Off the Hook?*
by Joel Marks

In recent months New England ingenuity has put a new product on the market called "Gotta Go." It is an inexpensive electronic device which simulates the clicking sound of "Call Waiting" on your telephone. As the name of the product suggests, its sole purpose is to provide a pretext for terminating telephone conversations; if the other party just won't stop talking, simply press the button to generate the clicks, then say, "Sorry, I've gotta go." The other party assumes somebody else is trying to get through to you and, in the ideal scenario, finally says good-bye.

While the idea behind this device may be "cute," the fact that it has actually been turned into a product for sale and promoted by leading retailers is evidence, it seems to me, of a rather large moral blind spot. In a word, this product promotes deception, and deception, as a rule, is undesirable.

Now, I can imagine several retorts to my contention. First, no lie is involved in the use of this product. The act of generating the clicks is not itself a lie; and saying "Gotta go" is not a lie so long as one does not go on to say, "There's somebody trying to get through to me." It is the other party who draws that inference without your having to say it explicitly.

But (I reply) the absence of an explicit lie is not exonerating so long as a deception has taken place. Indeed, precisely what is wrong with lying is that it is a form of deception; hence, other forms may be just as noxious as lying.

A second retort is that deception is not always undesirable. Indeed, "Gotta Go" is actually performing a good service by helping us to avoid hurting somebody else's feelings. After all, we do have the ability to cut short an annoying conversation without "Gotta Go," simply by informing the other party that we don't want to talk to them anymore. The fact that we have gone to the trouble and expense of purchasing and using the "Gotta Go" device shows that we care enough about the other person's feelings to spare them the bald truth.

A simple mental exercise may disabuse us of the force of that retort, however: It's called "the Golden Rule"! I suspect most of us would find the "Gotta Go" deception to be demeaning were we ourselves the victim. Hence, the rationale of sparing the other person's feelings is probably little more than a self-deception by the user of "Gotta Go." More likely it is our own feelings we wish to spare when we use this device by avoiding the slight awkwardness of speaking honestly.

A third retort is that using "Gotta Go" is harmless enough, a trivial deception akin to a "white lie." But this argument presumes that white lies are themselves harmless: This may be far from the truth. Consider, first, how small deceptions can proliferate. Suppose, after you have said "Gotta go," the other party innocently persists: "Is that your Call Waiting?" What will you say? Or what if they subsequently visit your house and notice the device and inquire about it; can you still avoid a lie?

Suppose that you do successfully deceive the other party without having to commit additional deceptions. Now there is a kind of reinforcement; you have learned that deception works (maybe your children will learn that too, and think it's neat). This makes it more likely that you will use deception in the future, in different contexts, and perhaps with higher stakes.

Finally, as Sissela Bok points out in her classic study, Lying (Random House, 1978, 1989), consider that trust is as precious to human thriving as the air we breathe ... and as precarious. Every personal relationship, every business deal, every political initiative depends to some degree on trust. But trust can easily be "polluted" by the cumulative effect of deceptions large and small.

The more popular a consumer product "Gotta Go" becomes, the less any of us will be able to believe anyone else when we hear "Click click; gotta go!" ... or at any other time (for if someone may be deceiving us on one kind of occasion, why not on another?). Even the totally honest "Call Waiting" subscriber will be subject to our distrust (especially if we are aware of our own duplicity) ... just as we ourselves will incur the distrust of others when our own "Call Waiting" clicks!

Do we really need to plant another seed to help our mutual paranoia grow? Caveat emptor: "Gotta Go" has gotta go!


* This article originally appeared in the New Haven Register on May 23, 1993. Reprinted with permission.

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