Big lies, clever cons, and TOK ways of knowing, Part 1: Does it matter to tell the truth?

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160208 illusionistClaiming he was a surgeon, Ferdinand Waldo Demara tricked the Canadian navy into giving him a ship full of people as his patients. With no qualifications whatsoever – without so much as high school graduation – he even performed operations on his trusting patients. How could anyone be so dishonest and callous as to deceive others so flagrantly? And why would so many people fall for his impersonation? The “con artist” – the swindler who plays a “confidence game” or gains the confidence of others for his own ends – seems to awaken our emotional outrage, but also our fascination. Such reactions make stories of large scale deception enormously attractive for stimulating and focusing discussion in a Theory of Knowledge classroom.

I’m prompted to propose this topic for TOK by a new book on the “confidence game” and the numerous interviews and articles that the book’s publication has set off – easily accessible material for class on a topic that, in my opinion, is likely to captivate student interest. The book is The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It…Every Time by Maria Konnikova.  For an article by the author and several interviews on her central ideas (all available online), see my Resources list at the end of this post.

What knowledge questions come out of heartless manipulators taking advantage of our human inclination to trust others? Too many! Too, too many! I’m going to break the topic into separate parts that I’ll treat for the next four weeks. For each part I’ll make some suggestions for use in the classroom, in hopes, as always, of stimulating your own ideas:

  1. Does it matter to tell the truth?
  2. What does storytelling do to knowledge?
  3. Is critical thinking utterly futile?
  4. On guard against scams!

Today, I’ll offer a few ideas on dealing in class with the first of these topics.

Sample stories

In a classroom, we benefit from harnessing the power of stories ourselves to catch student interest. I suggest opening by preparing stories of “cons” to share with students, to engage them and get them thinking, and to provide the group with shared points of reference for discussion ahead.

Myself, I’d choose three examples with different characteristics – different apparent motivations, different kinds of false identities, different kinds of audiences, and different consequences. I like the following, though you may want to select others from a sadly wide range of possibilities.

160208 scalpel

  • Ferdinand Waldo Demara (1921 – 1982) : His impersonations were the basis of the movie The Great Imposter. He persuaded people to believe that he was many different identities, including a monk, a prison warden, and a doctor. He is the surgeon to whom I referred in my opening. Maria Konnikova picks him as the example that most piques her interest in an interview in The Atlantic. His story is readily available online. Myself, I’d emphasize his impersonation of a doctor because the horrifying implications of believing his con are very evident.
  • Samantha Lyndell Azzopardi (1988 – ) In 2013, a young Australian woman led international police forces to believe, for a time, that she was a vulnerable teenaged victim of human trafficking. When her “con” was discovered, she was found to be 25 years old, with more that 40 false identities in her past. Maria Konnikova gives Azzopardi’s story in an article in The New Yorker. 
  • Bernie Madoff (1938 – ) This swindler did not take on a false name, but masqueraded convincingly as a trustworthy financial investor – so convincingly that he cheated clients out of $65 billion. He was exposed in 2008 and in 2009 was sentenced to 150 years in prison. His story, readily available online, involves explaining a “Ponzi scheme” – Madoff’s being the largest Ponzi scheme in history. For a compact explanation, see an article from the Business Insider.

The stories are worth preparing well for class – that is, planning your own narration, or handouts, or video clips – because they can act as vivid reference points for numerous knowledge questions they serve to raise and illustrate. It’s one of the sad truths of good classes, I find, that it takes more preparation time to deal with topics in less class time – to introduce ideas briefly. But the preparation time’s a good investment in this case.

Telling the truth and ethics

In a course based on building knowledge as reliably as we can, the topic of lying is more than simply a Hot Issue in ethics. If learning to distinguish more effectively between what’s true and what’s false (with all the complexities!) is an aim of Theory of Knowledge, then a lively examination of outrageous lies gives us a chance to validate what our course is all about! It also, clearly, leads directly into ethical discussion.

After introducing the stories of the con artists and their cons (or perhaps while doing so), I would ask a couple of utterly basic knowledge questions, open to a multitude of responses:

  • Does it matter if what we believe is true? Why or why not?
  • Is it morally wrong to lie? How do we know?

While it’s entirely possible to have a good discussion on these questions in class when we ask them in the abstract, I do think that a discussion fueled by stories is likely to yield a wider range of ideas and a lot more energy and engagement. Note that a major resource for TOK teachers and students for dealing with such stories and debriefing them is my Theory of Knowledge IB course book, Chapter 3 (Seeking truth) touches on the question “Does it matter if you believe it?” and Chapter 16 (Ethics) guides the debriefing of ethical case studies.

Likely to come up in class responses are ideas that can be debriefed into four major broad perspectives. These cluster ethical theories according to what criteria they use to measure right and wrong: the intentions and character of the person who is lying, the lie itself judged by principles or rules, the consequences of the lies.; and the social context within which truth or falsehood functions.

Did students bring up the motives of the con artists?

