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Philosophy and Literature 27.1 (2003) 134-150

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Deception and Intentional Transparency:
The Case of Writing

Jeff Karon

Intention never to deceive lays us open to many a deception.

—La Rochefoucauld, Maxims

WE LIVE IN DECEPTIVE TIMES. We anticipate the latest exposé of corporate greed, personal aggrandizement, or government cover-up, and yearn for yesterday's supposed truthfulness and integrity. Lies and other forms of deceptive behavior degrade our characters, unravel the fabric of civil society, and threaten our progress toward the good life.

We also fear the loss of public civility and etiquette, wishing instead that others still treated us with the respect we deserve. Deception is bad enough; now we must bear rude neighbors, supervisors, colleagues, merchants, and all manner of strangers. Yet deception and rudeness together generate a paradox: the lost standards we lament—ones that direct people to treat others as valuable ends rather than means—include specific forms of conduct that avoid inflicting unnecessary pain or creating unnecessary conflict. Whether in the personal or professional sphere, the written and unwritten rules of etiquette often bid us to employ euphemisms and other misdirections so that our listeners or readers will not be offended, thus maintaining the social fabric by means of benign deceit. How, then, can we possibly hope to live ethical lives without necessarily employing deception?

The answer is that we cannot. By expanding the category of acts usually analyzed in ethics to include the extended writing act, we can appreciate how deception is wound tightly into the moral life, a result that is not widely accepted in moral philosophy. Sissela Bok's seminal [End Page 134] books Secrets and Lying, for example, advocate deception in extraordinary circumstances of personal or national security, but do not allow for its constant deployment to navigate life's daily vicissitudes. 1 The complex, everyday act of writing helps us see past this simplification.

Recent books by David Nyberg, Jeremy Campbell, John Vignauz Smyth, Dariusz Galasinski, and Charles V. Ford attest to our fascination with social deception, providing philosophical, literary, linguistic, and psychological insights into real-life examples. 2 As instances pile up, we begin to appreciate how deception is woven closely into our lives. This point receives a brash formulation in Arnold Ludwig's 1965 The Importance of Lying: "[W]hen we find the lie, hypocrisy and deception used so widely by man, we are forced to wonder whether this behavior represents some moral failure or weakness or whether, in fact it plays some more important biological or survival role for man. Perhaps, without resorting to lying or self-deception, man would find life intolerable and existence impossible." 3 More recent authors have tried to rehabilitate deception by choosing familiar cases that seem benign in both intention and effect, thus avoiding a justification built solely on survival needs. The next step, however, should move us beyond the empirical question of just how common deception is to a different one: are there widely shared features that make these cases candidates for moral approval, even if subsequent events require that we ultimately withhold that approval? Writing, by its very nature, demonstrates that moral reasoning always must take account of deception by triangulating between an author's supposed intentions, supposed character, and the eventual reception in the world by a real audience. And as writing pervades our lives, so do the possibilities for justified deception.


Those who study deception rarely agree on any universal characteristic except one: lying, a particularly direct form of deception, always is intentional. A corresponding minimal assumption for writing would be the following: Writing, in the absence of some very peculiar story-telling, is intentional. This minimal assumption ought to be admitted, though one fashionable current in literary studies runs against it. Language works by itself, "deconstructs itself," for example, without the direct intervention of an agent. Language "speaks us," and so on, in lyrical, mystifying formulations that offer inspiration for the critic as an [End Page 135] explorer of a far, exotic land, but little solid geography for those who wonder at what point in the...


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