High Crimes and Lies Misdemeanors


Shut your eyes for a minute and imagine living in a world without valid facts. If you are not sure what a fact is, you can stop right now because what follows will not make any sense. Well, maybe not. Read the next few paragraphs very carefully as I try to define “facts.”

There are only two kinds of facts and they are very different from each other. The first are what the philosopher, John Searle, calls brute facts. They are verbal descriptions that correspond to some part of the real material world. I am a male is an example. So is that the Earth is about 93 million miles from the Sun. Brute facts are very important in life as they are part of the context of existence. Our intentions are formed, in part, by the circumstances comprised by the brute facts that pertain to the immediate situation. If I believe, that is, embody some fact as a truth about the world, for example, that I am standing on the ground level of a building, when I am actually at the edge of the roof hundreds of feet higher, I will be in very serious trouble if I decide to take another step forward.

The second class of facts is what Searle calls, institutional facts. These are facts that have been created by some human utterance and do not necessarily have any relation to the materiality of the real world. The facts obtain “materiality” only according to the legitimate power of the utterer or by the acceptance of the listeners. Institutions are the distinctive arenas of action in which human existence is played out. They are arenas like family, business, government, marriage, bowling leagues, chess, and virtually everywhere else we act that has a name associated with it. Institutions have been described as games with a set of rules that create them (constitutive) and govern action within them (regulative).

The President of the United States exists only by virtue of the US Constitution, which says so. The same Constitution and associated body of laws regulate the process by which we endow some ordinary human being with the title, President. Private property is an institutional fact that imposes sets of rules on what would otherwise simply be some ordinary material object. Money is another very important institutional fact. Money first came to life as material objects of some intrinsic value, then as a piece of paper with an associated set of rules, and now mostly as immaterial bits in some computer. In any case, try to imagine living in a world without money, but, also, remember that humans did exist for quite a long time without it.

If we ignore institutional facts when we act, we are just as much in danger of being disappointed by the results as in the case of brute facts, except that the punishment will come at the hands of other humans, rather than via Mother Nature. If we speed and are caught, we will be fined by some body authorized to do so. If we pass a company secret to others, we risk being fired. If we cheat at poker, we may be asked to leave the game. Some breaches of the regulative rules are deemed insignificant, so we take chances, but the consequences of others may be very severe.

One class of institutional facts, scientific facts, is especially important because they have become indistinguishable from brute facts, and have the same consequences if ignored. Scientific facts are the result of a very special methodology that produces theories explaining some observations about the way the material world appears to behave. They are not exactly the same as brute facts because they are always subject to be superseded by facts that do a better job at explaining based on the fidelity of the results of the actions we take based on them. When planning and acting out individual or collective actions, it is always as risky to ignore or deny scientific facts as it is for brute facts. It is also very important to make sure all scientific facts have been produced by following the method rigorously.

Facts are, very importantly, distinct from beliefs. Facts are existential statements about the world out there. Beliefs are the collection of “truths” anyone carries around in the brain, and, subsequently, bases intentional actions upon. Beliefs may be based on either of the two classes of facts, above, or may arise based on opinions: fact-like statements that purport to describe or explain the world. Scientific facts are really opinions by this definition except we honor them as brute facts because they have been generated by a very special methodology that has become accepted as sufficient grounds for the facts. Opinions lack such grounding. If we act on the basis of opinion, there is no grounded expectation that we will get what we intend.

Wisdom or trustworthy are assessments we make of someone whose opinions have, in the past, turned out pretty well in terms of the intentions. Untrustworthy is an assessment we make on someone whose facts or opinions cannot be verified or produce untoward consequences. Faith refers to often very strongly held beliefs, based on opinions that are largely ungrounded because they would be extremely difficult to ground.

Institutional facts comprise an extremely important part of the structure that holds societies together. Searle called these facts, “the glue that holds civilization together.” A myriad of regulative rules guides our actions in ways that allow us to interact and coordinate in effective ways with others acting under the same institutional umbrella. Faith allows us to follow regulative rules even if we do not hold the constitutive basis as grounded; for example, one does not have to believe in God in order to live according to the Golden Rule, for example.

As long as the actors are playing by the established rules, life can go on pretty smoothly. Most intentions will be satisfied. Some will not because the opinions regarding the specific situation will not conform closely enough to the real world. Now let’s get back to my thought experiment I posed at the beginning. What would the existential world be like if we could not count on the facts to represent our institutional worlds truthfully?

Thomas Hobbes, whose philosophy played a major role in creating our country, portrayed the “natural condition of mankind” as existing in a state of nature, absent any institutions and their associated rules. Life for mankind was correspondingly, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” To alleviate this condition of constant “warre,” humans would enter into “mutual contracts” or as I have been calling them rules of the game or institutional rules. Modern life is composed of many different institutions each with their own set of regulative rules.

Playing by the rules over time has two important outcomes. First, the intended outcomes shared by all the players tend to be satisfied most of the time. Second, the players/actors develop trust in the other actors. They begin to trust the others to play by the rules, which also means to proffer facts grounded to some reasonable degree. Misstating brute facts, that is, telling lies about topics important to maintaining the institutional integrity, destroys trust and can easily bring action to a stop. To the extent that the facile-fact actor has roles in other institutional activities, the loss of trust may and does spillover, impeding cooperative or consensual action in other arenas. Action may continue, but now will require some degree of coercion because, without trust, actors will stop acting consensually.

Having facts that can be accepted and agreed to as the basis for action are essential to maintaining some sort of consensual ordering in all institutions, large and small. President Trump’s practice of uttering completely ungrounded opinions affect everyone, both those who believe in their truth and those who do not. Sooner or later they will bring action to a halt, possibly endangering a move that is critical to the situation-at-hand. I expect that his claims of being wiretapped eventually will have some negative consequences in areas where he is still held as trustworthy. But think of your response if you are asked by the President sometime in the future to make some sacrifice based on his claim of the truthfulness of some fact. Power without trust is a very dangerous combination.

Taking the Presidential oath of office, Trump committed himself “to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Telling the truth is clearly necessary to honor this oath. The Preamble, below, adds more specificity to the purposes of creating an institution to create order in the land.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The truth is so important to “insure domestic tranquility” and to “secure the blessings of liberty” that I would be very tempted to deem any deliberate lie by the President, other that one made reasonably to protect the Constitution, as a “Misdemeanor,” which is a ground for impeachment. I want to be very careful to limit my opinion to brute facts. These facts are very different from opinions about outcomes of some future action. Predictions of the future are always merely opinions, other than in situations entirely governed by accepted scientific facts. We accept such opinions as grounds for action based on the trustworthiness of the speaker and the quality of the grounds offered. Unlike brute facts, we have no certain ways to judge their verity until after the fact.

By the way, the ultimate responsibility for truthfulness or not rests with the speaker of some purported fact, as others have, famously, observed. I will finish with a couple of relevant quotes. The first is from Nietzsche, the second from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Given that Rand is a darling of the far right, it bears careful reading.

I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you. (Nietzsche)

People think that a liar gains a victory over his victim. What I’ve learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one’s reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one’s master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person’s view requires to be faked…The man who lies to the world, is the world’s slave from then on…There are no white lies, there is only the blackest of destruction, and a white lie is the blackest of all. (Rand, Atlas Shrugged)