Compare opinions of world leading experts and influencers.

Is truthfulness a characteristic of a politician who is good for the people?

Politicians are notorious for their spin, lies, and hypocrisy, frequently making their profession distasteful to the people they represent. However, while truthfulness is generally regarded as an admirable quality in our friends and family members, is it rational to want this quality in our leaders?

Implications to Other Questions

Experts and Influencers

Suggest Expert Quote (click to expand, no login required)
Experts In Politics

Barack Obama    United States President
[Our] values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.
20 Jan 2009    Source

Sub-Arguments Of This Expert:
Is politics a waste of time for ordinary citizens?
   Mostly Disagree

Experts In Media

Oprah Winfrey    Talk Show Host
It isn't enough to tell the truth. We need politicians who know how to be the truth.
11 Dec 2007    Source

Experts In Psychology

Susan Blackmore    Psychology Lecturer, Former Parapsychologist
When it comes to moral leadership we are right to expect a great deal of our politicians and right to be disappointed. I want to live in a society where most people are honest, care about others, and work not solely for their own financial gain but at least partly for the common good. I'm not completely unrealistic. ...a complex modern society cannot function at all – let alone fairly – if the majority of people aren't basically honest. And for that we need leaders we can admire and emulate.
10 Jun 2009    Source

Experts In Politics

David Runciman    Politics Professor
Mostly Disagree
Our instinctive dislike of hypocrisy can get in the way of seeing what is really at stake when it comes to choosing a leader. Indeed, we might even make better decisions if we could realize that far from being a liability in a leader, hypocrisy is an essential part of democratic politics. [note: Runciman defines a hypocrite as "a person who hides his or her true beliefs behind a facade of useful platitudes."]
03 Feb 2008    Source

Sub-Arguments Of This Expert:
Is hypocrisy acceptable?

John Mearsheimer    Political Science Professor
Mostly Disagree
Leaders sometimes lie and they lie for good reasons. I tried to make the case [in my book, Why Leaders Lie] that although instinctively all of us believe lying is a bad thing that's not always the case. ... [However], for society to function it's impossible to have a culture of deceit. [So] you have to be very careful not to go overboard in appreciating the strategic virtues of lying.
19 Jan 2011    Source

Bob Kerrey    Politician, Governor of Nebraska 83-87
I would muuuuch rather have a phony, competent person in the White House than an incompetent, authentic person. I’m not sure the two aren’t correlated: The greater competence you’ve got, the more you’ve got to be phony in order to get the job done. I want my president to put a mask on. When they’re negotiating for a national-security agreement? Put the mask on. When they’re negotiating with Congress? Put the mask on. ... That’s their job.
01 Jan 1992    Source

Experts In Media

Jennifer Senior    Journalist
Mostly Disagree
If only, the argument goes, a system could be arranged where politicians’ real selves and real ideas were always and everywhere on display, we would have the politics we deserve. But it’s also possible that phoniness, at least in certain forms, serves an important purpose. It may even be a desirable quality in politics. It’s certainly something we consistently choose, consciously or not.
03 Jun 2007    Source

Experts In Psychology

Steven Pinker    Psychology Professor
Mostly Disagree
...I think politicians have low credibility because our institutions at present don't reward truth-telling among them. Quite the contrary. It's easy to get away with blatant lies and misleading euphemism and doublespeak. So the incentive structure favors bending the truth among politicians, more so than one finds in the institutions of science.
01 Sep 2008    Source


Add Your TakeOnIt (click to expand, no login required)
0 Points      Benja      19 Apr 2011      General Comment
John Mearsheimer, author of "Why Leaders Lie" points out here the difference between lying and spinning:

"Lying is where you say something that you actually know is not true. Spinning is where you exaggerate the positive aspects of a situation and down play the negative aspects. If you were to ask President Obama, what's the state of the American economy, he would spin like crazy. He would tell you all the good things that are happening and he'd downplay the negative things, but he would not lie to us because if he did the consequences would be very great if he was found out."

Spinning is untruthful, but who is to blame for it? Politicians only use rhetoric because people lap it up. If people wanted the truth, politicians would be forced to give it to them. That's the beauty of democracy.

Empathize with politicians. How do you get votes from people who make comments like this:

"...you must remember that there weren't diseases like this around in [biblical] times. I feel that genetic disorders came much later when more and more people had children (with close relatives). I can see how a lot of things doesn't make sense to us....because we compare it with how we live now and forget that the earth was a much different place than what it is at the moment. There were giants and people lived to be 900years old in those days...so I really hope that you will lose your 'sceptical personality' as you put it! Just believe in God and don't ask to many questions....believe like a child and live your life so that you can have Eternal Life. NOTHING on this Earth is more important. And God will reveal everything to us when the time is right."

It's not with the truth. It's with The Truth. See the difference?

