(philosophy) Tax evasion: A righteous lie?

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from Essay

Tax Evasion:

A Righteous Lie

by Carolyn Ray

Date: 11 Jul 98

Copyright: Carolyn Ray

Ragnar (a character from Atlas Shrugged) taught us that destruction of "public property" was OK because there is no such thing as "the public," and property stolen from one party does not belong to another. He taught us that tax evasion is OK because tax is theft. But let us note that the situation in Atlas Shrugged is quite desperate, and the rebellion is in full swing.

Now consider a few of my friends, whose names will be changed herein. Lucy's father claims Lucy as a dependent (even though she is in her late 30's) so that he can get a tax break. In addition, he has bank accounts set up in her name, where he hides his own savings, because the interest income of dependents is safe from tax.

Steven's father claims Steven as a dependent too, and has him listed as a full time employee at his business. Steven has worked at the office part time a couple of summers, but otherwise he never even helps his father with work he brings home when Steven is in town for a visit. When his father wants to get him a gift, he buys him the sort of thing which can be claimed as an office expense.

There are several questions which arise in the ordinary mind. Is this the right way to act toward one's government? Is this the right way to behave toward one's fellow tax payers? Is this the right way to use one's child?

I will not deal with questions from the ordinary mind here. My interest is only in this question: Is this the right way to treat oneself?

It seems to me that this is not the right way to treat oneself. There are two main reasons. The first is that it damages one's own integrity. The second is that it sets a wretched example for one's child, whose welfare is a significant part of a good parent's happiness.

How does tax evasion damage one's integrity? After all, if the government is wrong to take one's money without permission, how could it be a problem to take steps such as these to keep thieves away from it? Is it not rather an act of heroism in the tradition of the righteous pirate Ragnar Daneskold of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged? People who look for the problem in the relationship between the taxpayer and the government confuse the issue and ignore the fundamental facts of individual human psychology. The issue is not that the government or the relationship are illegitimate or evil, and as such can or should be harmed.

The issue is that any lie, any deception, any evasion corrupts the integrity of the person who engages in it. In the cases described above, there are several lies being told ("I am an honest, upstanding citizen who pays taxes  but has a dependent child who has a private bank account that she doesn't access and that I use for my own expenses."). There is the further evasion of the knowledge that this is in fact an instance of dishonesty, upon which a veneer of respectable rebelliousness and self-righteousness is painted to ease a reproachful conscience.

Part of the harm that comes to me when I am literally forced to lie when my life or vitally important values are threatened, is that I now have to live with the falsehood  a hole in my integrity. The human mind needs wholeness and consistency in order to thrive; the mere fact that I made a hole in it in order to avoid some greater evil does not entail that there is no hole.

Consider an analogy. If I will die unless I have a heart transplant, I thank my lucky stars that I live in an age when such a procedure is possible. But the mere fact that the transplant will save my life does not erase the fact that the surgeons will damage the integrity of my body  I will still have to recover from shock, sawed bones, slashed arteries, and weight loss. The trade off is certainly worthwhile in this case. Similarly the trade off is worthwhile if I can scare off a would-be attacker by telling him that I have a gun. Nonetheless, the mere fact that I lied for a very good reason does not erase the fact that I lied.

In extreme cases, extreme measures are required. It is just as right to lie to an attacker as it is to go ahead with a transplant. But just as I cannot fool my body into being whole by going for a brisk run the day after surgery, so I cannot fool my mind into integration by going about my honest business after I lie. In both cases, definite courses of action are necessary to heal the wound.

Unfortunately, it is uncommon for people to take seriously the damage done to their souls; most people do not believe any damage is done, especially if they can tell themselves that the lie was for a good cause. Since they can still go for a brisk run or write an essay the day after they tell a lie, it seems that no harm is done at all. And the more lies they tell, the more evidence they collect that they can feed falsehood into my mental world without ill effect. In fact, the lying gets easier every time!

All this is bad enough for average amoralists, who have not yet realized that ethical principles are necessary for a healthy mind; at least these people can assure themselves that dishonest behavior is not forbidden as far as they are concerned, and an odd sort of integrity is preserved  in other words, it is an honest mistake. For people who have accepted ethical systems which include honesty and integrity not just as psychological facts but as fundamental principles and goals, the consequences are much worse. They have purposely introduced falsehood into their minds, they are aware that they have done it, and they are aware that their ethical systems forbid it.

