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The dark arts of deception

2 December 2015

Do we trust our politicians? Should we? Questions often asked by armchair philosophers in their locals are posed in BBC Radio 4’s favourite abstract pub in a new series.

Reader in Philosophy Dr. Jonathan Webber discusses his ideas on lying and misleading in the opening programme of the fifth series of The Philosopher’s Arms. At a time when fewer than one in five people say they trust politicians to tell the truth, the programme takes a timely look at the distinction between lying and misleading.

Recorded live in a Cardiff pub, the programme explores the ideas Dr Webber first introduced in 2013 in Analysis, a leading journal of contemporary philosophy. He answers such thought-provoking questions as: What exactly is wrong with deceiving people? Is it okay to mislead someone so long as you don't actually tell a lie? Or is that just as bad as lying?

President of the British Society for Ethical Theory, Dr Webber argues that the ethics of deception is all about reputation: “We need to rely on each other for information, so we need to know who is unreliable and we need strong incentives for people to be reliable. We achieve these goals by publicly disapproving of people when they are caught deceiving us”.

The programme features Gordon Brown’s former special adviser Damian McBride, who became an expert in the art of misleading, or what he calls “lying without lying”.

Dr Webber continues: "The damage done to reputation depends on the kind of deception. Lying does the most damage because we cannot trust the liar at all. Misleading without lying does less damage as we can still trust what the misleader actually says, we just need to be careful not to make any inferences from it. We should have the attitude that deception is generally wrong and lying is its worst form.”

Dr Jonathan Webber works in moral psychology. He focuses on understanding the psychological concepts employed in ethical discussion, the extent to which these concepts are genuinely applicable to people, and ways in which our moral thinking can go wrong when we make mistakes about human psychology.

The fifth series of The Philosopher’s Arms starts on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 7 December, 8pm, also available through Online First.

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