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Hillary Clinton and the Ethical Paradox (or how not to lie about lying)


Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention. Image Credit: apwu.org

In a 2016 interview, CBS anchor Scott Pelley put the following proposition to Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign:


PELLEY: You know, in '76, Jimmy Carter famously said, "I will not lie to you."


CLINTON: Well, I have to tell you I have tried in every way I know how literally from my years as a young lawyer all the way through my time as secretary of state to level with the American people.


PELLEY: You talk about levelling with the American people. Have you always told the truth?


CLINTON: I've always tried to. Always. Always.


PELLEY: Some people are gonna call that wiggle room that you just gave yourself.


CLINTON: Well, no, I've always tried --


PELLEY: I mean, Jimmy Carter said, "I will never lie to you."


CLINTON: Well, but, you know, you're asking me to say, "Have I ever?" I don't believe I ever have. I don't believe I ever have. I don't believe I ever will. I'm gonna do the best I can to level with the American people.

(CBS News, 2016)



This question and her evasive response were perhaps (in my opinion) where some public perception of Clinton’s integrity began to collapse. Washington Post journalist Chris Cillizza would go on to describe this faux pas as: ‘Hillary Clinton’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad answer on whether she’s ever lied.’ Certainly, her opponent Trump pounced upon the ‘crooked Hillary’ motif and commenced an extremely successful smear campaign against his competitor.


But this article is not about US Politics, in which I have little personal interest, as much as any responsible, non-American, inhabitant of planet Earth ought to be interested anyway. But I want to discuss why this question, a clearly laid trap, easily tripped up Hillary. And how might she have better addressed the question?


I doubt Pelley asked this question ‘off the cuff’. It was clearly prepared, an obvious trap. And the question itself is an ethical paradox: ‘will you ever lie?’ or ‘do you ever lie?’ Of course, the truth is: ‘Yes, everybody lies’! However, that is not the right answer, particularly not for anyone who wants to be likable (or is campaigning for political office). So how do you approach an ethical dilemma such as this?


Hillary, I think, attempted to be truthful in her response ‘I don’t believe I ever have. I don’t believe I ever will.’ Yet ended up sounding evasive and false. Pelley probably had a sound-bite or video-bite of Hillary, caught in some contradiction, cued up and ready to roll. By contrast, Trump probably would have simply lied unashamedly and said: ‘No. I never lie. I call it as it is you have to take me as I am, warts and all.’ Which, though not possibly truthful, demonstrates an air of verisimilitude, at least, to all but the most incredulous.



So how should Hillary have responded? How about this:


‘Do I ever lie? Is that what you’re asking me? Let me ask you: Do you ever lie Scott?


‘You probably lied to your wife this morning when she asked if you liked the outfit she had picked out. You probably lied to your assistant that you were satisfied with your cold cappuccino. You probably lied to your hair stylist that you were having a good morning, most likely in the interest of avoiding further chit-chat with her. You probably lied to me when we exchanged pleasantries just now and I asked; ‘how are you?’


‘Do I ever lie? Yes of course, everybody does. Would I deliberately deceive the American people? No never. But would I lie for them? Absolutely. Would I lie to protect them? Without hesitation.


‘Now, shut-up and ask me a real question.’

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