Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Criminalizing falsehoods

Should falsely claiming to have a military decoration be a criminal offense?

I intentionally phrased that question in ethical language (i.e., the use of should). False claims are inherently unethical; human community is impossible without the trust truth engenders. However, unethical and illegal are not synonymous. A moral act (treating all people equally) may be lawful, even required by law (e.g., equal employment opportunity regardless of race, gender, creed, or national origin) or unlawful (e.g., giving equal employment benefits in North Carolina to same-sex couples and heterosexual couples).

Hence the question: is it morally right to criminalize falsely claiming to have a military dedication?

Some false speech is rightly criminalized, e.g., lying as part of a swindle to con people out of money, such as Bernie Madoff did. Some false speech is rightly legal even though unethical. For example, flattery – whether socially correct or even employed to gain an advantage – is not a criminal offensive, perhaps not always unethical when one complies with a cultural more.

Several factors seem pertinent in distinguishing between those two extremes:

1.    The degree to which anyone is harmed. Excessive compliments generally do not inflict injury or harm; most adults are accustomed to dealing with false flattery. An adult flattering a child, seeking to exploit the child, illustrates the opposite end of the harm spectrum.

2.    The transparency of the claim and ease of verifying whether it is true or false. The person who claims to be able to fly unaided is obviously lying; criminalizing such a claim increases the number of laws without a corresponding increase in quality of life or community benefits. Swindles, by contrast, often entail hard to verify claims and may rely upon a relationship of trust between the liar and the person to whom lie is made.

3.    The adverse effect on free speech that criminalizing any speech act has. The more speech acts criminalized, the greater risk of violating the law – whether unintentionally or in a moment of braggadocio – that a person takes when in engaging in speech or speech acts.

4.    Individual / small group responsibility versus government responsibility for verifying the veracity of speech and speech acts.

Falsely claiming to have military decorations seems to fall closer to the end of the spectrum in which false claims, though legal, remain unethical:

1.    Although the harm of such false claims is difficult to measure, falsely claiming to have received military decorations surely inflicts serious harm on few if any persons.

2.    Non-military personnel increasingly have little knowledge or experience of the military. Military personnel and veterans are in better positions to judge whether a claim is likely true or false; military personnel and veterans are also likely to know how to research whether a claim is true or false.

3.    and 4. Self-policing and public exposure are more likely to prove effective deterrents and responses to false claims of military decorations than is any criminal sanction. Furthermore, criminal proceedings involve considerable expenditure of scarce public resources. Shame, not criminality, is the appropriate response.

While I was on active duty in the Navy, the senior Naval officer – the Chief of Naval Operations, ADM Boorda – was accused of wearing a military combat decoration that he had not received. The shame of exposure as a fraud contributed to his committing suicide. Criminalizing his behavior would probably have not altered that tragic outcome nor in any way set things right.

When I was a child, my parents frequently emphasized the old adage that sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. They expected their children to have sufficient moral fiber to withstand false words intended to hurt. They knew that the world was often unfair and that everyone was likely to experience false, even hateful speech.

Seeking to criminalize false claims about military decorations appears to me to be an effort to strike back against false words, rather than having the moral fiber to expose those speech acts as the falsehoods they are and then to get on with life. Not every immoral act should be a crime.


Wormwood's Doxy said...

sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.

A lie, in and of any victim of emotional abuse can tell you.

I do agree with you that not every immoral act should be a crime--mostly because who gets to decide what is "immoral"?

George Clifford said...

My intent was not to deny the reality of emotional abuse, which, as you helpfully observe in response to my insufficiently nuanced comment, is real but to suggest that people can develop psychological and spiritual resources that reduce their vulnerability to emotional abuse.