As I write this, Baroness Hallett has just started the inquiry into the U.K.’s response to COVID-19. It has already been said that the inquiry will investigate aspects such as the preparedness of the U.K.’s response, the initial response and particularly the impact of lockdowns. But questions remain about whether the inquiry will deal with internal Government communications (or the lack of any record of such communications).
This latter point raises an important question – is there a case to be made for the official suppression of information if the release of this information would undermine the public’s support of authority and increase dissent?
Note that I’m not stating that there has definitely been a suppression of truth and promotion of ‘official misinformation’ to stop the public understanding what is being done to them. I happen to think that this has been occurring, but this isn’t necessary to have the discussion about what should be done if there have been efforts made by officialdom to misrepresent the situation to the public.
There are four aspects of the behaviour of our Government (and governments worldwide) that raise questions that have a significant ethical component:
- The use of lockdowns and whether there were any data at all on whether they would offer any net benefit. It is worth noting that preparatory documents relating to an influenza outbreak suggested that lockdowns wouldn’t offer any significant benefit and would introduce harm, yet we locked down anyway. Also of consideration should be the use of hard-line policing of the lockdowns, rather than their being merely ‘strongly recommended’.
- The use of vaccines with only short term testing for efficacy and safety. Again, what is of concern isn’t simply that the vaccines were authorised for use, but also the role of the Government in strongly recommending their use nearly to the point of mandate (a point passed by other governments). Related to this point is whether there were any conditions connected to the supply of the vaccines (the secret T&Cs) that have forced the Government to suppress anything other than support for the vaccines.
- The suppression of the investigation into generic drugs as prophylactics and treatments. Again, the Government wasn’t simply ambivalent about their use, but appears to have actively suppressed any discussion of their use, other than a few ‘preferred’ solutions.
- And, most importantly of all, the use of advanced psychological techniques by the Government to support its policies, and the rigorous suppression of any discussions that might undermine the Government’s position. These psychological manipulation techniques appear to have been used at all points of the pandemic, from lockdown behaviour to vaccination. Even now, there are ‘nudges’ from the Government’s official communications arm (BBC) questioning the actions of those who declined vaccination and once more pushing the ‘wet market’ theory of the origins of Covid.
Taken at face value, it would seem obvious that the inquiry should look into all these aspects of the Government’s response to Covid – but is there a deeper ethical consideration at stake?
The Suppression of Truth and the Noble Lie
Around 2,500 years ago Plato wrote about a somewhat similar dilemma. The Republic documents a dialogue between Socrates and others about whether there was an ethical case to be made for the promotion of a lie if it would offer social cohesion. The point of the Noble Lie in The Republic was whether a lie that had little in the way of negative aspects and some positive aspects could be considered as ethically correct even though it involves the deception of the public. There’s another ethical dimension to this question, not discussed in The Republic, which is whether it’s ever ethically acceptable to suppress the truth to maintain social cohesion or to avoid the social unrest that would occur if the truth were to be disclosed?
If it was the case that the Government knew that it had made decisions that have resulted in enormous harm across the population then it is very likely that were the truth to be revealed there would be significant public unrest and a real chance that the Government be overthrown and any replacement would find it difficult to regain control. Furthermore, the exposure of any significant use of psychological manipulation techniques would make it difficult for the public to ever believe anything governments and their agencies said in future.
Thus it could be argued that the best thing to do at this point in our Covid story might be to actively suppress any information that undermines the Government’s position – after all, even if it isn’t noble, the lie would help maintain public order and prevent the unrest that could follow if the lie was exposed.
But still my doubts remain – should the public be deceived in such a profound way? I’m going to divide my discussion of this into four areas:
- The consequence of failure – the level of unrest that would follow the lie being exposed.
- The level of ‘bad’ that the lie supports.
- The ongoing difficulty of maintaining the lie.
- The wider consequences of the lie being successful.
The consequence of failure
An important aspect of the ethical suppression of truth are the negative consequences that would occur if the truth were revealed. These range from violent protest through to a general decrease in the level of trust in government. Note that ‘distrust’ can itself have long term damaging consequences, such as might happen if people have distrust in medical authority or in policing.
Of course, it might be that individuals in Government might themselves get harmed should the truth be told, but this is often the case for people in positions of authority and isn’t really an aspect that should be considered in a Noble Lie discussion.
Nevertheless, there comes a point where the amount of harm that comes from the lie being exposed becomes considerable. At this point the ethical case for a suppression of truth becomes apparent. The question then becomes whether the other aspects of the situation might support a suppression of truth.
The level of ‘bad’
In The Republic the Noble Lie made society better (than the neutral state without the lie), but the reality of official lies is that they so often hide an unpleasant truth. There then becomes an ethical concern about the suppression of information about a harm that has occurred (and might be ongoing). Surely, it is important to consider the level of harm that the lie is supporting. Indeed, is there a level of ‘evil’ where there can never be an ethical case for keeping it secret?
To consider an extreme example of a hypothetical officially sanctioned lie (and rapidly fall foul of Godwin’s law), would there have been an ethical case to be made for the Nazi’s to have suppressed the truth of the Holocaust if they’d have won WWII? It is likely that many nations (surely all) would have recoiled in horror at that truth, resulting in an unwillingness to accept Nazi rule. Of course, the ruling Nazis would likely have responded with violent suppression of the population to continue their rule, but this is an ethical consideration – the vast majority of sane individuals would surely consider that there is no ethical case to be made for the suppression of a truth of that magnitude, and that a period of violent unrest would be worthwhile if it had any chance of overcoming an authority that had behaved in such a way.
