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In a world where people and nations could force their leaders to 'tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth', how would this affect both politics itself, and how it would be viewed by the public itself.

Boundaries

  • This magic oath would only work if the taker willingly submits themselves to it
  • The oath cannot be broken without it breaking be revealed
  • It is only limited to a small amount of VIPs in any country

Context

  • The countries in question are solidly democratic, and civil liberties are valued
  • There is already somewhat high levels of trust in politicians before this would be instituted
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    $\begingroup$ How would this oath work with the person saying something that is a lie but THEY don't know it is a lie? (e.g. someone fed false information to the politician, the politician believes it is true, and says it in a press conference or somewhere else) $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 9:47
  • $\begingroup$ @JulianaKarasawaSouza By definition of the words themselves if they don't know it's not the truth when they say it they haven't told a lie & it's therefore not a lie, does that answer your question. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 9:58
  • $\begingroup$ Consequences are many, good and bad, do not recomend, it seems bad outweigths good. There are other ways to keep them in check and bring more transparency in gov. Like rolling voting which is capable to revoke from a position at any time. And based on your comment it is way to easy to overcome and render that oath useless. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 10:28
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    $\begingroup$ Political parties will do everything in their power to prevent their leaders to testify under oath, portraying these requests as politically motivated witch hunt. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 18:00
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    $\begingroup$ You might be interested in examining the reputation of the Aes Sedai in The Wheel of Time. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 21:03

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My first thought was that it would probably select for the more intelligent/quick witted politicians - essentially the truth can always be presented in different ways to the benefit of the speaker. For example plenty of US politicians present themselves as "business friendly", but of course the actual implications of that probably quite truthful statement is being consumer/worker unfriendly - because while some laws can benefit everyone, many have to choose between which groups to favour when interests are strictly competing.

Speaking truths in certain contexts can also be very manipulative if done in the right way - a great example of using leading questions to manipulate the results of a survey was shown in the TV show "Yes, Prime Minister", and similar techniques can be used rhetorically in all types of communication to bias the responses wanted without needing to resort to lying or misrepresentation of individual facts. And if the "whole truth" part of the oath interferes with the ability to selectively choose which parts of the truth to present at any time, then it is hard to see how it wouldn't cause the politicians to digress endlessly into related facts they know or extra context for each statement they make, which would probably let politicians get away with anything if every speech was like a filibuster of large amounts of marginally relevant information the politician was compelled to add.

A second issue is that humans tend to have lots of beliefs and opinions that they consider absolute truths, often despite evidence to the contrary or lack of evidence in favour of the belief/opinion in the first place. Idealists and ideologues are often completely honest in their views on subjects that are often nonsensical, so a second type of politician that might succeed in such an environment could be along these lines.

A third issue is the manipulation of the politicians themselves - if a given President is convinced by his aides that invading Iraq is an essential requirement for the safety of the nation, then under this oath he would be able to stand in front of the nation and push for a war, even if it is almost certainly a terrible idea - as long as he truly believed it was a good thing. So rather than intelligent politicians you might end up with another competing paradigm of intelligent and cynical aides running puppet politicians selected for their credulity and likability.

Ultimately if politicians are competing to get elected, the ones that can make more people think they are going to benefit from voting for them than for the opposition will tend to win, so while such an oath might restrict certain types of obvious cynical manipulation of the electorate, it would presumably just make way for different, maybe more indirect, ways of manipulating the electorate.

One direct impact of such an oath is that it is quite likely the economy of the country would tend to be weaker than before the oath was implemented. This is because a large part of the economy runs on confidence - if a politician is compelled to say "it is quite likely there will be recession soon" then if the politician is notable enough the recession will almost certainly now happen, when it might not have if he had been able to not say anything, or respond with a "white lie" suggesting they expect growth to be weak but positive or something along those lines.

