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The Noble Hoax? June 2, 2007

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

Is there such a thing as a good lie? A lie that breaks rules of personal and professional ethics for a good cause? Utilitarians among us will say Yes, the end justifies the means, but even utilitarians are cautious about the ramifications of the lies if they don’t have the anticipated good consequences. There’s a long tradition in philosophy for debating the question of the Noble Lie, so let’s talk about the most recent story: The Dutch revelation of the television network BNN’s kidney hoax. Maybe you’ve heard about the outrageously poor taste of a Dutch television game show that featured a dying patient, and patients with impending kidney failure competing for her kidneys. Now the broadcaster has revealed that it was, in fact, a hoax. The “dying patient” is a healthy actress; the three patients hoping for her kidneys are, in fact, kidney-failure patients, but in on the hoax. So what was the point? Supposedly a noble one: to make the Dutch public aware of the plight of patients dying while waiting for organs—a fate that was suffered by the network founder himself.  Organ donors are fewer than ever in the Netherlands, and the network wanted to make a moral point, by creating a fake scenario in order to engender a real wave of compassion. Lots of moral issues here: Is the hoax in any way defensible, as a shock device? Is it  acceptable for a network to fool its audience? And from a strictly utilitarian point of view: What about the backlash? People don’t like to be fooled. Is this another Cry Wolf story?



1. Dwight Furrow - June 5, 2007

It seems to me that a lie is wrong if it manipulates the person being lied to in a way that undermines her autonomy. Lies disseminate false information. When the person being lied to acts on that false information she is no longer in control of her situation–her autonomy is compromised. Even when no bad consequences ensue, a lie is wrong if it shows disrespect for the autonomy of the person lied to.

In this case, the hoax is surely manipulative, though it is essentially manipulating the emotions of the audience. But the hoax was announced as such before anyone had a chance to act on it. Thus, no one’s autonomy was compromised and the fact the hoax was revealed quickly suggests no disrespect was intended. In fact, the hoax presumably made the audience more aware of their conflicted feelings about organ donation and the plight of those who are awaiting organs. Thus, their autonomy is enhanced because they have more information to make decisions about organ donation than if the hoax hadn’t taken place.

Worries about backlash and “crying wolf” are genuine worries but unless such hoaxes are repeated, I doubt they are a factor in this case.

So I think it was justified.

2. Nina Rosenstand - June 8, 2007

I see your point–but it just disturbs me immensely that a network can consider it legitimate to jerk people around, even for a “higher cause.” And I do think that next time someone in the Netherlands does a media appeal for anything similar, the Dutch television public (those who remember) are going to tune it out, or at least be skeptical. Once bitten…
So I guess I disagree!

3. Dwight Furrow - June 9, 2007


There is another way to think about this that may explain your reaction. A media institution has a relationship with its audience and that relationship is based on trust. To the extent BBN is a news organization (not merely an entertainment medium) it must be dedicated to pursuing the truth, and the audience’s trust is based on their expectation that it is dedicated to that mission, rather than promoting causes.

The hoax (despite being in service to a noble cause) seems to be, not only tangential to the mission of the organization, but contrary to it since it involved deceiving the audience, and thus a violation of the trust that sustains the relationship, independently of any consequences that may or may not ensue.

Thus, this sort of analysis, which I think expresses something like an ethic of care, suggests the hoax was not justified.

4. Nina Rosenstand - June 11, 2007

I agree with this analysis–a trust-based relationship, or even a contract, will be diminished by lack of respect shown by one of the parties. But that is ceteris paribus–I just checked the history of the Dutch network, BNN, and it has a long record of outrageous shows. Very outrageous! So I guess the lesson here is, viewer beware…

5. Nina - June 20, 2007

Latest report from Denmark: Since the airing of the Dutch show, and the European debate, the number of Danes signing up as organ donors has skyrocketed! Hmmmm…

6. Dwight Furrow - June 21, 2007

Well sometimes the utilitarians have to be right!

7. Thea - June 21, 2007

Oooh, intention plus consequences!

It sounds like the real contract that the network has with its viewers is that it will jerk them around. Some people seem to enjoy that sort of thing. I wonder if it’s somehow related to the part of the human brain that likes scary movies. Personally, my tastebuds say “ew” to both.

The problem that I have is in measuring intention. People say all sorts of things, but in the end, it turns out that their intentions were less pure than they were presented to be. One has to know someone very, very well to assess their intentions, but consequences are easy to see. The problem there is that apparent consequences can be red herrings.

So, in the case of the network, getting the apparent consequence (of organ donations, safer sex, what have you) produced only works out if the audience or receiver has trust for the provoker. So, we could say in this case, that the network might actually have been showing off the trust that its fans have in it. The intention could have been to highlight the network’s credibility and prestige among its viewers in order to obtain the consequence of acquiring more viewers and more financing from advertisers. So, we’d really have to look at ALL of the consequences, not just the ones that we’re led toward.

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