Gaslighting and the ethic of veracity

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I don’t know who are worse. Is it the cultists like Fox News’ Stuart Varney who says with a straight face that “Donald Trump has never lied to the American people”?  Or the Machiavellian congressmen and religious leaders who downplay the lies for their own endgames? Or the cynic’s shrugged-shouldered “All politicians lie”?

My longstanding ethical credo has been that “good people disagree.” Tolerance for differing opinions on the “Big Questions” and all that. I have been forced to do some re-thinking about this credo, however, thanks to the emergence of a new word in the moral vocabulary: gaslighting.

While its memetic usage is of recent vintage, gaslighting has actually been around for a while, emerging from a 1938 play entitled Gas Light and in its 1944 film adaptation staring Ingrid Bergman. In the film, Charles Boyer, playing Bergman’s husband, periodically dims the gaslights in the house in order to convince his wife that she is going crazy.

Gaslighting is not the same thing as lying. It is an intentional effort by someone to fog up fact-based truth to convince you that you cannot trust an evidence-based reality. This is a common tactic in the Trump administration playing exclusively to an audience of “true believers” that gets its information from just one source. The most recent example this comes from Louisiana Senator John Kennedy.  Despite private-consultation warnings from every U.S. intelligence agency and public testimony from non-partisan career State Department experts, Kennedy has continued to equate Russian and Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential election, a direct re-statement of the known Vladimir Putin gaslighting strategy.

A little confession here: I have formally studied some philosophy in the past, but I never did put epistemology at the top of my interest list. Epistemology is the attempt by philosophers to rationally distinguish justified, demonstrable “fact-based truth” from opinion. How do we know what we know? I had thought rational and educated people had made some progress toward general agreement here over the centuries. And then Trump happened, and we have had three years of “normal” people making “crazy talk,” and appearing to believe it.

I touched on this topic recently in another context, trying to cope with the “firehose” of good and bad information that assaults us daily. In this post I need to back up a bit to tackle that dreaded epistemology word with what is, in my opinion, humankind’s earliest-emerging ethical principle.

The first ethical dilemma: Trust

I started my series of posts on the topic of “Good people disagree” last year with my claim of “the first ethical dilemma.” It has nothing to do with the Garden of Eden, rather it goes back to a time when humans were barely sentient creatures, and maybe before that. It happened every time our hunter-gatherer forebears, barely surviving in small family groups, encountered strangers who were encroaching on their territory.

In this early exercise of economic game theory, the 2×2 matrix below suggests four possible outcomes based on how both we and they react to this unplanned encounter. Do we fight the strangers, or do we offer to share our food with them?

If they fight If they share
If we fight We may win or lose We win; they lose
If we share We lose; they win We both win

The “game theory” part of this ethical dilemma comes in because there is no single “correct action” here. We are, in large part, dependent on how the stranger reacts, which we do not control. But the other key takeaway is that trust is perhaps the most fundamental ethical requirement for all human civilization. If I can trust the stranger, and he can trust me, then we can get to the only true “win” in the matrix above, shown the lower right corner, where both sides benefit.

This was the toughest, most risky ethical decision back in our hunter-gatherer days, and I have argued that, in the case of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, we have not changed much in our methods or skills for coping with this dilemma. Neither side can trust the other, and the stakes are high.

The probabilistic brain

Trust is also, in the theme of this blog, a probabilistic bet. That matrix is also an exercise in probability, with our human forebears learning about the odds of any of the four cases occurring, by “gut” long before figuring out the math. I have taken the position in past posts, based on neuroscientists whose work I “trust,” that the human brain (and all mammalian and reptilian brains) evolved to improve our odds of survival by probabilistically predicting the future. As long as our brains more often than not “guess right” when faced with critical survival challenges, our genes will mathematically tend to propagate. [1]

Which box in the matrix will you be aiming for? What is your brain telling you about probabilities and trust when it comes to our political leaders? We do know through long experience that political and religious cultism can “do a number” on our brain’s ability to size up these probabilities. The question is whether it is you or I or our political opposites who are most likely in that cult where our rational sense goes on vacation.

Believe because it is absurd?

The early Christian theologian Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240) is credited with the statement “Credo quia absurdum,” or “I believe because it is absurd.” Specifically, Tertullian was referring to belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Although a lot of paper has been consumed by theologians trying to “explain” Tertullian’s statement, my observation is that the most apparent interpretation is foundational to how many Christians continue to deal with theological challenges to rationality: “I know it is true because it is beyond my rational mind to comprehend.”

For millions of fundamentalist Christians, faith in the absurd must triumph over reason in order for salvation to happen. Other Christians have incorporated rational and critical thinking into more “nuanced” theologies, such as the Jesuit Catholic dictum of “Reason informed by faith.” [2]

The news is filled, however, with irrational and improbable conspiracy-thinking. One key factor that keeps conspiracies going is their impervious resistance to rationality-based fact. The supposed reason we don’t know more about the bad effects of vaccines is, for instance, because the very lack of proof must mean a deeper and deeper conspiracy by “them” to hide this information.

The simple problem with Tertullian’s faith statement is that, while “fact” is a rational narrowing of possibilities and probabilities, the possibilities of the absurd are infinite. And that is exactly what gaslighting is. I must try to make you believe something completely absurd, no matter how wacky or irrational it is.

But gaslighting often works, because many people will believe the absurd. Take, for example, the President of the United States expounding on toilets that need to be flushed “ten times, fifteen times.”

The virtue of veracity

Aristotle defined his system of ethics with eleven virtues, those good behaviors that revealed to the world the “inner person” that we ought to be. One of these virtues is truthfulness, which Aristotle saw as a “golden mean” between habitual lying on one extreme and boastfulness on the other. Christians, in a disappearing tradition, would often swear an oath in court with their hand on a Bible as a symbol of their own tradition’s virtue of truthfulness.

Because the notion of truth itself is under attack, as I have noted here, I prefer to use a term less loaded with political connotations. Veracity is the personal quality of sticking to verifiable facts in public life. Just as Aristotle talked about the problem of habitual lying, veracity is the virtue of “habitual truth-telling.”

Back to the matrix above, without veracity, there can be no trust. And without trust, there can be no productive societal cooperation between humans. Life is then reduced to sleeping with a gun underneath your pillow. And when you live that way, your odds of passing your genes on to the next generation shrink considerably.

Here is the original trailer for the 1944 film version of Gaslight:


  1. I have also written in the past about how humans evolved signaling as a key way to “improve the odds” when it came to trusting the stranger.
  2. This phrase is normally credited to Jesuit ethicist Richard McCormick (1922–2000).

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