Deception and deceit

Deception in war is sometimes admirable. Deceit, never.

Lee Scoresby of the Republic of Heaven thinks I’m being unfair to Odysseus:

Odysseus’ Trojan Horse maneuver … shouldn’t be grounds for rejecting Odysseus … unless we’re going to condemn the architects of D-Day for tricking the Germans into believing the landing was going to take place at Calais.

This, I must say with all possible respoect for Scoresby, whose blog title I greatly admire, is WRONG. Deception is sometimes admirable; deceit, never.

The difference is that deception occurs in a situation where the party deceived has no right to expect forthrightness from the party performing the deception, while deceit is a betrayal of trust. One of our contemporary problems is that the practitioners of deceit often try to pass it off as admirable deception.

As to the Normandy/Calais trick, with the marvellous story of the “Man Who Never Was”: We were at war with Germany, and tricked the Germans. Good for us! As Hobbes writes, “In war, force and fraud are the two cardinal virtues.”

But a fake surrender is a different matter entirely. The Achaeans pretended to make peace with the Trojans, and then slaughtered them. Then and now, that was deeply dishonorable behavior, and deeply socially destructive as well because as a practice it makes ending wars harder.

The Trojan Horse involved impiety as well as treachery: the horse was presented as an offering to Poseidon. That doesn’t bother most of us much, since we figure that if Poseidon doesn’t exist he probably doesn’t care, either. (There’s a marvellously funny scene in the movie of The Man Who Would Be King — I don’t know whether it’s in Kipling — where the two adventurers discuss whether it’s blasphemous for Daniel to pretend to be a god, and agree that it isn’t because he’s not pretending to be the real, Christian God.) But in terms of Odysseus’s own world, impiety was serious business.

Yes, the Odysseus of the Odyssey is a much better person, apparently having learned from his sufferings. But you can’t claim the sufferings weren’t merited. By the standards of his own time as well as ours, the Odysseus of the Trojan War was a pretty considerable scoundrel.

He does not lack for spititual decendents, some of them in positions of power.

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:

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