” He connected the commitment to truth-telling to democracy itself: “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.”
What’s the foundation of this deep commitment to truth-telling?
The most powerful philosophical accounts offer a simple answer: Lies treat people as mere objects. When you lie, you fail to respect the autonomy, and the dignity, of other people. You use them as means to your own ends. You cast contempt on them.
Drawing on the work of Immanuel Kant, Harvard’s Christine Korsgaard urges, “To respect someone’s autonomy, not to violate it, is to treat her as someone whose beliefs and actions are, and should be, controlled by her own reason.” Sure, force or coercion can violate people’s autonomy. But the same violation occurs when lies are used to undermine people’s capacity to decide, for themselves, what to think or do. Korsgaard goes so far as to treat lies, along with force and coercion, as “the most fundamental forms of wrongdoing — the roots of all evil.”
In the commercial domain, we can readily see the problem in cases of fraud — as, for example, when a company falsely markets a new medicine as a cure for diabetes, or tells consumers that a car has much better fuel economy than it actually does.
In such cases, lies are a kind of theft. But when people learn that sellers have lied to them, their feelings of outrage extend well beyond the loss of money. People hate it when they have been treated disrespectfully — when their sense of agency has been violated.
Iredell’s strong words about “giving false information to the Senate” seem far afield, but they have a similar foundation. The president is supposed to treat the legislative branch with a certain measure of respect, at least in the sense that he is forbidden to lie to it. If he does, the national legislature is deprived of an essential capacity: to make its decisions with the requisite independence.
These points help to explain and to deepen the furor over President Donald Trump’s willingness to lie — by some accounts, on thousands of occasions.
To be sure, Trump is hardly the first president to fail to tell the truth. But the sheer number of lies, and his execrable indifference to the question of truth or falsity, is not something that the United States has ever seen before.
Myths are not lies. Operating like fairy tales, they serve essential purposes. Passed down from one generation to another, they separate right from wrong. They establish norms: “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie.”
Here’s a proposal for presidential aspirants: Insist on the importance of telling the truth. Not once, not twice, but over and over again, and then once more.
Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of "The Cost-Benefit Revolution." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org