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    $\begingroup$ A solid answer. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 10:33
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    $\begingroup$ Are you equating "business friendly" with "consumer/worker unfriendly"? Because that would be an ironically strong political statement based on a falsity. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Commented Sep 18, 2021 at 3:00
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This idea has already been investigated in the "Wheel of Time" series by Robert Jordan

In the Wheel of Time series, the Aes Sedai take a binding oath to (among other things) always tell the truth with the use of a magic rod that permanently enforces the covenant. The oath is taken willingly, but is required to be recognized as full Aes Sedai. Its original purpose was to engender trust among nations' peoples and the Aes Sedai who served as counselors, mediators, leaders, etc.

Jordan did a great job of reflecting not only basic human nature in his books, but also basic political realities. You see, politicians lie.

They have to.

Most citizens of any nation believe two things: (a) they know what a lie is and (b) they think that it's possible to govern without telling lies. In reality, there's a constant need for everything from "managing the message" or "managing the truth" to "deception" and too few people understand what a "lie" is (which is why marketing works!).

We all "manage the message" every day. We don't think of it as lying, but how would your magic/technology/techniques know the difference? When a child asks us "why?" parents may (and often do) withold details until the child's age and experience allows them to absorb the information in a useful and productive manner. Argue with me if you must — but that's lying.

On the other end of the scale is outright deception. Those same parents store a mountain of Christmas gifts in a locked closet and when asked by the child why the closet is locked (or, worse, where the gifts are), they outright lie and say the closet is locked because some of Aunt Lou's stuff is inside and they don't want it messed with before she gets back from her trip to Mazatlan.

From a governing perspective, "lies" are not only told all the time, but are frequently necessary to protect and promote national interests. I'll give you an example on a smaller scale. A city is growing and traffic on a central road is getting hard to manage. The State decides it's time to create a bypass to help relieve the traffic congestion. The State will outright lie to people, telling them a bypass isn't even being considered, to ensure it has the ability to not only acquire the necessary land without excessive cost but to minimize speculation and the inevitable protests before the project can be formally announced. Remember, the bypass is necessary, but there will always be someone who believes they have been hurt (or that someone else would be hurt, or something, maybe they're just promoting the loss of farmland or open wilderness).

The problem is that a "lie" is defined more by its consequence than its behavior

And this is where Jordan had a lot of fun playing with the idea of forcing governing leaders to not lie — what's a lie? A lie is almost required to be defined by the nature of its consequence, not its process. If you try to define lying by its process, you rapidly discover that everybody lies almost all the time. We're constantly managing the flow of information for a wide variety of purposes, none of which are nefarious or selfish.

But when we manage that flow to take "unfair advantage" of someone, then suddenly lying is "wrong." Of course, we could debate for days what "unfair" and "wrong" mean (which is a big deal and very much part of your problem), but let's stick to the central premise. A lie exists when information someone had a right to know is withheld resulting in harm or socially unacceptable disadvantage.

BTW, it's worth noting that we haven't even discussed "what's the truth?" If you take the time to think that through, it's so hard to define what the truth is that it's impossible to define what a lie is other than by its consequences. After all, stand a Muslim, a Christian, and a Jew in a room and ask them to briefly explain the "truth" about God. It's an important reflection of our world to realize you might be forced to define the "truth" by who the last person standing is.

You haven't answered the Question, JBH

And that brings us back to Jordan's Aes Sedai. Knowing that people manage the message all the time and knowing that politicians must lie to get their jobs done he presented the simple reality of the Law of Unintended Consequences. The Oath was administered to give the governed a reason to trust and be ruled over by the very powerful Aes Sedai.

It had exactly the opposite effect.

What it really did was cause the Aes Sedai to be entirely untrustworthy. After all, they had to get their jobs done (the job of "government" or "politics") and that job can't be done without managing the message or it's impossible to achieve larger goals that may set a minority at a disadvantage (like the speculators and protesters in my road bypass example). Knowing that they were forced to tell the truth, everyone came to believe what they really had become were master liars to circumvent that oath.

