The honest truth about lying

Up to 1,250 current and former Australian Defence Force members now have permanent brain injuries as a result of taking anti malarial drugs, according to ABC news.

It seems that the Army knows the horrific mental effects these drugs can induce, but they continue to use them. Soldiers who complain are apparently bullied and threatened, according to the news stories.

So, why would anyone do this to our country men and women? Why lie and then try to cover up misdeeds when the media, or others, point out such iniquitous acts? If the decision makers stoped for one minute to ask themselves if they would like it done to them, would they still do it to others? Surely, they could not justify such abhorrent behaviour?

Sadly, it’s not a new phenomenon. Australian history, along with other countries, is littered with stories about how soldiers have been used as guinea pigs, and been lied to, for what is argued to be for the greater good. It’s not just the military, although an army of people trained to obey without question, is a tempting opportunity to exploit.

When I heard this story on the radio as I drove home from work on Friday evening I began thinking about the thought processes of people who make these decisions, and those who protect them by lying to maintain secrecy. I also wondered how other people would view their behaviour.

I have a forty five minute drive home so I had a lot of time to think. I tried to imagine what people would say. Perhaps something like:

‘Only a sociopath, a person with no empathy and no conscience, could make a decision that they knew would place people in such harm!’

‘Oh hang-on, they are soldiers going into war zone, so they are being placed in harm’s way anyway…’

‘But, does that justify giving soldiers’ drugs that cause such lasting damage, without their knowledge or consent?’

Australian soldiers volunteer to go to war for multiple reasons, some for lofty ideals, others to protect their country, and some because they like the job, or the adventure. Their reasons for going, to do their country’s dirty work, doesn’t matter, but they go with a high level of skill and a belief that such skill, along with their mates, will keep them alive. They don’t expect to be harmed, and certainly not by their own hierarchy.

So, back to what motivates the decision makers and how do they justify their decisions?

Could it be they have no morals?

I doubt they would agree with that statement. Lots of our decision makers attend church and consider they are morally upright. Look at the bosses of the Army decision makers, a selection of our recent Prime Ministers, John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, they are all devout Christians.

These Prime Ministers consider themselves righteous men and yet this unconscionable conduct was done under the watch of at least one of them if not more. From the Peace Keepers in East Timor, through to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and perhaps even until this day, our soldiers have been subjected to these particular anti malarial drugs and many are suffering the debilitating mental effects.

I imagine the Prime Minister is kept appraised of what is being done in the name of the country even if they have not made the decisions themselves. So where were our elected representatives and why didn’t they speak out against such a dastardly decision?

I won’t pretend I am naive. Good people make evil decisions which bring harm to those whom they are expected to protect. The question is why? How can they justify such a thing? For, in order to sleep at night, they would need to have some kind of justification; even serial killers justify their evil deeds to themselves.

I can hear the excuses now as, I imagine, can you. It might be something like…the side effects only affect some, and the drug protects the majority from contracting malaria.

Ask the soldiers who have been affected by these drugs, if they are happy with that answer.

Nietzche says the lie is a condition of life, and I guess it is because research by DePaulo et al., shows most of us lie daily, often multiple times. British research shows men lie twice as much as women, and it seems we reserve our biggest lies for our most intimate relationships.

Often these kinds of lies are altruistically motivated because we don’t want to hurt those we love, but sometimes we lie because we don’t want to get into trouble, or because we don’t wish people to think badly of us. Sometimes we lie because we want someone to like us, so we lie in our compliments or our omissions; sometimes we lie to bolster our self esteem.

Whatever the motivation for lying, it is a strange human phenomenon without which, life would be a dull thing. I have watched people lying to me all week with fascination. It’s an experiment of a sort for which I am well trained by my profession, my experience and my fascination with human behaviour.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t usually mind people lying to me, even when it’s obvious. Humans lie. I don’t take it personally. What does interest me is the motivation behind the lie. For it is the motivation, not the lie, that is the upsetting aspect.

It’s not like you can say, ‘please explain your motivation for lying to me.’ Oh boy, that would send a person into a spin. Oh course it would most likely also elicit another lie. ‘I’m not lying, honestly.’ Or perhaps even, ‘what about you? You lied to me about that thing…’ We like to turn the tables when our lies are uncovered.

When we are uncomfortable with our behaviour we often try to allocate blame to someone else. We do it in little ways… ‘I wouldn’t have had to do that if only you had done…’ You get the gist.

So, why do we lie?

I have established that people make immoral decisions which harm other people whom they are supposed to protect, even though they may have empathy, morality and a conscience. On top of such immoral decisions, the decision makers cover up, justify or try to hide their lies. Hmm, now we get closer to the truth.

The people who made the decision to feed poison to our soldiers, can’t be that comfortable with their decisions after all, or they would not have covered it up: cognitive dissonance, anyone?

The moral philosopher, Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral reasoning says that humans, as they develop, progress through levels of reasoning when confronted by moral dilemmas. The levels are called pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional.

Without boring everyone with a lecture on reasoning, I will just say that for the purpose of this essay the middle conventional level is where most people stop developing their reasoning skills, around their early adolescent years. The conventional level has reasoning based on doing what is right according to the law or social convention.

In a nut shell, it is concerned with the dos and don’ts in society, and the fear that if we don’t conform, we will be exposed as being outside the social norm. At this level we act to conform to avoid social sanction or our own guilt. If we are doing something of which we think others wouldn’t approve, we hide our actions.

I doubt society would approve of the decision to poison our soldiers so it’s better not to tell anyone about what we are doing – the conventional level.

The third level of Kohlberg’s theory, or the post-conventional level, is concerned with both the social contract and universal principles, where human rights, justice and equality apply to everyone, regardless of rules.

This level of reasoning would ensure that no human, soldier or not, should be subjected, unwittingly, to a poison which may affect their health and mental functioning.

Does this mean that the military decision makers and their bosses, the politicians in this country, have the moral reasoning skills of an adolescent? Do we not deserve better from those whom we place in positions of power? Where is the post-conventional reasoning in our leaders? Where is the evidence of a principled conscience which will stand up for moral right, regardless of social constructs?

I am not an historian so I cannot say I have much knowledge about great military or political decisions. One decision, made with post-conventional reasoning, which does come to mind, is a decision by Abraham Lincoln. Here was a man, who against the wishes of many of his own party, issued the emancipation proclamation in 1863. The decision was made against the social conventions of the times, but freedom for all was a belief he was prepared to stand up for and fight.

It doesn’t matter what the issue is, and it doesn’t matter about the behaviour or motivations of others, what matters in post conventional reasoning is that you have a belief in a social contract and the universal rights of people, all people, and you uphold that belief in the face of opposition, without resorting to cover ups and lies.

We often call it courage.


2 thoughts on “The honest truth about lying

  1. I was wondering if Lariam was still being used. It nearly killed me in 2004, so I read up everything about it. The worst aspect is that this is a top shelf drug that has medical use as a last ditch way of treating cerebral malaria. Its indiscriminate use as a malarial prophylaxis undermines defences against the malaria parasite, as the parasite learns how to get around every drug that’s around. Lariam should never have been widely prescribed, when the Chinese drug Artemesan was available and very effective in dealing with malaria without invading the brain chemistry, as Lariam does.


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