The intentions of the deceivers – or their less conscious motivations — seem especially fascinating for many people, given the wide popular circulation of the stories of deceivers. Konnikova insists that there is no single profile of a con artist’s motives – not even desire for attention, money, or power. In her interview with Julia Galef, though, she does comment on “the dark triad” of the con artist’s psychology: psychopathy or lack of empathy; narcissism, combining an overblown ego and sense of entitlement; and Machiavellianism, or skill in manipulating others “to do your bidding for your own ends.”

The example of con artists raises, more than many other examples do, the ancient ethics of virtue, based on stressing not particular actions but, more holistically, a person’s character.

Did students bring up the absolute right or wrong of lying, judged by ethical principles of honesty?

These examples of clever deceit do often cry out for firm condemnation – but on what grounds? Religious teaching — and if so, grounded on what?  Social expectations — and if so, known how?  Philosophical arguments for ethical principles put forth in deontology — and if so, based on what?  What are the roles of intuition and reason as ways of knowing?

Did students bring up the consequences of the lying on others?

Did some of the cons seem harmless — and if so, did they appear morally excusable? Which of the cons disturbed students the most – and why? Did they use arguments that you can debrief in terms of utilitarianism — greatest benefit, or harm, for the greatest number of people?  What are the roles of sense perception (observation),  imagination, emotion, and reason as ways of knowing in predicting possible consequences and then evaluating them for their potential harm or benefit?

Did students bring up the moral code of the surrounding society?

This example of deliberate cons is more useful in class than many other ethical examples we could use, in that it effectively stirs ethical issues that centre on the social context, such as those of loyalty to others (and the violation of betrayal!) and caring for others within a social network.  What are the roles of emotion, intuition, imagination, and reason as ways of knowing?

If the stories of swindlers help you as the teacher to stir up student responses across a range of ethical perspectives, then they will have served their first purpose. It’s up to you, then, to pose follow-up knowledge questions — at least to plant them for later — that help to characterize ethics as an area of knowledge:

Do theories in ethics – that is, broad and internally coherent perspectives on judging morality – contradict each other, or do they complement each other? In what regards do they tug in different directions for their arguments and conclusions, and to what extent to do they provide different routes toward similar conclusions?

Similar questions can be applied to the sciences, for example, or history, in order to open up comparisons of the roles of theories across knowledge. (But more on this next week.)

Conclusion: truth and trust

The purpose of opening up ethical questions as the first discussion of a series on con artists is to establish right from the beginning that thinking about swindlers and their deceptions is worthwhile – not because they are worthy in themselves but because they challenge us to reflect on our basic assumptions regarding the value of truth for us as individuals and for our social cohesion. We are also affirming – or re-affirming, or re-re-re-re-affirming – the importance of looking critically at what we accept, and why, for the knowledge we build.

Interestingly, in spite of writing about deceivers, Maria Konnikova also comments on trust as giving individuals and societies an evolutionary advantage in giving supportive networks. In her interview with Julia Galef in a Rationally Speaking podcast, she comments (starting at 40.57) : “We also know that being trusting comes with a lot of benefits, not just psychological. We know that on a social level societies with higher levels of generalized trust end up doing better economically. They have better social institutions. It makes so much sense, because we have to trust one another to be able to develop as a society. If everyone second‐guessed every single person’s motive, we would not live in a very pleasant world.”

It might be well, for reasons that lie not within course objectives but kind teaching practice, to close a discussion on a deceptive world by returning students to affirming a sense of trust!

Next week I’ll pick up another thread of knowledge questions raised by the stories of con artists – the power of narrative and the role of storytelling in knowledge.

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Nicola Davis, Iain Chambers, and Maria Konnikova. “What makes a good con artist?” podcast, Science Weekly, January 29, 2016. 30 minutes

Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, and Mimi Bick. Theory of Knowledge. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Diana Henriques, “Examining the Ponzi Scheme Through the Mind of the Con Artist”, Dealbook, New York Times, August 20, 2012.

Maria Konnikova. The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It…Every Time. Viking, January 2016.

Maria Konnikova, “How Stories Deceive” , The New Yorker. December 29, 2015.

Maria Konnikova interviewed by Julia Galef. “Why everyone falls for con artists”, Rationally Speaking podcast #151. January 26, 2016.   Conveniently, a downloadable transcript is provided for the entire interview.

John Wasik, “Inside the Mind of Madoff: When Did Scam Really Begin?”, Forbes. October 3, 2012.

Stephanie Yang, “5 Years Ago Bernie Madoff Was Sentenced to 150 Years In Prison – Here’s How His Scheme Worked”, Business Insider, July 1, 2014.

image illusionist: creative commons:

image hand with scalpel: creative commons:

2 thoughts on “Big lies, clever cons, and TOK ways of knowing, Part 1: Does it matter to tell the truth?

  1. […] Does it matter to tell the truth? (ethical perspectives on telling the truth) February 8, 2016. […]

  2. […] Does it matter to tell the truth? (ethical perspectives on telling the truth) February 8, 2016. […]

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