Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Let's put to one side a position that seems to be Kant's, namely, that lying is always immoral. Sometimes, surely, lying is justified: e.g., when you lie to the Gestapo who come to your door in 1943 and ask whether you have any Jews in the attic. What characterizes cases in which lying seems the correct course of conduct is that those to whom the truth is told would use that information for wrongful ends.
Of course, that principle needs to be tempered by consideration of our epistemic limitations: we may not know for sure what ends the truth will be put to, and we may not know confidently that the ends are wrongful (perhaps we think they are, but perhaps there is room for reasonable disagreement). In the Gestapo case, however, we can be rather confident on both scores: that the truth will, indeed, be put to ends which are, indeed, wrongful.
What U.S. News does with the information that law schools supply it is, arguably , wrongful: instead of reporting that information, it massages it through an unprincipled formula that results in a nonsensical ordinal hierarchy of schools that conceals and confuses more than it illuminates. By misleading students, and unfairly demeaning institutions (which are, after all, comprised of real people), U.S. News engages in wrongful conduct, and so there should be no obligation of truth-telling under the circumstances.
Or so the argument would go.
Now the obvious difference in degree of wrongfulness between the U.S. News case and our illustrative hypothetical also has some bearing on the earlier point about epistemic limitations: the wrongfulness of what U.S. News does with the information is at least arguable. In particular, there is reason to think that the more sophisticated consumers look past the nonsense ordinal ranking and attend to the underlying data, some of it supplied, more or less directly, from the law schools themselves. That means that lying to U.S. News entails lying to prospective students, who have a legitimate (i.e., non-wrongful) interest in much of this information. So, e.g., when law schools lie (or, more euphemistically, fudge) in reporting their employment statistics, they are misleading prospective students, since U.S. News reports that data directly and it is of significnat interest to prospective students. So that lying probably is fairly characterized, following Professor Bartow, as "despicable."
But not all the self-reported data is as transparent and important as the employment statistics; indeed, a crucial portion of the data, about expenditures (the tail that wags the ranking dog, as it were), is not reported directly at all by U.S. News, since it would make it too obvious how much profligate per capita spending drives the major differences between schools once one forgets about anything of academic relevance (it is, for example, the only reason Yale ranks ahead of Harvard every year, even in years when Harvard has higher reputational scores). Of course, if any particular school misreports its expenditures data, it will gain an "unfair" advantage, it seems, over all the schools who report it correctly. The advantage will consist in a somewhat higher rank, and the "unfairness" will be by reference to the metric set by U.S. News which, by hypothesis, other schools are adhering to. Since the metric is, as noted above, arguably a wrongful one, that leaves us only with considerations of gaining an advantage over those institutions that report accurately. So perhaps all schools should simply lie about their expenditures data? Or perhaps only those schools that are otherwise unfairly denigrated by the overall ordinal rank should lie in order to restore some sense to the final results? But can we entrust the schools themselves to make that determination reasonably? And if schools are thought to be making such determinations, then how can one ever know what is truthful and what not in their reporting of any data?
All of which might suggest a certain amount of wisdom in Kant's original thought.