A large part of the ethical argument for or against the suppression of the truth is whether the impact of the lie has any ongoing effects. Perhaps if the actions supported by the lie are stopped and society allowed to return to normal without the lie being exposed then this would be preferable to the period of unrest that would come with the truth being suddenly revealed. On the other hand, if the suppression of the truth allows ‘bad actions’ to continue when they would have had to stop if the truth were exposed earlier, then the suppression of the truth would have led to additional harm being done. Furthermore, the continued ‘bad actions’ would almost certainly result in an increased and more damaging period of unrest were the truth to become known, resulting in it being ever more important that the increasingly ugly truth not be revealed.
The maintenance of the lie
This then brings us to the difficulty of maintaining the lie. Some lies are easily maintained – if a series of poor economic decisions are made by a government with outcomes that were beneficial for a few insiders but disastrous for the population in general there would be no easy way for the population to tell that this had occurred – after all, there’s no easy comparison that could be made, no readily available way to ‘try out’ an alternative decision and see that things would have been different had the original decision gone the other way. On the other hand, it can be more difficult to maintain lies where the consequences of actions can be tested properly and where large numbers of people are involved in decision making processes.
Often political decisions to suppress the truth for a long period of time work out for authorities. For example, the decades long delays before the inquiries into the Bloody Sunday massacre or the Hillsborough disaster worked, in so far as the Government managed to keep the truth suppressed for long enough that the majority of people had ceased to worry about the problem and evidence of any wrongdoing (including recollections of the time) had dissipated enough for any malfeasance to be unprovable. I believe that this is the general approach taken by governments on occasions when terrible mistakes are made by those in authority that would result in public disorder if the truth came out – and, sadly, it actually works most of the time. Perhaps all we can look forward to is a new inquiry into our country’s response to Covid in the 2040’s?
However, other decisions are less readily maintained. It might be simple to keep a secret where all of the paperwork is locked away in a safe and where there are very few people who know the truth… However, decisions based on a specific interpretation of science are not like this – there is never widespread consensus in science (despite what our authorities and media tell us) and those with alternative theories will always be there to challenge the orthodox view. Any suppression of the truth that relies on claims of ‘follow the science’ is likely to come unstuck should the scientific rationale supporting it be presented as overwhelming but where it is actually based on careful selection of only those aspects of the science that supported the Government’s position.
The wider consequence of success
Many of those who have discussed the problem of the Noble Lie considered that it is always a dangerous concept and should be avoided – a sufficiently noble lie might well offer advantages in keeping society happy, but the problem comes where the authorities see the success of the lie and start to lie in other areas. Human nature being what it is, the likelihood is that those in authority would lie more often, potentially about things that don’t offer any advantage to society and only benefit those in authority. Thus a sufficiently noble lie might well offer a net benefit at one point, but it risks the start of a journey into totalitarianism.
This aspect of the argument over the Noble Lie would maintain that were such a lie to be told, the decision that would be most beneficial for society would be to ‘come clean’ as soon as possible, even if there were short term negative consequences.
Thoughts on the application of the ethics of truth to the Government’s Covid response
I believe that the application of the ethics of the suppression of truth to the Government’s response to Covid is much more simple than is the case for the majority of lies in politics. No matter what decisions were made and when, the science will come out in the end – it doesn’t matter what our authorities do to suppress this, scientists (in general, not the subset of Government-approved career science-politicians) are the type of individuals that will doggedly keep on exploring until they find something to report. At that point the lie would be exposed and the social problems would come anyway. Furthermore, given the pace of science, these truths are likely to come out sooner rather than later. Thus the futility of the attempts to maintain the lie is enough argument in itself to support full disclosure of all information as soon as possible.
The problem then becomes not one of whether the lie should be exposed or not, but one of how to limit the fall-out when it does. I suggest that we’re already in rather deep, but that no-matter how bad the response would be if the truth came out now, it will only get worse if governments continue to suppress the truth anyway. Or, put another way, when you’re in a hole you really have to stop digging.
To help limit societal disruption following the disclosure of the truth, I suggest that there should be a type of Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), offering immunity from prosecution if people come forward and tell the truth. This sits uneasily with me as I don’t like people to ‘get away with it’, but this would be the only way to get the truth out now and avoid much more serious problems in the future. An important aspect of this would be that people would only have protection if they came forward and told the truth – anyone that withheld information at that point would be exposed to the threat of rigorous prosecution in the future (possibly based on what others said to the TRC).
One final point. It isn’t simply about the societal disruption if the truth were to be out – there’s also the impact on the individuals that made the decisions. Even if there was protection from prosecution, any individuals that perpetuated a lie at the expense of the public will surely be vilified – thus it is only natural that all those involved in the decision making around the response to Covid would strongly oppose any disclosure of the lie. This is especially true of politicians, who are trained to never own up to their mistakes and who seldom have anything but the most basic understanding of the nature of science. As a result, the individuals deciding whether to hold a type of TRC, and the members thereof, shouldn’t have had anything to do with the Government’s response to the epidemic (and that includes members of the media that have been complicit in any lying).
Unfortunately, this is surely wishful thinking on my part – I fear those in power would do anything to perpetuate the lie and not face the consequences. I think this would be futile, but is nonetheless likely to happen – perhaps we’ll get a totalitarian state yet.
But ethics isn’t about what I think – what do readers think about this ethical dilemma?
Amanuensis is an ex-academic and senior Government scientist. He blogs at Bartram’s Folly.