The Ethics of Deception

Discussion in 'Magic Forum' started by Tyler Williams Discourse In Magic, Jun 21, 2016.


Is it morally wrong to convince layman that magic is real?

  1. Yes, we should aim to fool people without convincing them that magic is real.

    5 vote(s)
  2. No, it is not our concern what people believe as long as our magic is strong and fooling.

    9 vote(s)
  3. We should not only be allowing layman to believe in magic but aim to convince them to believe in it.

    2 vote(s)
  1. As magicians it is our job to show people the impossible and improbable. However, it remains a little unclear as to whether or not it is our job to make people believe the impossible and improbable. At we recently did an interview with Artist Ben Train on the ethics of magic and his personal opinions got a of attention from our magic circle. I have heard a lot of different arguments for why we should or shouldn't aim for a spectators to believe we are "truely magical" but I want to hear more.


    here is my question.

    Is it wrong for magicians to convince laymen that we truly possess magical or super human powers? There is no doubt in my mind that you have performed strong magic if your audience is fooled so badly they think you are a wizard or psychic etc. But have you performed meaningful and morally sound magic if the basis of your performance is very convincing misinformation.

    Aside from the ethics of it I personally believe that part of watching a magical performance is wondering "WHAT IN THE F%#@ JUST HAPPENED" and that if someone believes they know how the trick happened you are missing a huge part of the magical experience, even if what they believe is impossible. The Audience stops wondering how did the magician make it look like they read my mind and simply excepts that minds can be read and that they will probably never know how.

    Everyone has their own personal performance goals and I would like to know what they are and how they help fall on a side of the magic ethics fence.
  2. This is a good topic of conversation, I'd like to see more of stuff like this.

    (Disclaimer: I have yet to listen to the podcast, these are just the thoughts that are going through my head having sat down at a computer)

    To address this question we have to tackle a couple different things in this situation as well as different principles and virtues at stake. I would first ask the question: why is the magician performing and in what circumstance and for whom? There is a huge difference between performing free for a little cousin at a family reunion opposed to a "psychic" being paid big bucks to read minds and make predictions about their futures. And of course, we have everything that lies between such as kid's parties, charities, restaurants, busking, etc.

    Now, with the above stated, I see magic being used for three reasons (which do not have to be mutually exclusive)
    1. To fulfill a personal desire
    2. To fulfill another person's desire (Whether it be strict entertainment or tarot card readings of their future)
    3. To fulfill a monetary desire (whether for oneself or a charitable cause)

    With these three points we have to look at the various principles and virtues associated. Let's look at principles first.

    Often times veiled with a negative connotation, lying is at the center of what makes our art special and timeless. If we were looking at those above three cases from a strictly deontological stand point, our craft would be extremely unethical because there is no wiggle room: Lying in any form is unethical, even if it was for charitable purposes. Since this is a bit extreme and only Kant ever truly believed it, we are more than likely looking at a prima facia principle with a consequentialist argument and some virtues and other goodies sprinkled in. If I try to convince my spectators what I am doing is real magic, will that bring about the maximum good? or vice versa? In the first case, if magic is being used to support a personal fulfillment, the spectator's feelings are not really considered, so it does not really matter. In the second, case however, it depends. A person may feel more cheated and less fulfilled if they are led to believe what they saw was real magic, but on the flip side a person can feel empowered and inspired that anything is possible. This is just based on past experience. I'll say that's a wash. For the third, I'll make the argument that a magician who is believed to actually be able to read minds and defy the laws of nature will yield a greater monetary advantage. Obviously comedic magicians and others do very well financially, but for arguments sake let's say that a magician's ability to fool someone is related to their skill in the mind of a spectator and thus makes more money. (I don't necessarily believe this to be true, but I think the general lay public has this opinion of magicians.) Now, in this case, I would say it is ethical to say magic is real because it not only does the magician make more money, but the people feel as though they have received the absolute best show for their money: everyone wins.

    But... is this a case where lying is acceptable? To secure more money even if that money may not be deserved (in the eyes of a believing spec)? Thus, we have to look at virtues...

    Con-(wo)man vs. Entertainer
    I would say it is a virtuous thing to be witty, crafty, and entertaining, but not sly, conniving, and insincere. So how do we separate the 2?

    A con-(wo)man will use strictly his/her abilities to acquire goods, whether or not that is the best thing for others. While an entertainer will use his/her skills to acquire goods with the intention of providing a valuable service.

    Thus, in the first example, I believe leading your specs to believe magic is real is unethical. However in the second, I think it is fine so long as the right intentions are at play and the spectators walk away more content with life than before.

    However, this is a hard question. Is it better to live in a world where everyone is a skeptic? Or is it better where everyone believes that everything is possible? I think a happy medium is needed. The first to keep us grounded and rooted in the science so many greats set out to discover before us, but the other to lift our spirits past the harsh realities of our world in hopes of making it better for the future.

