How to Apologize for a Lie

Most of us agree that lying is, at least generally speaking, morally wrong.  We all have our reasons.  Some of us think that lying is not conducive to human well-being.  Others of us think that, when we lie, we are using people merely to serve our own ends.  And still others of us say it is wrong to lie because we do not want to be lied to ourselves.

Perhaps there are some circumstances in which lying is permissible.  A little white lie, some of us say, can be harmless from time to time.  Many of us lie to our children about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, but this is not some kind of gross injustice.  The point, though, is that the general rule stands, even if lying is sometimes okay.  (Some maintain that it is never okay.)

Here is another truism about lying:  Because someone is typically wronged by lying, it is prudent (if not morally required) to apologize for lying.  And not just any apology will do; the apology must be directed at the right person.  Generally speaking, if you lie to your spouse, you should apologize to your spouse and not a stranger on the street.  The same holds of lies told on a slightly larger scale:  If you tell a lie to five of your co-workers, normally you should apologize to your co-workers, not your dog.  

This fact about apologies is fairly uncontroversial.  It is a wonder, then, that some of us tend to forget it.

Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway have consistently lied to the American public.  Trump has claimed that millions of people voted illegally in our election last November.  He has stuck to this claim despite the lack of evidence.  

One might defend Trump by claiming that he has not really lied, that he is simply misguided, or perhaps even deluded, in some cases.  Maybe sobut this isn’t exactly a comforting defense.  And even if Trump were simply misguided about voting statistics, one needn’t look far for more examples of lying.

Consider another lie, this time from Conway, about a so-called “Bowling Green massacre,” a lie that was ostensibly told to legitimize Trump’s executive order that banned travel from seven mostly-Muslim countries.  Conway has since apologized for the lie she told on the Chris Matthews-hosted MSNBC show Hardball, claiming she’d intended to utter “Bowling Green terrorists” rather than “Bowling Green massacre.”  Conway’s claim here is dubious given the context of the utterance:

I bet it’s brand new information to people that President Obama had a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized and were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre. Most people don’t know that because it didn’t get covered.

Swapping “Bowling Green massacre” for “Bowling Green terrorists” would render Conway’s comments nonsensical.  This calls into question the sincerity of her apology.  (Notice, too, that this wasn’t the first time she’d mentioned it.)

But setting aside the fact that Conway is in all likelihood lying about her lie, let’s examine her apology closely.  She lied on a television program to a certain audience.  And then she apologized on Twitter to a presumably different audience.  Undoubtedly there are those who witnessed both the lie and the apology; I, of course, am one of them.  But we need to realize that there are surely many people who heard the lie but not the apologyand for this reason Conway’s apology is defective.  It is a violation of the commonsense principle that one should apologize to whomever one has lied.  

A proper apology is directed at everyone who has been wronged.  When an apology is given to somebut not allof these people, it is to that extent deficient.  Suppose I lie to ten of my friends.  Later on, I see the light and decide to come clean.  If I apologize to only five of the ten friends, I have made a good first step, but I’ve still got some work to do.  All else equal, an apology to seven of the ten friends would be better, and an apology to all ten would be optimal.

I am not suggesting that Conway find a way to apologize to every single one of the people who witnessed her lie (though going back on MSNBC might be a good first step).  I would instead like to point out (1) the potential magnitude of lies like Conway’s and (2) the emptiness and inadequacy of the apologies that often follow them.  For the same reason that it makes no sense to apologize to a stranger for lying to your spouse, so too it makes little sense to apologize on Twitter for a lie told on MSNBC.

Maybe you think there is a major disanalogy here.  When you lie to your spouse and apologize to a stranger, we are assuming the stranger had nothing to do with the situation.  In the case of the Conway’s lie, however, there is likely a substantial overlap between the MSNBC and Twitter audiencesin other words, one might argue, Conway’s apology was well-directed in this case.  But let’s unpack this notion of well-directedness.  What should the threshold be?  Is an apology adequate if one apologizes to 75% of those lied to?  66%?  50%?  Any line would be arbitrary.  At any rate, it is not a stretch to think that a substantial number of people heard Conway’s lie without the apology.  Someone out there now thinks that there was a Bowling Green massacre and that we need Trump’s executive order to prevent the next one.

Another troublesome feature of the Conway-Trump brand of lying is this:  it is nearly impossible to rectify the damages after they lie, even if they sincerely wanted to apologize.  For contrast, consider the typical kind of lie that might be told by me or you.  If you lie to a friend, you will likely have the opportunity to come clean about it in the future—usually it isn’t hard to find your friend again.  Notice, though, that there is an important difference when Conway and Trump lie:  there is no easy way for them to come clean to all (or even most) of the people they have lied to.  This is a practical (and inevitably moral) problem—how do they even begin to track down the people who witnessed the lie?  Because of this, those who speak in the public arena have a greater responsibility to get things right from the start.

Often you will hear defenses of politicians along these lines:  “Oh, what’s the big deal?  He (or she) apologized!”  I suggest that we challenge each other to consider whether these apologies are actually acceptable.logo-green