February 2011

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Letters to the Ethical Spectacle

Spectacle Letters Column Guidelines. Send your comments to me at jw@bway.net. I will assume the letter is for publication. If it is not, please tell me, and I will respect that. If you want the letter published, but without your name attached, I will do so. I will not include your email address unless you ask me to. Flames are an exception. They will be published in full, with name and email address. I have actually had people follow up on a published flame by complaining that they thought they were insulting my ancestry privately. Nope, sorry.

We got a mention in Salon this month, which resulted in some mail regarding On Lying:

Dear Jonathan,

I read with great interest your article on lying, recently cited by Carry Tennis in Salon.com. While I agree with you on many points you fail to address what I consider one of the most important issues. I'm speaking of the case in which one is dealing with a known liar.

The stakes can be great or small. One might be pondering weapons of mass destruction or whether a letter has been posted. But there is no question that all of us at one time or another, knowingly or unknowingly, deal with people for whom the truth is a relative term. (Note Stephen Colbert's coinage of the term 'truthiness.' I have written recently on the devaluation of truth in many quarters to a measure or degree of belief, rather than a statement of fact. Neither scientific fact, nor 'on the ground' facts, are sufficient today to trump the truth needed, desired, or believed by some in pursuit of their economic and political goals.)

To treat known liars on the same terms that one deals with truth tellers (in the classic sense of the word truth) is, of course, absurd. Honesty does not exist in a vacuum, as some transcendent good that, ethically, must be applied at all times and all situations. Honesty is part of a social compact. When one party violates the social contract, whether by lying or worse, then the ethical obligation to that party is abrogated. A lawfully elected leader who commits crimes loses his moral authority to command the compliance of his citizens. This is as true in cases of participation in illegal wars as it is in the torture of prisoners. A private person who acquires the habit of making small "white" lies for social convenience will inevitably graduate to serious lies when there is much at stake.

What degree of honesty is due in such cases? Is it morally right to even suggest that a person give up their freedom and go to prison rather than participate in an illegal war or torture prisoners? Should an individual tell the truth to someone who will use that truth against them, if the need is sufficient? This especially applies to cases of wrong doing. A voluntary admission of guilt to a liar is an act of questionable judgement, likely to cause more harm than good.

I do not have a ready answer to this question. However I consider it a timely issue deserving of further reflection and discussion.

Brad Peppard

Dear Mr. Wallace:

Thanks for your essay on Lying.

I wonder about your thoughts on various situations you did not include in that essay, generally involving a person who is so difficult -- some combination of weak, fearful, and demanding -- that telling this person the truth is painful, both to the weak person and, because of the emotional fireworks that results from hearing the truth, to the person telling him or her the truth.

Generally, your essay concerns people who are willing to hear the truth. I'm asking about how to deal with a person who is frequently unwilling to hear the truth, or who reacts to certain truths with extremely negative feelings and actions.

I'd be very grateful to hear your thoughts on this.


Dear Mr. Wallace,

I have for some time been contemplating an all encompassing blog focusing on the shameful events we see in current politics, religion and humanity in general. I accidently stumbled on “The Ethical Spectacle”. Thank you. You’ve just taken a great burden from my shoulders. I couldn’t say it better. Keep up the good work.

Best Regards

Charles Creswell

This letter is in response to the articles covering the shooting tragedy in Arizona.

The second amendment of the United States Constitution states: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Obviously the need for a state militia has been replaced by the National Guard and Coast Guard whereby trained military personnel are entrusted with the defense of this country against domestic enemies. Their weapons are tightly controlled and safeguarded.

The only two reasons for a citizen to own a firearm are for hunting or defense of the household from intruders. In either case, ownership of a handgun, shotgun or rifle is more than adequate to satisfy these purposes. There is absolutely no need for any U.S. civilian to own any weapon more powerful or sophisticated than these. Accordingly, all handguns, shotguns and rifles must be licensed and registered to the degree necessary to match weapon to owner at the click of a computer key. Furthermore, if we had prohibited the purchase of more sophisticated weapons {ie a Glock 19 semiautomatic pistol with an extended magazine} several innocent victims would not have died or been harmed during this tragedy as well as in shopping malls and on college campuses.

The shooter is obviously disturbed by mental illness to which it appears that those defending the right to own sophisticated weapons exhibit the same qualities by showing a callous disregard for the safety and protection of their fellow citizens. Mental illness and guns are as bad a combination as alcohol and driving. Evidently we have the money to fight two wars overseas but not the political will to treat the mentally ill who are not only a danger to themselves but to everyone else as well.

Joe Bialek

It really happened! On Monday, January 11, 2011, the Merit Systems Protection Board issued a decision restoring me as Chief of the United States Park Police retroactively effective July 10, 2004. Go to www.HonestChief.com to read a synopsis, the MSPB decision, and media stories and to listen to new entries in the Audio Library.

THANK you for your longstanding support! I couldn't have stayed the course without you!

Teresa Chambers


While doing research I ran across your web page and continue to visit there on occasion. I enjoy many of the articles but I am especially impressed with a recent article on the Medieval Mind. The people you use as examples would no doubt dismiss your conclusions (and you), but I think your arguments are reasonable. It certainly explains some our poisoned discourse, and the chaos we witness almost daily. Good work.


Dear Jonathan,

I just wanted to tell you that despite your pessimism and the horrible news that is happening all around us (especially in Arizona), you are one of my personal anchors of optimism. Sometimes it's difficult to believe that there are kind, intelligent, rational people out there. And there are even fewer people who do speak out against the insanity that is going on in the US. Please continue publishing the Ethical Spectacle. I hope in a decade, we can look back upon this time as we do upon McCarthyism of the late 40's, as a period of paranoia that we are glad is over.