William J. Richardson – The Subject of Ethics

THE LETTER 14 (Autumn 1998) pages 3-26

It was the time of the Lie. The following reflection was born in the moment when an entire nation held its breath in anticipation of its President testifying before a Grand Jury about an alleged denied of an alleged sexual liaison with a White house intern in a pre-trial deposition concerning another alleged sexual liaison (also denied), and allegedly encouraging the intern in question to lie about it. To ask about the subject of ethics under these circumstances was to ask about what was most deeply at stake in the whole unhappy brouhaha.

Arthur Schlessinger, Jr., had claimed in an Op Ed piece in the New York Times that ‘every gentleman lies about his sex life. Only a cad would tell the truth.’ It may be so, but this is not an ethical issue – it is a sociological one. On August 14 the national press reported that the President’s advisors were designing a strategy by which he would admit the liaison but deny that he had encouraged the intern to lie about it. Shrewd enough, perhaps, but this was not an ethical issue. It was a political issue, perhaps, or at most a legal issue, but had nothing to do with ethics. The previous week’s New Yorker had carried a fine article by Jeffrey Rosen entitled The Perjury Trap, in which he distinguished eight different kinds of ‘lie,’ including: kidding, exaggeration, fudging, half- truth, bent facts, white lies, falsehood, and perjury. But this was not the ethical issue either. For Rosen it was another version of the legal issue. But it does imply an ethical issue. For the ethical issue is: ought a human being – or ought he not – abstain from lying under any circumstance? If he ought, then the ethical question becomes: why? If he ought not, then…

 

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