0 Points      Benja      01 May 2010      Stance on Question: Mostly Disagree
Daniel Dennett has an article here that touches on the issue, at least in one respect. "We are stuck, for the time being, with what I have called an engine of hypocrisy. Only when people who are not running for office and hence have nothing to lose in this regard have spoken candidly ... Bearing this in mind, we secular humanists [should make] it clear that we aren't in the least bit impressed by the avowals of devotion on the part of ANY candidate, but we recognize their need to make those avowals."

Robin Hanson says here that "Candidates have strong expertize and incentives to attend to their task, but that task is largely to pander to voter illusions."

In other words, truthfulness is political suicide. Given this, it's not rational to want politicians to be truthful any more than it is to want a golden egg laying goose.

When Dennett say "we are stuck for the time being in a engine of hypocrisy" I think he misses the larger point: the engine is democracy itself. So long as voters have illusions, politicians will tell lies, just as so long as consumers have illusions, advertisements will tell lies. Does anyone seriously think that truthfulness is a characteristic of an advertisement that is good for the consumer? If that company advertised truthfully it would go out of business, and now be completely useless to the consumer. Politics is very much like business in this respect.

0 Points      Radioactivity      10 Apr 2010      Stance on Question: Agree
I think it's irrelevant to the question whether or not a truthful politician would ever be received well or, in fact, voted in at all. Of course politicians use rhetoric. Of course there are instances where being less than honest would be beneficial to a politician's goals. Everything that politicians say will be misconstrued by their opposition in the most negative light possible regardless of how genuine it is.

Given the choice between an honest politician and a dishonest one, I'm not going to say that the latter would be actively good for a country. It makes no sense.

0 Points      Billy Brown      05 Apr 2010      Stance on Question: Agree
Humans are fantastically good at self-deception, especially when it comes to dreaming up justifications for using political power to reward themselves or punish opponents. Anyone philosophy that excuses deception from politicians will only encourage this tendency, and the harm that follows will typically be much greater than any benefit we could hope to gain.

0 Points      Benja      06 Apr 2010      General Comment
What's the point of an ethical philosophy that works in utopia, but which I can't use in real life? Here's an example of where I'd excuse a politician for being deceptive:

Interviewer: Your opinion on infanticide?
Honest politician: It's a fascinating issue, since it challenges strong moral intuitions and cultural norms we have. Philosophers from Plato to Peter Singer have debated for example, the ethics of killing deformed babies...
Interviewer: So you're saying killing babies is OK??!!!


Interviewer: Your opinion on infanticide?
Real politician: Absolutely wrong, and it's unthinkable to me, particularly as a proud father of three wonderful kids, how such a dreadful practice could exist. And in the countries where it still happens it's an absolute tragedy, and we must do everything we can to free the world of this barbaric behavior.
Interviewer: I absolutely agree, as I'm sure our audience does to. Let's move on to a more contentious issue...

1 Point      JGWeissman      07 Mar 2010      Stance on Question: Agree
Accurate transparency is a prerequisite for accountability.

0 Points      Benja      05 Apr 2010      General Comment
Ideally, in terms of a final goal, I agree. But given our current system, the relevant question is what is the most likely going to move us towards that ideal. A politician who was absolutely truthful would not get voted in. Perhaps the politician who is ideal in terms of moving us towards that goal on average tells lies about as often or perhaps even more than the average politician. I'm open to what James Buchanan says, which is we should not worry so much about whether a politician is truthful or not, and focus on changing the rules of the game (e.g. systems that increase transparency), so they are incented to tell the truth.

0 Points      JGWeissman      06 Apr 2010      General Comment
I agree we should "focus on changing the rules of the game (e.g. systems that increase transparency), so they are incented to tell the truth"

Based on the observation "A politician who was absolutely truthful would not get voted in", I would say that a politician that gets voted in is not good for the people. As Douglas Adams explained, "Anyone capable of getting elected prime minister should on no account be allowed to hold the position."

0 Points      Benja      07 Apr 2010      General Comment
To put it another way, it's not easy, due to the cognitive biases of voters (e.g. near-far bias), for a politician to tell the truth without being misinterpreted. If they are substantially more truthful than the average politician, the task of managing perceptions will be even harder for them than it already is. That task will eat into time they could better spend on other aspects of their job.

The schism between what politicians could truthfully say and how voters would unreasonably and irrationally react to that truth, is a large part of the public relations game. Because of this game, it can sometimes even be silly to interpret a politician literally. "I smoked but did not inhale". Getting carried away with whether that's true or not is missing the point. The intent was obvious. I don't even consider it a lie, in terms of a genuine deception that is impossible for an informed member of the public to easily perceive as a lie. Or to put in another way, so long as Steven Colbert is cracking jokes about it, I'm OK with it.