On Deception

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A reflection on Hippias Minor

As with so many of the activities and attributes of humanity, deception appears to be a two-sided coin: falsehood externalised on others and the self-deception that humans are so very capable of inflicting. Regardless of its form, deception does maintain a single common thread – the masking of opinion and knowledge to avoid pain. With this working definition, I will examine the methods of deceit and whether they are inherently wrong, or can be tools put to use in the service of the good.

The first form of external deception comes in the guise of lying to avoid the negative consequences of your own actions or deprive another of their just rewards. I argue that both these are one and the same form of lying, as both pertain to an individual knowingly depriving another of benefit, while at the same time maximising their own advantage. This type of deception is wrong, but like a double-edged sword, it cuts both ways. The deceived person is deprived of justice, but the deceiver – having lied deliberately and therefore cognizant of the wickedness they are perpetrating – internalises the reality that they are a wicked person.

The next form of external deception is a reaction to confrontation: when an individual engages in the form of crypto-belief to protect themselves from criticism or oppression. In this case, I would argue that the individual is, if in an oppressive society, engaging in submission or a prelude to rebellion – something that as I have previously discussed, they have no choice in (see on Obedience). However, if they are participating in a debate they are doing something wholly bad – they are misleading their interlocutor as to their own opinions, depriving both themselves and their companion of full benefits of inquiry.

The final form of external deception is when we engage in protecting another person’s fragility. If we decide that another person is incapable of conducting debate or is likely to break under the realities of a situation, we deceive them out of kind intention thus avoiding the discomfort of inflicting pain on another. We all inevitably will engage in this behaviour, as the decision to end a debate with an unhelpful partner is a form of deception, as we allow a person to continue confident in their own idols. However, as I have said before (see on Smashing Idols), such an act is a tacit condemnation of the interlocutor – whatever pain you save them is, in reality, an acceptance of their intellectual death.

Now that we have examined the external methods of deception we turn to the insidious form of internal dishonesty. At its heart self-deception is predicated on the most dangerous of ‘sacred’ objects – the idol of the self. Throughout our lives, we develop an internal reflection of our own personage, a collection of labels, occupations, accomplishments and events that we see as defining us. However, this statue is both incomplete and dangerous. The incompleteness of the idol comes from our willingness to bury those acts we are ashamed of, highlighting only the bright shining moments of pride. The danger comes from the mental calcification, the way in which this idealised sense of self closes our mind to criticism, debate and growth.

So, having examined external and internal deception, the question is now laid out before us – can deceit be used in the service of the good? The answer would appear clear – internal deception is always wrong and external deception is representative of a greater evil. If you use external deception to protect yourself or others from oppression, this represents the impact of external evil which has already reduced your choices to acts of submission or rebellion. If you use it as a means of preserving another from their own fragility you are condemning them as mentally petrified. In this sense, deception is a poison chalice, an act we should avoid whenever possible.

Original text

Plato’s Hippias Minor


Pellegrino Tibaldi, Blinding of Polyphemus, c1550-51

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