Lying, deceit and playing the game

I recently attended a fascinating online meet-up hosted by Ethical Reading, on the topic of when (if ever) it is ethically permissible for businesses to lie. Nick Bion delivered a very thought-provoking presentation on the topic (thank you, Nick), and the break-out sessions were full of creative discussion. Collectively we clearly had enough ideas, anecdotes and opinions to carry on much longer, but the quickly-passing hour or so we had together was well worth it anyway.

The topic reminded me of some previous casual reading on the 20th century Japanese philosopher Watsuji Tetsuro. For more than a passing introduction to his work, it’s worth looking up his entry in Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, where you’ll see, amongst other things, that he had an interesting perspective on the role of climate in our lives.

Specifically, though, on the topic of honesty in business practice, in his book Rinrigaku: Ethics in Japan, Watsuji refers to Immanuel Kant’s example of the retailer who has a moral obligation to sell only honestly and for no more than an honest profit (Watsuji, 1996, pp.245-246). Watsuji picks up on a point that he sees missing from Kant’s argument – namely that it’s not really that clear-cut as to what an “honest profit” is, and as such “dishonesty” is also less than clear. Clarity on this matter is only achieved, according to Watsuji, by reference to a “social criterion” of what is acceptable.

Now my reading of this may be hopelessly simplistic, but it seems to me that this steers perilously close to confusing “is” with “ought” – defining ethical permissibility as simply being what we typically treat as being okay, rather than defining what we really ought to do. However, I do like the way it draws in the notion of expectations – behaving as you are expected to behave in a particular circumstance.

For example, I suppose in listening to a sales presentation you might expect to have your attention drawn to the strengths of the company’s product and the exceptional value that can be gained from buying it. Please note that I’m not intending to cast any aspersions on salespeople, but you would probably not expect to be listening to an unbiased rundown on all the advantages and disadvantages of the product that on balance indicates a different company’s product suits your needs better or delivers on them at a lower price. So yes, technically, you could say that there is an element of deceit in this process – the salesperson is trying to distract you from buying something else. And yet we know this is the commercial game that is commonly played – so this technical deceit (lying, if you like) has become acceptable, and if we are prudent we have ways of identifying and challenging it.

Of course, the brave salesperson might own up to any relative weaknesses in their product, and so sidestep the moral dilemma – but then go on to win the sale in any case, by virtue of this demonstration of honesty, openness and trustworthiness. The salesperson has then effectively done the work of the diligent buyer (namely the comparison with other products). But given this is a known “game” that is played, did the salesperson really have a moral obligation to do so? And what if they’re just playing a long game, and have some future, bigger deceit planned?

By way of analogy, consider the unsignalled and well-executed jink or dummy pass on the professional rugby pitch – technically, this is deceit (lying), and yet it is considered within the rules of the game and even good practice. And if you think “Ah, but that’s just a game” – consider the potential “harm” to the opponent who is fooled by this tactic. If this happens enough, they may lose their position on the team and possibly even their livelihood and career, putting their families at risk.

That we could have some fun exploring both of these examples suggests that Watsuji was onto something interesting here. His approach seems to emphasise that the ethics of a decision or action is not something that can be determined entirely outside of a social context. Not everyone might agree with this, but it does perhaps provide us with a helpful way of thinking about whether a degree or type of deceit (lying) in business may in some circumstances be accepted as playing by the (albeit tacit) rules of engagement. If we allow ourselves this possibility, then perhaps we can learn how to prepare ourselves better for the inevitable acts of unexpected and impermissible deceit against us.

Watsuji Tetsuro, 1996, Watsuji Tetsuro’s Rinrigaku: Ethics in Japan, Yamamoto Seisaku and Robert E. Carter (trs.), Albany: State University of New York Press.

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