Plato, Political Lies and COVID-19

Celso Vieira
6 min readApr 27, 2020


or why uncertainty should increase our commitment to truth

Victor Vasarely, Vega (1957)

The containment of pandemics such as the COVID-19 depends a lot on coordinated action. Providing information to guide people’s behavior becomes one of the main ways to combat the spread of the virus. This scenario nourishes a common urge in politicians, scientists, journalists and social media users. It seems that manipulating pieces of information increases the chances of causing individual reactions which maximize the collective good. This came to be known as political lying. Current examples abound. China obstructed information in the initial stages of the epidemic. The justification would be avoiding major economic losses. All over the world, some experts shared misleading information about the inefficacy of wearing masks to avoid the virus because the lack of masks would harm the healthcare workers who need them the most. Several leaders, including in USA and Brazil, made pronouncements trying to minimize the seriousness of the situation. The justification, once again, would be an attempt to diminish the effects on the economy.

In the Western tradition, Plato offers the first treatment of what came to be known as political lies. In the Republic, he concedes that in some cases the government of the ideal city-state might lie to its citizens in some circumstances. The justification is the usual, certain lies benefit those who are lied to. Some political scientists uphold the pragmatical position that a completely honest government will not work. They, of course, cite Plato as a predecessor.

First, it is necessary to exclude one scenario. Oftentimes, after being exposed as liars, people try to justify themselves by saying that they only lied to benefit the others. In this situation, the lie is being used for the benefit of the liar. Therefore, it ceases to be a legitimate case of political lying. It is likely that most lies told by politicians aim at their own benefit or were made by ignorance and lack of consciousness. Yet, a proper reflection requires that we accept the ideal scenario of a lie that was told to and has the potential of promoting the collective well-being.

Plato saw inherent connections between truth and good and lie and bad. If so, how come he could endorse political lying under the prerogative that lies can contribute to the collective good? The solution depends on an indirect connection between the political lie and some truth underlying it. That is why, who uses a political lie must:

a) know the truth of the matter.

b) know which is the appropriate reaction to it.

c) know which lie will generate the appropriate reaction.

Even if a lie can have positive results, all things being equal, it is better to attain these results via true information. Thus, political lying will only be justified if those who are lied to:

d) are not able to react in the appropriate way in the face of the truth, where the criterion for being appropriate is defined by the benefit the reaction will bring to themselves. Conversely,

e) believing the lie must benefit the believers by making them react in accordance with the truth that they cannot grasp.

Plato’s position is demanding on both sides. If individuals do not want to justifiably be lied to, they need to be able to manage information and this requires developing some epistemic virtues.

Government officials usually supply misleading information under the assumption that people are unable to understand and/ or react to reasons based on collective well-being. For instance, assuming that the only way to contain an irresponsible consumption of masks is by questioning their efficacy. But since individuals are showing pro-social behavior during this pandemics, this assumption seems to reveal more about who makes it than about people’s behavior.

It is self-examination time. Lying to benefit the others sounds more plausible when we lie and abhorrent when we are lied to. The asymmetry generates a behavioral problem. Oftentimes, we do not even notice the inconsistency in our attitudes. One might well complain that the Chinese government should have been more transparent and, at the same time, make pronouncements minimizing the seriousness of the situation in one’s own country.

We saw how strict and plausible are the criteria for the use of political lies in Plato. In the case of a recently discovered virus like the COVID-19, we are not even close to knowing all the relevant facts. However, it is still necessary to throw some light on what the so-called inherent relation between truth and good would mean, at least in practical terms.

Truth is a property of our beliefs and opinions expressed in sentences. It has no direct relation to reality. A true belief simply describes reality as it is. Probably, a huge part of our actions is not based on our conscious beliefs. However, these come into play during our reflected decisions. Having beliefs that correspond to the reality will support better decisions. Hence the increased success rate in our interactions with the world grounds the pragmatical value of truth.

Once we enter the field of decision making, it becomes clear that political lies should have a very limited application. After all, they will propel the right reaction only in decisions concerning the very particular case they were developed to address. When parents tell their children that lying makes a red dot appear in their faces, they expect them not to lie but they do not expect children to conclude that people with pimples are liars. However, the latter is closer to how beliefs work. After we form a belief, it will be used in the most diverse contexts and occasions. In trying to minimize economic effects by downplaying the seriousness of the pandemics, political leaders make people form the belief that the situation is not serious and they will act accordingly in unpredictable ways and situations. Since the belief does not correspond to reality, the effects are likely to be harmful. That is why social media companies deleted misleading messages posted by some politicians.

The mistake made by politicians, experts, journalists and social media users comes from a naif assumption that beliefs are in a one-to-one relationship of direct interference in reality. They forget to be aware that it is the actions guided by the decision-making informed by the beliefs that have causal power. Decisions based on beliefs that do not correspond to the reality will not generate the expected result most of the times. Disinformation and even information should not be used as if they were able to intervene in reality. To reduce the economic impact of the pandemics it is necessary to implement measures that will address the effects in the economy and not supply false beliefs with a very limited range of success.

Fig. 1: [T]rue and [F] false beliefs are used in several decision-making [DM] processes. Each process motivates several actions. Decisions based on true information have higher chances of success [+A]. In the case of a political lie, a piece of false information artificially leads to a positive action. All connections are real. However, users of political lies ignore all the dotted connections and assume that their lies will be restricted to the solid line connection which is the exception.

[Obs: feel free to suppress image and legend]

The reflection about political lying allows us to see that in contexts of uncertainty the commitment to truth becomes more imperative. Even if political lies have some role in a democratic government, this place is not where there is great uncertainty. In such cases, as in the present pandemics, it is the role of politicians, experts, journalists and social media users to communicate information carefully. Only by doing so, we will involve the most number of people in a legitimate process of decision-making concerning such an urgent subject.

The real test case lies ahead. When the number of cases starts to decline, the discussions about transitioning to milder restrictions will start. At this point, governments should be open about their reasoning, projections and plans whereas the population will need to manage the information with dexterity and maturity.