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The Ethics of Lying ~ News Discussion ~ Matt Olien Reviews Wicked Little Letters

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Today's segments:
In next Sunday's episode of "WHY? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life" UND philosophy professor Jack Weinstein visits with former FBI Agent Luke William Hunt on the topic of "Police and the Ethics of Lying." Today we explore that topic with Jack. ~~~ News director Dave Thompson updates us on the week in news, including developments in the wake of the state political conventions. ~~~ Matt reviews Wicked Little Letters.

Transcript: The Ethics of Lying

Have you ever lied? OK, Let’s refine the question. When was the last time you lied?

Whether it's, “oh, honey, you look great” or “yes, of course, there's a Santa Claus,” We have all certainly told what is often referred to as white lies. But the implications of lying can be severe, especially when it comes to a professional setting.

And so today we are having a conversation about what we expect from others in a professional setting and specifically when those people are hired to protect us. We are visiting today with a philosopher, Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, the host of Why? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life. The theme of this month's episode is police and the ethics of lying.

Ashley Thornberg

I want to start with this being a little bit more broad and specific to the rubric that you use for deciding what should be discussed on a show like Why? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life. Why this topic?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

The guest has been on the show before and he is a specialist in police ethics. And that in itself interests me. But what I like to do is I like to set up a conversation that isn't always obviously connected to our lives and then show why once you start to think about it, it's very specifically connected to our lives.

I also like to ask the questions that other people don't get to ask in, let's say, a serious or focused setting. So none of us or very few of us are close enough to police officers to say, hey, why do you lie all the time? Or why are you asking me where I'm driving when you pull me over to give me a speeding ticket?

Why are you constantly edging me, nudging me to explain myself when I know you're not telling me the truth? And so I think it's a really interesting opportunity to talk about things that are really fascinating, but we don't get the opportunity to really connect with ourselves.

Ashley Thornberg

And when you say a term like lying and then use a phrase like all the time, it makes it sound like you think that that is wrong, full stop. And many people would argue you could not have a undercover police officer if not for the act of lying. Am I right in saying you think that lying is wrong at all times?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Truth is the gold standard of ethical behavior. Truth is the thing that we are supposed to be striving for at all times. And then when we veer away from that, we expect to have a justification.

The argument isn't that we should tell the truth all the time or we should never lie. It's that most of us expect us to have a good reason to lie, just lying for its own sake or just lying for fun. We tend in our culture to regard that as unethical.

So when a police officer stops you and asks, where are you going or do you know why I stopped you? They're not telling the whole truth. They're keeping selective information from you and trying to trap you into saying something that may be as innocuous as, you know, yes, I know I was speeding and I'm sorry.

And then you've confessed to a crime or, yeah, I was just coming from my friend's house down in Fargo and there happened to have been a murder in Fargo 20 minutes ago. And now you're a suspect. Right.

So they selectively manipulate what they tell you and don't tell you in order to get you to say things that limit your options.

Ashley Thornberg

Isn't it also true that there they might be selectively saying and withholding information just to judge how you're reacting? If you're shifty eyed about coming from wherever you're coming from, that can be a telltale sign that you're doing something, you know, wrong.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Police aren't instructed to interview everybody and look to see if they're doing something wrong. Police are expected to have probable cause to stop and interview people in order to confirm whether the thing that they think is happening is actually happening. We don't live in a surveillance society in which we are presumed to be guilty at all times and we are to be interrogated any time the police want.

We live in a society of freedom and individual rights where we are protected from unlawful intrusion and pulling over someone on the side of the road because you're looking to see if they happen to be doing something wrong is a violation of those rights. And that's why there are very strict rules as to when the police can and can't pull you over and why every person, regardless of whether they're guilty or not, is perfectly free to say, I'm sorry, I don't answer questions unless I have a lawyer present.

Ashley Thornberg

Is it fair to say, Jack, that the broader theme of the conversation is not so much about when it is OK to lie and not in sort of that the ends justify the means, but more like, is there a metric, a professional ethics by which the officers are being held like they can measure up to and saying, OK, you lied, but it led to us catching a serial rapist. And so the ends justify the means. And more so your concern is that there is lying that just doesn't outweigh that.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

So there's a couple of things going on at the same time. There are the professional standards that police officers have to use in order to decide when it is and isn't OK to lie. And you use some examples.

Right. One is if they're going undercover to do something. Another is if they're interrogating someone and trying to get them to confess.

But there are also opportunities when police officers lie about following the rules or lie when they talk to an innocent person or lie because it gives them power. Some police officers are wonderful, excellent people. Other police officers don't do their job as well as we expect them to.

Part of the process of ethics, part of the process of political philosophy, part of the process of being in a democracy is holding people accountable to the best standards of professionalization and the best standards of of what we call best practices, doing what we know is the right thing to do and doing the best we can with the knowledge we have. So I don't think anyone is going to say you should never lie or a police officer should never lie ever, just like most people aren't going to say you should never lie in everyday life ever. Sometimes we want people to lie to us.