Conclusion

People have a peaceful, childlike dream that if we could only get our national leaders to be honest the world would become a wonderful place. Just the opposite would be true, because "lying" is much more than "deceiving someone for personal gain." Unless you use what would be unbelievable magic to enforce honesty only when the lie is selfish, unreasonable, or in violation of laws that protect the targets or victims of the lie (which is something that would be whomping hard to define in a way anybody would believe), the result will be people who become so adept at circumventing the compulsion to be honest that no one would ever believe them — not ever.

Reading Jordan's the Wheel of Time saga is no small feat. At nearly 12,000 pages it's an absolute behemoth of a story. IMO, there are about four entire books in the middle that could have been completely dropped from the series without having any impact on the series as a whole, but I'm sure that opinion would start a fight within the fan club. But, if you want to see how a master author dealt with the idea of forcing politicians to be honest, buckle down and take a two or three week vacation to read the series.

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  • $\begingroup$ Note that you can get a pretty good sense of the "forcing politicians to be honest" part of The Wheel of Time series within the first few books. That said, once you're a few books in, you'll probably feel invested to finish. $\endgroup$
    – Glen O
    Commented Sep 17, 2021 at 0:57
  • $\begingroup$ You can get a much more compact story that addresses the same issue in Frank Herbert's Dune where several times various scheming lords and barons and some of their underlings deliberately word their instructions so that if they're ever asked before a Truthsayer they can honestly say they don't know what happened to that person and they definitely gave no order to kill them. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 17, 2021 at 8:24
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    $\begingroup$ that Dune thing is another angle, but not the same thing as in Wheel of Time. In Dune, it's about plausible deniability. In WoT, it's about getting people to believe in the first place. As addendum: In one of the book there was something to the effect, that if you you manage to get an exact wording from an AesSedai, you can totaly trust that. Which can't be said for normal people. Also, not only are they regarded as masterful deceivers, we also read examples of masterful deceiving done by the AesSedai. so their reputation is somewhat deserved $\endgroup$
    – Benjamin
    Commented Sep 17, 2021 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Shadur I see your point, but Benjamin's right. It's like looking at two sides of the same coin. In WoT the goal was to compel honesty. In Dune, the goal was to avoid the necessity of lying. However, you bring up a good point that I hope Archmagos doesn't ignore, because what WoT tried to do (and failed) with compulsion is what Dune tried to do (and succeeded) with freedom - and that's a statement that would make Frank Herbert laugh from the depths of his grave. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Sep 18, 2021 at 3:47
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Politicians would distance themselves from the public

The real world has a lot of nuance. Nuance doesn't fit neatly into political soundbites. If you don't want to be caught in a lie, you'd want to reduce the number of off-the-cuff remarks that you make to the public or the press. Here are two examples of politicians making statements that were interpreted to be lies by some observers.

  1. President George H. W. Bush famously promised during his campaign, "Read my lips, no new taxes." He aggressively negotiated a budget plan with Congressional Democrats that combined spending cuts with some tax increases. Was Bush's campaign pledge a lie or did he do his best to honor his commitment? Depends who you ask.
  2. While advocating for his sweeping health reform package, President Barack Obama repeatedly promised "If you like your health care plan, you can keep it." Obama's proposal included provisions to eliminate certain types of health insurance plans that did not meet minimum standards. Obama's claim was called the lie of the year. If he had instead said "If you like your high-quality health care plan, you can keep it," his statement would have been more accurate.

Would your honesty pledge have applied to these two statements? Here's a different kind of example.

President Donald Trump interacted with the press more often than most elected officials. In 2017, ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl said, "I have probably had more opportunities to ask questions of President Trump over the past two weeks than I had of President Obama during the last two years of his presidency." The problem is that he often used these interactions to spread lies. According to the Washington Post, President Trump made 30,573 false or misleading claims.

