“Self-Deception is sometimes as necessary a tool as a crowbar”: Self-Deception as Beneficial to Institutions


A great deal of recent philosophical work has argued for seeing certain groups as agents, capable of beliefs and desires (Gilbert, List, Pettit, Tollefsen), and as able to make assertions and to lie (Fricker, Lackey). Recently it has also been suggested that self-deception is something that affects institutions as well as individuals (Trivers, Deweese-Boyd). I wish to take such suggestions seriously, and assess the degree to which we should be concerned about self-deceived institutions.

It has been widely assumed that suffering from self-deception is a negative thing – it can often make us unaware of certain truths, or blind us to our own moral shortcomings, and so can prevent us from addressing such problems and defects. Given that institutions can wield a great deal of political, social and economic power, if institutions are capable of self-deception there is room for things to go awry on a very large scale with potentially dire consequences.

However, there is also a great deal of influential literature in psychology (Taylor, Brown, Dutton, Kirsch) which suggests that self-deception may actually be extremely beneficial – that harbouring self-deceptive beliefs can “contribute to the production of better mood, better popularity, better ability to care for others, creativity, productivity, resilience from stress, and ultimately happiness” (van Leeuwen), albeit if kept within certain healthy limits.

I begin by drawing a distinction between lying to oneself and self-deception, and claim that institutions are susceptible to both. I will then suggest that self-deception needn’t be a bad thing – it can clearly be beneficial to institutions as well as individuals, and this fact may serve to change our attitude towards the discovery of institutional self-deception. On the other hand, I will argue that an institution lying to itself is something to be avoided.


2 thoughts on ““Self-Deception is sometimes as necessary a tool as a crowbar”: Self-Deception as Beneficial to Institutions

  1. Zachos, Dimitrios says:

    Hi Genevieve,
    thank you for this interesting talk- it’s nice to see how much you’ve developed your account since I last heard you speak on the topic a couple of years back at Tufts. It’s a pity you didn’t make it to the Q & A, your topic is out of the mainstream and it would have been interesting to have had an opportunity to explore the ideas a bit more- I’m still a bit uncertain on how to apply the notions of “lying to oneself” or “deceiving oneself” and how to draw the distinction between the two -if there’s one that necessarily has to be drawn- but then again, I’m not familiar with the literature on the topic…
    I really enjoy the talk, though – good luck with your PhD!

    1. Jacot-Guillarmod, Genevieve says:

      Hi Dimitrios, thank you so much for your feedback, and apologies for the late response. And yes, unfortunately my internet connection is very unreliable – lots of lag and occasional days when it keeps cutting out – so I thought a live question session may be a very frustrating experience for everyone.

      Almost every single aspect of self-deception is controversial or disputed (whether it is intentional or unintentional, whether one is morally responsible for one’s self-deceptive beliefs or not etc., whether it’s a good or bad thing etc.).

      I originally began thinking about group/institutional self-deception in terms of what I think is the most convincing/promising account of individual self-deception – a deflationary model that Alfred Mele puts forward where someone is self-deceived if:
      1. The belief that p which S acquires is false,
      2. S treats data relevant, or at least seemingly relevant, to the truth value of p in a motivationally biased way,
      3. This biased treatment is a nondeviant cause of S’s acquiring the belief that p, and
      4. The body of data possessed by S at the time provides greater warrant for ~p than for p. (Mele)

      My starting point was to show that groups/institutions were also capable of meeting Mele’s four minimal conditions for self-deception. But one key feature of these kinds of accounts of self-deception is that the self-deception is unintentional.

      Other accounts of self-deception think of the phenomenon more literally – that a person takes on the role of both the deceiver and the deceived. Mele thinks that these kinds of accounts inevitably involve reference to some kind of “mental exotica” to explain how this would work in an individual head, and I tend to agree. However, when it comes to institutional groups, it’s possible for them to literally contain both the deceiver and a deceived, and, I think, for an institution to therefore quite literally lie to itself.

      So I am using the term “self-deception” to refer to a Mele-esque deflationary account of self-deception where the self-deception is unintentional, and the term “lying to oneself” where an institution will have intentionally lied to itself. I suppose I see these as two quite different phenomena, and that the difference between the two could affect what we think the moral implications are, to what degree the institution should be held responsible, if the phenomena is beneficial overall, and what we do to curb it – although when it comes to the literature on self-deception in individuals these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, and there are different accounts of self-deception on offer – which is why I felt I should try to draw a clearer distinction between what I saw as two quite different things. I hope this helps to clarify.

      Thanks again, and all the best.

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