But what we are going to say is, especially in a professional circumstance, if you are lying, there has to be a good reason to do it. And part of what our conversation is about is figuring out what those good reasons are.

Ashley Thornberg

And where did you land on that?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Well, like all things philosophical, I don't know that I could summarize that in a sentence or two, but the short version is where we landed is lying should be rare and it should be justified in circumstances where lying isn't is the only option. And so just trying to manipulate people, just trying to get the truth, that's not justified. So let me let me let me put this another way for for just a second.

One of the things that I say on the show and one of the things that I've always been bothered by is the fact that police officers in our culture routinely break the law. They speed all of the time because they know that they're trained drivers and they will park in illegal parking spots because they know they won't get parking tickets. And I've always felt that police officers should be the most law abiding people.

They should be the gold standard again of a citizen who does everything they're supposed to do because we are trusting them with our lives. And when a police officer testifies on the stand, they have qualified immunity. We believe them.

And he said he said or he said she said situation, the police officer is always going to win. So the conversation is establishing that framework. If we want police to be the best police they can be, when are they allowed to break the ethical rule of always telling the truth?

And we're philosophers, so we're allowed to assume that people are their best and that we can fix all broken circumstances and that we can take a profession that is very hard and very complex and boil it down to some very, very clear rules that everyone understands. And that's what we were trying to do.

Ashley Thornberg

We're visiting today with philosopher Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, the host of Why Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life. The upcoming episode airs Sunday at five o'clock central, and it's on police and the ethics of lying. And Jack, I listened to the episode and I thought you came down pretty hard on on the side of generally speaking, you don't really trust cops to be on their best behavior.

And in some cases you cite some personal examples of this. One is just briefly, is that a fair assessment?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

I don't trust police officers to not be doing their job at all time. And what that means is they are constantly looking for clues as to who is guilty. And I don't want to be mistaken for one of those people.

And so I understand that the consequences of saying something are very, very serious. At the same time, I, like many people, have had some very unpleasant experiences with the police. And that's very difficult because when you don't when you have unpleasant experiences, there are no there's there's no redress.

Nobody cares. I don't have the power. I'm on public radio and I get to say things to the entire state.

At the same time, if I file a complaint nine out of 10 times, nobody's going to care. And. I mentioned the Prairie Public thing, because that means I have more power than most people when a police officer, again, a philosopher's answer here, but we live in a common law society, and what that means is someone can only be punished after they do something.

So if a police officer lies about me or entraps me or manipulates me, I have to go to jail or I have to be found guilty before I can fight that situation. Something bad has to happen to me before I get the people who did it wrongly punished. And I don't want to be in that situation.

And so in the face of police officers, almost everybody is completely powerless and has to put up with what they're doing, whether they're doing it correctly or incorrectly. And I want, like I think most of us want, to be in a situation where police don't treat me badly.

Ashley Thornberg

I want to play a little bit the devil's advocate here, if that's the correct term, because it strikes me that it's got to be a very difficult job and I don't think that is something that I could do. And specifically from the sense of if I'm sort of out there assuming that I'm going to be catching a criminal, I'm going to look at most people as if they're doing something bad. And I would be too afraid of the consequence of getting it wrong, of letting the bad person go as being a more dire consequence than catching maybe the wrong person and hoping that the judicial system will catch up.

And part of the conversation, the tone of the conversation anyway, as it struck me as a listener, is that you were really coming down kind of hard on the cops for certain behaviors. But I wonder why not broaden out the conversation to be more like the conditions that lead to the behavior? And I'll put it like this.

Sometimes we look at people who have been abused and we understand that they will become abusive. And given the adrenaline, given the lack of high pay, given the terrible hours and the dire consequences of that job, why not have a conversation that's more like that? Could you look at them as doing the best they can in the face of really challenging situations?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

So first of all, the person I was talking to is a former FBI agent. And so we have the conversation about the experience that he brings to the table. But let me talk about two things that you brought up, which are really very important and philosophically interesting.

The first is, is it better to let a guilty person go free or to punish an innocent person? You expressed concern that by not having these conversations, someone, let's call them a murderer, will go uncaught. Well, what's worse, someone who's a murderer not going to prison or the police breaking down the door right now and dragging you away because they decided that you murdered someone five minutes ago, even though you were on the radio.

Taken just as a whole in a society in which we presume that people are innocent before they're proven guilty, we generally think it's much worse to punish the innocent than it is to let the guilty go. And so the question we have to ask about the system, about the whole police structure, is, is it tending towards punishing the right people and is it set up so innocent people aren't worried about being caught up in a crime? Now, the next thing you set up is super interesting and complex because you, I think, very interestingly connected to abuse and you said, all right, well, you know, we know that certain people have been abused and they're more likely to be abusers.