Just to be safe, politicians would likely avoid making specific claims and instead punt to their press secretaries, who would not be bound by honesty oaths. Politicians would use their speeches to make general promises of "restoring American greatness" or "ensuring an equitable future for our children" or the like.

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1. Introductory notes

1.A. Notion of truth

Truth is one of the central problems in philosophy. And it is still not resolved: There is no one definition of truth and there are many approaches to defining truth. Some of these approaches are inapplicable to real-life situations and natural human communication.

The notion of truth is also not universal from the cultural point of view. For example, Russian culture distinguishes between 'pravda' and 'istina' (both are translated as 'truth' into English but they are not used interchangeably by native speakers), the Japanese language has different words to express different nuances of 'truth' (truth as fact or reality, truth as belief, truth as something observed, truth as something learnt from a reputable source, etc.).

In addition to this, cultural attitudes toward truth vary between cultures. For example, Russian culture is obsessed with truth and general attitude can be expressed as 'no matter how bitter or ugly the truth is it is always better than non-truth1' (see the paper linked above for more details). Other cultures value 'being nice', 'maintaining face', or 'keeping social harmony' higher than 'truth' and non-truths are less discouraged (and sometimes even encouraged).

1.B. 'Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth'

  1. The definition of truth will be treated as universally accepted (this is not the case in real world, but this assumption is necessary to avoid too many 'if ... then')

  2. 'The whole truth' may imply that an oath-bound politician is required to make full disclosures and cannot omit anything. This would make lie by omission and deception impossible. Very strict implementation of this rule may lead to the necessity to delve into many minuscule details. This can be resolved by establishing rules about the scope of the discussion and allowed omissions.

  3. 'Nothing but the truth' requirement can be interpreted at least in 2 ways:

    • every word said must be true, however, interpretation of the message/statement is left to the receiver (therefore, it is possible to deceive people to some extent while technically still using true statements);
    • the message itself must be true and must be delivered in a manner that does not leave room for incorrect interpretations (this is an immensely restrictive rule that has the potential to affect language and culture; it is also very hard to implement since interpretations are subjective).

2. Possible consequences

Consequences of 'tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth' will be vastly different for different definitions of truth and different cultures. It is not possible to analyse or even list all possible outcomes. I am going to use two possible definitions of truth to show how this problem can be approached.

2.A. Truth is objective, true statements are statements that accurately and fully describe reality and facts

This definition implies that truth is independent of beliefs and personal knowledge. 'Earth is flat' is never a true statement if physical, real Earth is not flat.

2.A.1. The oath fully prohibits all statements containing false2 information

This means that statements like 'According to A, X is Y' are not allowed if any part of the statement is false. If 'X is Y' is false, the true statement may have the following forms:

 - mild prohibition: 'According to A, X is Y, which is a false statement. X is Z.' ('X is Z' is a true statement);
 - strict prohibition: 'A's statements are false. X is Z' ('X is Z' is a true statement).

These definitions will most likely lead to these 2 types of scenarios:

  1. The staff will omit information and an oath-bound politician will be unable to make any statements except 'I do not know' and those that are beneficial for the campaign/agenda. This may eventually lead to a situation where oath-bound politicians are mere figureheads with no real power3. Everything else will probably be not so different from the current situation in politics.

  2. Oath-bound politicians retain power, but their style of communication changes. The language will have to become less ambiguous and politicians will be using strictly defined terminology. If 'whole truth and nothing but the truth' conditions are very strict, statements of oath-bound politicians will be highly trusted. A lot of political matters will be easier to resolve. Politicians will most likely talk less. It is also likely that political discourse will shift from ideology and emotional appeals to discussions about specific policies and their effects.

2.A.2. The oath allows false statements or statements that contain false information if certain conditions are met

This means that statements like 'According to A, X is Y' are always true if 'According to A' is true.

Depending on a specific implementation of 'the whole truth and nothing but the truth', politicians will be able to make confusing, misleading, or deceptive statements even if they are bound by the oath. The changes in political discourse will be mainly associated with higher reliance on sources. Politicians might talk more with the purpose of creating noise. The public and political analysts may need to learn to distinguish between noise and signal. Compared to 2.A.1., it will be easier to argue from emotional and ideological positions, but I think that a shift to policies and their effects is still highly likely.

2.B. Truth is subjective, true statements are statements that accurately represent one's beliefs and knowledge

This definition implies that no 'universal truth' exists and that accumulated knowledge and personal convictions are the main determinants of truthfulness. According to this definition, 'Earth is flat' is a true statement if the person who makes it believes it to be true regardless of the real shape of Earth.

The main difference between our world and the world where politicians are bound by this rule will be that oath-bound politicians will be less likely to make exaggerated claims or go against their own convictions. It will also be easier for voters and analysts to see their real positions and policy preferences. The staff and other closely related people will have an enormous influence on oath-bound politicians as they can shape their perception of the world and direct politicians' 'inner truths'.

With this definition of truth, the voters can expect greater sincerity and emotional honesty. However, there is no guarantee that factual claims or suggested outcomes are factually true, as they are affected by the knowledge and convictions of the oath-bound politician.

3. Additional thoughts

3.1. Lies in politics are not limited to false statements

A lot of lies in politics are not related to false statements. A significant part of 'politicians always lie' has to do with behaviour: Broken promises, buried information, delayed reports, voting choices, shady deals, etc. If oath does not affect these behaviours, oath-bound politicians can still be dishonest and avoid accountability.

3.2. Implementation of 'the whole truth and nothing but the truth' is extremely important

There is a huge difference between a politician who cannot say lies but can keep silent and the one who cannot say lies and cannot omit anything. The former can easily hide their dishonest behaviour or obtain plausible deniability by tasking their subordinates with all dubious things. The latter cannot do it because they are always in danger of disclosing potentially damaging information. They have to be honest in their words and their conduct.

It is also important that the strictest implementation of 'the whole truth and nothing but the truth' is extremely dangerous, especially when it comes to high positions. If leaders of the countries are compelled to disclose all truths in their entirety no state secrets can stay secret anymore. On one hand, it can be seen as a positive result since politics finally can become 'honest and transparent'. On the other hand, it will make states vulnerable to minor actors not bound by any oaths, and to other powers who do not mind engaging in open conflict.

3.3. Inability to tell lies is a liability

'We want honest politicians' is a sentiment that is often expressed by the media and the general public. However, there is some evidence suggesting that honest politicians are less likely to be re-elected (see, for example, this paper).

Truthfulness and full disclosure can also make interpersonal relationships extremely challenging, especially in cultures where 'face' and 'being nice to others' are highly valued, and politics is about interpersonal relationships.

It is also not clear whether voters want to hear the truth. There are too many sensitive topics in politics and it is very easy to offend people.

3.4. If oath-bound politicians are a small minority they will most likely lose power

Politicians do not have any power of their own, especially in democracies. All power comes from other people and it is extremely hard for an individual to protect their position in politics if they lose the support of the political establishment. This stays true even in countries where money is involved in politics.

Oath-bound politicians may look nice on paper, but their use is very tricky in real politics. Everybody always has to be on guard around them to avoid saying something that those politicians should not hear. The risk is too high, especially in the case of strict implementation of 'the whole truth and nothing but the truth'.


1 Russian culture makes an absolute distinction between truth and non-truth that is not necessarily present in other cultures.

2 I will be using 'false' as 'not satisfying the definition of truth'.

3 Transformation of oath-bound politicians into figureheads with no power is not limited to this scenario. Inability to tell lies is a very big liability if only a few politicians are oath-bound. Loss of real power is the most likely outcome regardless of definitions of truth.

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