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Pious Fraud, or the Moral Licence to Lie

Building worldviews and political movements on falsehoods destroys common sense-making, impedes effective policy design, and erodes social trust and cohesion.

· 5 min read
Pious Fraud, or the Moral Licence to Lie
Greta Thunberg and Jussie Smollett.

In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche devotes a short chapter to the so-called “improvers of mankind.” A favored tactic of these people, Nietzsche writes, is that of “pia fraus,” or pious fraud. In Nietzsche’s time, this was a kind of lie often told by religious men, prophets, priests, or shamans—ostensibly moral people averse to deceit—in the service of some supposed larger truth or higher good.

For example, priests would sometimes secretly scar their hands in the manner of the crucifixion and then present their wounds as evidence of miraculous stigmata—a message from God to their followers. Such pious fraud is almost always performed in the belief that the ends justify the means. What does it matter if the lie is not true in fact, when it is true in spirit? In the priest’s mind, though this specific instance is not a miracle, God does perform miracles. The priest may technically be deceiving his followers, but if doing so wins converts to Christianity thereby ensuring their heavenly salvation, is it not justified?

Many shamans and mediums also know they are committing fraud, but because it may bring their followers peace of mind or closure, the lie is vindicated. Quacks and homeopaths make use of the same ends-and-means reasoning: “So what if the medicines I peddle are merely sugar pills or colored oils, belief in their efficacy brings my patients relief so they are, in some sense, genuinely effective.”

The willingness to engage in pious fraud arises through a mechanism known as moral licensing. Moral licensing occurs when a person believes that their moral goals or good behaviour grant them permission to do immoral things. Moral licensing is also tied to victimhood status; those who perceive themselves as victims are more likely to use that status to exempt themselves from normal codes of moral conduct. This brings us to the new improvers of mankind: the modern Left. The moral license of progressive activists rests on the belief that they are working for cosmic justice and universal good on behalf of society’s righteous victims.

There are those, Nietzsche observed in On the Genealogy of Morals, who “constantly bear the word ‘justice’ in their mouths like poisonous spittle, always with pursed lips, always ready to spit upon all who are not discontented but go their own way in good spirits. … The will of the weak to represent some form of superiority, their instinct for devious paths to tyranny over the healthy—where can it not be discovered, this will to power of the weakest!” Many on the social-justice Left are pious true believers with a victimhood complex. They therefore presume that they have the moral license (or what Thomas Sowell called a “blank check”) to behave as badly as they like.

Jussie Smollett employed pious fraud when he faked a hate crime. While Smollett and his supporters know that his claim is false, it has been justified by the alleged ubiquity of white supremacy and homophobia. Smollett, his supporters say, was merely attempting to bring attention to a larger truth. This is not an isolated case. The political scientist Wilfred Reilly has documented hundreds of hoaxes in his book Hate Crime Hoax: How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War. In an essay for Commentary about this phenomenon, Reilly writes

The deeper I delved, the more it seemed that this phenomenon of fake hate crimes did not appear to be small-scale or regionally isolated. I put together a fairly large database of hate-crime allegations. ... A majority of these incidents, which were almost all initially reported with a great deal of fanfare and breast-beating, were later exposed as hoaxes. Well, in truth, “exposed” is a gross exaggeration. Evidence demonstrated that they were fake hate crimes. But that fact got very little exposure in the press—particularly in comparison with the initial publicity they generated. The headlines that had touted each case as a horrific example of contemporary bigotry vanished from the Internet.

There are many examples of these pious lies told by the social-justice Left, including claims of a discriminatory pay disparity between men and women, denial of the sex binary, and claims of an impending “genocide” against trans people. Look closely at almost any major social issue adopted by the social-justice Left and you will find distortion, lies, or misleading half-truths. Truth is sacrificed in service of a holy war against “injustice” or “inequity.”

Hate Crime Hoaxes are More Common than You Think
Victimhood culture gives rise to hate crime hoaxes, then, because it makes them easier to pull off for the same reasons it makes them more lucrative.

Not that the Right has any special claim to universal honesty (humans in general are prone to lying). But the nature of the social-justice worldview—a moral crusade against cosmic injustice—lends itself more to this kind of deceptive piety. Stephen Schneider, a leading member of a climate working group for the IPCC, displayed the logic of the pious fraudster when he said

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but—which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. … Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.

But pious lies are almost always counterproductive. They erode trust in fellow citizens, academia, and the media. And even if they are believed, they create social panics based on a web of fabrications and exaggerations. If they are not corrected, entire worldviews and political movements can be built on falsehoods. This destroys common sense-making, impedes effective policy design, and—given the social-justice Left’s focus on race and gender, specifically—erodes social trust and cohesion. 

The pious improvers of mankind lie and exaggerate because they believe it is their job to make decisions on behalf of others. They believe they know best and that truth and transparency can be sacrificed in the service of their holy mission. But in reality, many of them are simply acting out their resentment, through which they hope to achieve some form of retribution for perceived cosmic injustices. As Nietzsche pointed out in Twilight of the Idols:

This is the great, uncanny problem which I have been pursuing the longest: the psychology of the “improvers” of mankind. A small and modest fact—that of the so-called pia fruas [pious fraud] … the heirloom of all philosophers and priests who “improved” mankind. [They] have never doubted their right to lie.

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