Ethics Quiz: The Deceptive Magician

Well, I just had my CLE program for tomorrow postponed for too few registrations, so I’m drowning my sorrows and salving my bruised ego with a weird ethics quiz. (It’s a really good seminar, too. Sigh!)

This one harkens back to the issue posed by my “David Manning Liar of the Month” feature on the old Ethics Scoreboard. Can someone everyone knows is probably dissembling, exaggerating, mis-stating matters or lying be judged by the same ethics standards as a normal person? The question obviously applies to habitual offenders like Joe Biden, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, but this quiz involves a professional liar. (No, not like Karine Jean-Pierre.)

Magician David Copperfield told CBS Sunday Morning that he sometimes posts fake videos online to mislead people who are trying to figure out how he pulls off his various illusions. Videos that explain how magic tricks work have become popular on the web, and Copperfield says he creates fake “explainers,” as they are called, to intentionally misdirect fans. Asked why, he replied, “Because it’s fun!”

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Is it ethically excusable for a well-known magician to post a misleading video on the web, when a similarly misleading video would be unethical for someone else?

5 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Deceptive Magician

  1. I’m going to say that it is ethical, but for me magic (beyond a naive level) is a contest between the performer and the audience: one is trying to perform an impossible feat, while the other is trying to find a real explanation for the illusion. This is only an extension of this contest and performance. The audience now has more tools to figure out the trick, so the the performer has to stretch the performance to keep the magic (pun totally intended) alive.

    To summarize my position: the audience is willing to participate in the deception, so it’s ok to give them exactly that.

    • I’ll add that some magicians have been using the “explain the trick” thing in other ways during their performances. They show the classic parlor version in a way the audience sees how it would be done by a starting magician (say, by using transparent cups to show where the ball is or similar) and then complete the act with an extension that is not detectable even with the new props. Old acts by Penn & Teller and Beto el Boticario (if you’re familiar with magicians from south of the border) played heavily into that.

  2. Only under this limited set of circumstances, since his profession is dependent on being able to trick the audience, and all too often it’s cynics who are looking to deconstruct the trick.

  3. This is just an extension of Copperfield’s Act. His goal is to deceive, it matters not where he does so.!
    His deception is entertainment. The deception of the named politicians, on the other hand, is destructive.

  4. I think this depends on several factors.

    First: does he lie? I view lying in a fairly absolutist way. It is never right to lie. (Exceptions may include resisting totalitarian regimes and murders.)

    Second, can his deception cause harm? A lot of magic is dangerous for the inexperienced. If following his deception leads to people taking unreasonable risks, then absolutely, this is unethical.

    If the answer to both questions is “no”, then I think this is simply an extension of his job, which is to be paid to amuse by deception.

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