I just read a classic work of philosophical psychology, Self-Deception
(Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), wherein Herbert Fingarette
takes an interesting approach to a phenomenon common to politics,
but which seems paradoxical and, therefore, difficult to understand.
How can someone effectively lie to himself as well as to others (and
is it still a lie)? How can someone know something and yet not know
it, or believe something that he knows is not true? And what
implications does self-deception have for government ethics?
Failing to Spell Out
When we engage with the world, Fingarette says, we only "spell out"
to ourselves what we are doing when we have a special reason to.
When there is a reason not
to spell out to ourselves what we
are doing, that is, when it is in our interest to avoid being
explicitly conscious of what we are doing (e.g., when engaging in ethical
misconduct), we often avoid spelling out. For example, someone may
make an ad hominem
remark (that is, a criticism of a person
rather than of what the person is saying) without consciously
realizing that she is doing anything other than making a legitimate
Self-deception occurs when someone persistently avoids spelling out
a particular kind of activity, such as taking gifts from restricted sources or using one's office to help
family members. It is not that, each time, the official decides not
to recognize what he is doing. It is, effectively, a "policy
commitment," something generally avoided and, therefore, automatically not
recognized each time it occurs.