Parents caught lying to the authorities to get their children into top state schools are to have their places automatically withdrawn under new guidelines. Fair enough. But what about politicians caught lying to the electorate—what will happen to them? With three pre-election debates between party leaders set to take place on national television, pledges will be coming from left, right and centre in the coming months. And a pledge is a kind of promise: something that the British philosopher of language John L Austin called an “illocutionary act.” If you say the words “I promise to do X,” Austin argued—or even if you simply imply them in appropriate circumstances—then you’ve done more than merely speak. You’ve made a statement that ought to determine the kind of actions you take in the future.
What if you’d rather not keep that promise? Immanuel Kant was clear that “lying promises” were both irrational and immoral. The man who pretends he’ll be able to pay back a loan when he knows he can’t is acting against what Kant called the moral law. There is no way you can endorse the idea that everyone should make lying promises when it suits them—not even politicians.
Yet perhaps it’s not that simple. Political pledge-makers are prone to wishful thinking: they make promises that they’d like to be able to keep, but circumstances prevail and they have to renege on them. It’s not that they deliberately lie. Rather, they perform an elaborate act of self-deception that lets them believe something that, on some level, they know to be untrue. Living in a fantasy world may even be a pre-condition of making yourself electable.
Niccolò Machiavelli had a simpler perspective. He argued that a political leader never lacks legitimate reasons to break a promise. For Machiavelli, the end always justified the means—and the greater end of a stable state far outweighed any details about integrity. In fact, genuine integrity would get in the way for a political leader: far better to seem one thing and be another. Let the population believe that you are going to keep your promises until it is too late for them to do anything about it when you don’t. Sound familiar?