Broadly conceived, case studies in ethics and public policy are exercises designed to help students keep their balance and avoid falling into the pits of apathetic cynicism or naive and morally simplistic activism. Both pits have a paralyzing effect on those who fall into them. Efforts to climb out of one often lead to a fall into the other and few are able to recover their sense of balance in making judgments about politics and public policy unless they develop the patience and precise judgment, which these case studies attempt to promote.

Lying by politicians is especially unsettling and easily provokes the responses that lead to a fall. Who has failed to hear the sweepingly cynical comment: "All politicians lie!"? Almost as common is the sense of outrage by those who put their trust in promises made by a politician whose job is to make the best deal he can in the agreement on which a public policy is based. Outrage in this setting often becomes a trap that makes agreement impossible and forestalls the effort necessary for addressing a public need.

Sifting patiently through the following examples should help students to recall from their moral experience the lines along which they have guided their own struggles in telling the truth and to extend those lines into the choices which public figures face in these examples. The operative questions in each case are: What would you have done and why? Conscientious responses preclude cynicism and reveal moralizing as silly. The only serious and constructive path is the narrow one that unfolds with practice in the slow, steady, but progressive exercise of moral and political judgment. Only then can the larger question be answered: "Is it possible to lie for the public good?"


The subject of these cases grew out of the work of Sissela Bok and the faculty at Harvardís Kennedy School of Government. I first discovered the cases on lying as I was researching materials for a new course that eventually became Ethics and Public Policy, now offered annually by the Politics Department. Les Garner was at the Kennedy School when these cases were developed and he demonstrated their effective use in my new course. We both observed, however, that the cases were clearly dated. Most of the cases were from the 1960s, well before many of the students in the course were born. As a result, students had little background to bring to these cases and none of the interest, which comes naturally from events with which they are currently familiar. I thus proposed developing new case studies and the Office of Academic Affairs funded the work under a Category II Research Grant. These three initial cases are the first of two or three times that number which I hope eventually to develop. Various people have helped along the way, including Les Garnerís general encouragement and Susan Prenticeís particular eye for material and expression. The errors and mistakes are mine alone, however.

In Lying [1978. Vintage], Professor Bok argues that truth is so strong a requirement for the existence of human society that there can be no justification for lying. There are only excuses, which serve to mitigate, or, in a very few cases, to remove the blame that would otherwise fall upon the liar. She acknowledges four excuses for lying: 1) to avoid some grave harm to the public, 2) to gain some great benefit for the public, 3) to achieve fairness when it might otherwise be lost due to injustice, exploitation, or disparity of power, and 4) to protect truth when it is obscured by complexity or false appearances. [76-89] Each of these cases, and others to come, can be analyzed in parallel terms and any discussion of these cases is bound to echo Professor Bokís work.

Return to Homepage

Email: sutherland@cornell-iowa-edu

Revised: January 20, 1998