Beware the righteous lie, especially the chronic righteous lie, such as must be maintained in order to evade taxation. You don't get something for nothing, ever.

-- eve (eve_rebekah@yahoo.com), July 08, 2000


A related essay from the same author and website (if you click on "Olist" at the bottom of the prior site, then back into "Dr. Carolyn Ray." If that doesn't get you there, let me know.

There's No Such Thing as a Little White Lie

by Carolyn Ray

Date: 11 Jul 98

Copyright: Carolyn Ray

A white lie is allegedly one which is done for someone's good and which harms no one.

There's no such thing. The philosophical view that allows people to think that lies can be harmless is one which counts the self as nothing morally interesting.

Some individualists sometimes say that they can lie without hurting anyone. This is a mistake and a philosophical contradiction on their part, and should not be taken as evidence that a philosophy of individualism can consistently permit lying under any but the most dire circumstances.

So where is the harm in a lie that, for example, no one ever finds out about and that does a someone good? For example, where is the harm in telling someone that you didn't come to his party because you were sick, when in fact you think that the person has an obnoxious sense of humor and you didn't want to subject yourself to it? Obviously, the party host isn't directly harmed if he never finds out, even if you can make the case that telling him might help him curb his antisocial habit and be happier in the long run.

The harm is to the person telling the lie. Lies introduce falsehood and inconsistency into one's mental life. And they are practice for more lies. The more you lie, the easier it gets and the better you get at it. If you do not take strict measures to control the temptation, lying can become a habit to the extent that situations frequently require you to decide not only how to phrase an answer to a question but even whether or not to lie about it.

There is no question that one single lie does not lead to a life of crime, or even to a dishonesty habit. But yet every lie carries some risk with it. And there are actually very good reasons to lie on the rarest of occasions, so they must be chosen carefully. One of philosophy's most famous examples is this: a neighbor bangs on your door saying that a murderer is chasing him. You let him hide in your attic. Unfortunately, the murderer comes snooping, shows you a picture casually and asks whether you have seen the person. Should you tell her the truth, or lie to save your neighbor from likely death? You say you have been away for a few weeks and just got home to your very busy life and haven't been out much. The murderer then tells you that the person she seeks is a criminal, and she would appreciate it if you didn't call the police or tell anyone else. You say that you won't, and you're too busy to bother about other people's business anyway.

Was this the right thing to do? Immanuel Kant's answer is half right, although his reasons are fundamentally opposed to individualism. Kant says that you certainly don't owe the murderer the truth, but you do owe it to yourself to hear yourself speak the truth.

Kant didn't consider a number of relevant factors. First, in general we would rather not allow such an easily preventable death of a fellow human being. Second, we would rather not encourage people who wish to murder by helping them with information. Third, we would rather not have murderers in the neighborhood at all, so we would not let on that we know what is going on so that we have a chance to call the police. In a society in which people intent on murder knew that for the most part they could simply ask people the whereabouts of their victims and be given directions to them, the murderers would have the upper hand.

While it is arguable that you owe yourself the truth, I would argue that in this situation the right thing to do is lie. A very serious and irreversible harm will be done if you blurt out the truth, and a life will be saved if you lie. But here, we are focusing on whether lying does harm even when it is for a good cause.

Yes, this lie does harm, again to the the liar and for the same reason. The harm that will be done to your refuge would be much greater, and so the lie does a tremendous amount of good. But a lie is a falsehood and an inconsistency, as far as your rational faculty goes. A small risk of harm in exchange for a huge certain harm is a rational choice, but the lie nonetheless does you some harm. The only question is how well you have prepared yourself for this lie in advance and what you will do with your newfound knowledge and power after the lie?

Moreover, this lie does less harm than the lie told to the party host. The lie is told to the murderer once, and as soon as you are out of her grasp you can stop telling the lie. But in the case of the party host, you have to maintain your front with him pretty much for the rest of your life or as long as you might run into him again.

In addition, this again is practice. It is not necessarily practice in the sense of getting good at fooling people, although that may happen too. The real harm is not in getting good at lying, but in getting comfortable with lying, with seeing it as a possible option in any given situation no matter how small, and generally being at odds with reality instead of being able to read it off to people as though reading straight from a book.

Since situations do come up that are as serious as the one we mentioned, and you will have to lie on those occasions to prevent some terrible wrong, it is best to be prepared for this by NOT having a history of lying.

-- eve (eve_rebekah@yahoo.com), July 08, 2000.

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