Deception and deceit II

Deception can be justified; deceit can’t.

A reader judges me guilty of Humpty-Dumptyism by insisting on the distinction between “deception” and “deceit”, words which he claims are synonymous.

I wasn’t deliberately coining the distinction. I routinely use “deception” neutrally and “deceit” pejoratively, and I think that’s conventional. It surely is for the adjectival forms: “deceptive” can be purely descriptive, while “deceitful” is always judgmental. Losing sight of that distinction is a problem of morals as well as diction.

The contemporary problem, as I take it, is that blameworthy deceit is passed off as praiseworthy deception, as when Churchill’s “bodyguard of lies” is appropriated as a justification for fooling the citizenry rather than the enemy.

That contrasts with the situation of a century ago, where the problem was the opposite. In The Proud Tower, a wonderful collection of historical sketches from the period just before WWI, Barbara Tuchman reports that when Harvard’s star basketball player flunked out the President of Harvard (it must have been Eliot or Lowell) remarked that he wasn’t really sorry to hear it, as the young man was not of good moral character: he had the habit of looking one way when about to move the other way to fool his opponent.

It’s easy to laugh at Eliot (unless it was Lowell). but overall, I’d rather live in a world where people in power failed to understand the legitimate uses of deception than one in which they’re blind to the evil of deceit.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: