in Ethics

Everybody Lies

I’ve acquired a new vice over the holiday period. It’s been both wonderful and (at least in some abstract purely intellectual way) a tad distressing. You see, I’ve managed to become completely addicted. When I get my fix, it’s all good. Unfortunately, I find my thoughts drifting throughout the day, looking forward to my next chance, worrying about what will happen when I run out. It’s awful. And it’s a great rush. Like Vicodin. Only a lot funnier.

I’m talking, of course, about “House,” another in a line of very good shows from a network with a (somewhat deserved) reputation for trashy TV. Personally, I’m not usually much of a TV junkie. In fact, I haven’t actually had TV service since last spring. And my only TV was the one I got back in grad school. The one with the picture that was always sort of red thanks to the failing picture tube. Divorces are fun that way. Missy, however, has been raving about what a good show “House” really is. And Peter King has been talking about it for three years now. I figured that if a show appeals both to my very intellectual, philosophy major gf and to a SI football columnist, then it’s gotta be doing something right. So I watched a couple of episodes at my brother’s house this fall. And I was hooked. So much so that I bought the first two seasons on DVD. Presents for Missy. Really. It’s for my friend.

Now you all have to understand that I’m a philosopher by long training. Moreover, I’m a philosopher who has a thing for linking philosophy with pop culture. So naturally I’ve begun to turn my philosopher’s eye (it’s the left one, in case you’re wondering) to “House.” There’s rather a lot of interesting material, much of which is (or can be, anyway) philosophically interesting, especially if your philosophical interests incline toward ethics. Perhaps most obvious of these is House’s rather casual relationship with truth.

For those of you who don’t regularly watch the show (come on, try it. just this once. everybody else is.), the central premise is that Dr. House is the kind of doc who actually tells patients all the snarky things that doctors usually just think about their patients. Except that House is brilliant enough that he gets away with it. And he mostly gets away with it by pretty much refusing to have anything at all to do with his patients, preferring instead to send his team of impossibly attractive, brilliant (if not nearly as brilliant as House himself), 20-something doctors to interact with the patients. Meanwhile House sits back in his office waiting for reports from his team, at which point, to paraphrase, House gets their theories, mocks them, then embraces his own. The treatment for which pretty frequently is hugely dangerous, a problem that House avoids by lying to the patients. Or by sending a member of his team to lie to the patient. And, this being television (and House being brilliant), the hugely dangerous treatment based on the hugely unlikely diagnosis (eventually) turns out to be exactly right.

So why the disdain for patients? Because House’s guiding principle is that everybody lies. Patients lie about symptoms (I swear I didn’t induce my seizures). They lie about their past (Of course this is my biological child). They lie about their actions (Of course I didn’t sleep with my daughter the supermodel). You just can’t trust patients to tell you the truth. If patients are going to lie, House reasons, then they don’t necessarily deserve the truth in return.

In this respect, House’s reasoning is very strangely Kantian. Yes, Kant, the guy who famously claims that we have to tell the truth even to the murderer at the door. Kant himself would claim that House can’t lie to his patients whatever they might do to him first. Yet there is a Kantian argument for lying back to lying patients. Consider Kant’s arguments for capital punishment. Here Kant claims that, in murdering someone, I have said, in effect, that I am okay with the maxim, “I can kill someone who doesn’t consent to being killed.” In acting on that maxim, I have said that I am okay with treating that maxim as a universal law of nature. And since I’ve consented to the maxim (that is, since I’ve accepted that it is okay to treat people in this way), you are merely showing me the respect my autonomy deserves when you treat me in the way that I have said it’s okay to be treated. It’s strange reasoning, I’ll admit. But it’s Kant’s reasoning.

So let’s apply Kant’s reasoning to House’s lying to patients. If the patient lies to the doctor, then the patient is saying, in effect, that it’s okay to lie. So when House lies about the treatment, he respects the patient’s autonomy by treating the patient exactly as the patient has consented to be treated.

Obviously there is much more to be said here. House’s relationship with the truth is actually far more complicated — after all, much of what makes the show so amusing is House’s tendency to alternate lies with brutal, unvarnished truth. But that’s a topic for another post. Right after I watch just one more episode. Stop looking at me like that. I don’t have a problem. I can quit anytime. I just don’t want to.

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