So we're going to watch them. How does that work on the day to day operations of a police officer walking down the street? Do we say, well, we know that black people are more likely to be the victims of crimes.

So we know that black people are more likely to commit crimes. Therefore, we are going to stop black people instead of white people in order to make sure that they're not committing crimes. They did this in New York for a long time.

It was called stop and frisk, where they just pulled black teenagers over and pulled down their pants on the streets and checked them randomly, depending on your definition of randomly, to see if they had illegal stuff. It was a complete violation of their constitutional rights. So what the police have done instead, because we don't want to label black people as potential criminals or 22 year olds as potential criminals, we start to watch for behavior.

We look for those shifty eyes. That you mentioned earlier, we look at whether they run for some reasons, but we have to look at it in the context of a crime and we have to look at it in the context of a particular investigation because maybe I'm shifty eyed because. I'm really shy or maybe I'm shifty eyed because I have a crush on one of the police officers and I don't want them to see me looking at them, or maybe I'm shifty eyed because I have a horrible headache and I can't and I can't look into the sun, so I'm looking down.

Ashley Thornberg

Or are from a culture where eye contact is considered either too intimate or too rude.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Exactly right. Exactly right. So there's hundreds of different reasons why someone can be shifty eyed to assume that they are potentially guilty of a crime in the absence of a crime that you're investigating is to trap them into a circumstance in which they're more likely to be found guilty of something they didn't do than found innocent of something they did.

Ashley Thornberg

We're visiting today with philosopher Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, the host of Why Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life, the upcoming episode on police and the ethics of lying. But Jack, I want to spend the last few minutes of this conversation broadening this out a little because most of us will never be police officers and ideally not have to interact with police officers, at least on the negative end of things too often. But most of us will be professionals and there are sort of professional codes of conduct.

And I wonder how you view an episode like this as something that the rest of us can take some information and use from that perspective.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Sure. So let me just say quickly, we all interact with police officers every day, all the time, on the highway, in stores. We may not know we're interacting with them, but they're there and they're watching us.

Now, with that said, I think we can generalize these questions by asking, do we expect our boss to tell the truth to us? Are we expected to tell the truth to our boss? If my boss tells me a lie.

There has to be a really good reason for it, because otherwise I'm going to do my job wrong, I'm going to be bad at it, I'm going to pursue the wrong things, I'll have the wrong information. At the same time, if I am someone's boss, I want to hear the truth about the business so that I can operate. All of this goes down to the insights of the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Who says, when you lie, you're taking people's freedom away. You're taking away the autonomy. So we tell the truth so people can make the best decisions they can and then be accountable.

I'll give you a very quick example. You're at a bar, you're interested in someone, you try to pick them up and they say, what do you do for a living? And you say, I'm a brain surgeon and I make 10 million dollars a year.

And they decide to go home with you. Now, you're not a brain surgeon. You're a very public person.

You make much less than 10 million dollars a year. Right. Did they consent to ask that?

Did they consent to go home with you? There is this thing that gets called rape through deception, right, where you tell someone various things and then and then, you know, bad stuff happens without getting into details. When you lie, you take away a person's autonomy and agency in a free individualistic society like ours.

That agency and that autonomy is the most prized thing we have.

Ashley Thornberg

Let me broaden this autonomy question out further to something most of us maybe are in, and that's parents and parents lie all the time. I'm thinking specifically of an example where my former boss, Bill, his daughter said at age two, I believe that she didn't want to eat anything on a farm that made a noise. Essentially becoming a vegetarian at two years old.

And they let her do that, except when they got a little bit concerned about protein and iron. And they told her that hamburger doesn't make a noise. A cow wouldn't make a noise on a farm.

And so she ate some hamburger. Did they take away her autonomy?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Autonomy is something that grows over time. And so we find appropriate spheres for autonomy for a little kid, right? A little kid will say something like, you know, I don't like it when you touch me like that, or I don't like it when you hit me or something like that.

And we respect that. So there are areas that, based on the age, are perfectly appropriate areas to recognize a child's autonomy. And as they get older, that autonomy grows.

But the fundamental difference is that the government is not our parent. We want to distinguish between parental care or what gets called paternalism, where their job is to make decisions for us because we are incapable of making those decisions. And the government, which is not supposed to be paternalistic because we are capable of making our own decisions.

That's a huge question. And in communist societies, in authoritarian societies, the government is always seen as paternalistic. It makes decisions for people because it's smarter than people and it knows what's and it knows what's right for people.

But in a democracy, individuals are supposed to make decisions for themselves up until that point where their decisions seriously impact someone else. And then the government stops in not to make the decision for people, per se, but to negotiate a conflict in a way that respects everyone's rights.

NOTE: Prairie Public transcripts are created on a rush deadline by turboscribe.ai. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of "Main Street" is the audio record of the show.