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Back off Michelle Leslie - time for honesty about lying

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Monday, 5 December 2005

Poor Michelle Leslie - luckless beauty princess one day, cunning opportunist the next. Leslie reportedly lied about the fact that she did not use ecstasy and did not know that the pills were in her bag. She also falsely accused a friend (model Siti Nameera Azman) of putting the tablets in her bag and over overstated the strength of her religious convictions.

While she was in jail it is alleged that hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes were paid to officials to reduce the charges to avoid a possible 15-year jail term. The charge was ultimately reduced to the minor offence of receiving ecstasy as a user.

Should we judge Leslie harshly for the deceit she engaged in to try to reduce her time in jail or be relieved that Indonesia’s draconian drug laws have not crushed the life of another Australian?


Definitely the latter.

Time to get some perspective and back off Leslie. Lying (and even bribery - which she did not personally engage in) is bad, but nowhere near as bad as forcing people to rot away in third world jails for possessing a couple of pills.

There is no doubt that lying is normally morally undesirable. In order for us to plan, co-ordinate and structure our activities it is necessary to have an accurate understanding of the state of affairs in the world that impact on us and the cause and effect systems in the world. Absent this our plans and projects would be constantly frustrated. Lies undermine our capacity to effectively and efficiently achieve our goals and projects. This is so whether they relate to the traits and characteristics of people or the operation of systems and processes in the world. We could bypass the opportunity to form mutually advantageous friendships and associations with people if they have been unfairly maligned by others. Our plans to catch the morning train, attend important appointments and meet work and other deadlines could be derailed by misrepresentations regarding these matters. If things are not the way they have been portrayed, our goals would be constantly frustrated. Despite this, sometimes it is OK to lie.

You see the truth about lying is that we all do it. Much more than most of us care to admit and in many cases it is justifiable. A recent survey by psychologist Jeff Hancock, of Cornell University, showed that respondents lied during a quarter of their social interactions. A University of Massachusetts study showed that most people lie in normal conversation when they are trying to appear competent and likeable. According to the study, 60 per cent of people lied at least once during the course of a ten-minute conversation

Lying is morally permissible in three circumstances. First it is permissible to lie in order to protect unjust attacks on higher order interests, such as the right to life, liberty and physical integrity. To this end, parallels can be drawn with the right to self defence. This entails that lies are only justifiable where the threat is relatively imminent and there is no other lawful means to readily neutralise the risk.

The Leslie scenario fits within this exception. She risked being imprisoned for 15 years for possessing the drugs. Had this occurred it would have constituted a grave violation of her right to liberty and devastated her life.


The fact that this violation would have occurred as result of the ordinary running of the Indonesian criminal “justice” system and hence would have been lawful does not mean that Leslie was prevented from lying to land the “get out of jail” card.

This is because the Indonesian drug sentencing regime is itself immoral. The most important sentencing principle is the proportionality thesis, which prescribes that the punishment must fit the crime.

While the principle of proportionality might be grey at the edges, it is sufficiently precise to inform us that several years in a third world jail grossly outweighs the self-regarding act of popping a few ecstasy tablets on the dance floor.

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A version of the above piece was first published in The Courier-Mail on November 29, 2005 and the Adelaide Advertiser on December 2, 2005.

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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is dean of law at Swinburne University and author of Australian Human Rights Law.

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