    So, to answer the question: Convincing people magic is real for the right purpose is ethical, but that is a constantly changing situation and thus we should not feel inclined to convince people magic is real.

    Thanks for reading, please respond with any holes and/or contentions with my argument--I am sure there are plenty. I'd love to discuss further.

  3. i belive that it is a spectators choice to belive in magic or not . Certain presentations can call you to demonstrate ''super human powers'' to your audience ,by the way awesome question . cheers people
  4. I'd start with contesting the part where you use the word "fool" as there is some sort of a scam going on, or as if magic is only directed in deception-only practises, where the main object is to expect the "how-did-you-do-that?" sentence.
    I've seen magic performed in such an entertaining and fun way, where the sleights (if any) used where merely as a tool to let the people have a good time, like a microphone for a singer, or clubs for a juggler, (and the cards/coins for a magician...), etc.

    Now for my answer: if you wonder about convincing someone, you're already in the wrong.
    There's no way to convince anyone about anything, you can only broaden their perspective of the world. They have a consciousness, a mind, past experience, and your words can just only trigger a new pattern of thought: in that sense the belief of magic can only be "self discovered".

    That being said, it doesn't matter if you try to convince them or not, as they always respond differently dued to an enourmously amount of factor which you are part of, as a source of informations.

    So the question must be self-directed: "are those my premises?" What kind of line of action satisfies yourself? What would you need to become a better performer?

    One thing i should mention is the difference of reference of the title (Ethic), and the question (Moral).
    To get a full vision of the two you should consider also the consequences of your words in terms of life-quality, if you feel that what you do is not in the best interest of the person next to you, then you should make a balanced decision of your premises and your influence on well behaviour.
    That is a general thought, i've went off the topic of magic on purpose, so that the argument could be included as well with others
  5. While I agree with you, I don't think we can use this as an ethical argument. Just because something has a low rate of success doesn't mean that it is any less or more ethical (I will most likely get caught before making out with the money after robbing a bank, but that doesn't make my actions any less unethical).

    I'm assuming what you mean by this distinction is the public display of action versus the inner reasoning between good and bad? These two in this case I would say are extremely similar and connected. Ethics and morals are virtually the same thing in academic discourse and especially in magic: what other art form is more personal and fast-bonding?

    I also very much agree with this statement--but I don't think it gets at the heart of the ethical question.

    In theory, I think we should strive towards entertainment and away from the fooling aspect. But, that doesn't mean our presentations shouldn't always be under ethical scrutiny to ensure that our performance aligns with our ethical world view.

  6. I think it depends on the age of the audience as a primary point that must be considered. Kids believe in magic! Few thinking adults would disagree with this. So doing a show for kids must be presented as magic. Nuff Said on that one!

    Adults, on the other hand, living in the USA, intuitively understand that magicians fool them, they seldom know how, but they know trickery is likely involved. When an adult says 'I believe in magic' I seldom believe they are being honest! No doubt if you go to other cultures, native tribes, 3rd world countries, countries were people are very poorly educated, I understand they believe in magic, and are frequently victimized by people using magic, but not in the USA and most Western Countries.

    I do not push the term 'magic', I only show the trick and let the audience believe what they wish to believe. If I get the question, do you use magic for you tricks, I would say, "what do you think" that is all that is important!
  7. To me, watching a magic show is the same as watching a movie. You suspend your disbelieve long enough to enjoy the show and have fun. If the show was good enough to leave a lasting impression of, "wow... how did they do that?" then that is good enough for me.

    IMO it is not right to seriously make people believe you have some kind of supernatural powers. I have seen a lot of mentalists do the whole "talking to a dead relative" bit, which if performed right is fine. But a line is drawn the moment you really make someone believe you were communicating with their dead relative. Because now peoples real feelings are involved.
  8. Ding ding ding, we have a winner.
    Timewise64 and obrienmagic like this.
  9. First of all this debate means nothing. It is completely ethical. It is an honest lie regardless of whether the person knows or not. Second, magic is real. It is psychology in action. You are fooling the mind. You do not force the spectator to believe. They make the choice to believe or not. That is the be all end all of this discussion.
  10. But there are people who will take to their grave they are the real deal and like I said in my example a few comments above. That is unethical.
    Mr.Book likes this.
  11. I understand that. We have many people such as palm readers/crystal ball readers/psychics etc. They are all a laughing stock to the community. Can we do anything about it? No, because that would mean telling people it is a lie and having to provide evidence of what they are doing. What they do is unethical. Toying with emotions.
    obrienmagic likes this.
  12. In fact it wasn't an ethical argument.

    Totally agree
  13. There are performers that clearly toy with emotions and convince people they can speak with dead relatives. There are also performers like Penn and Teller who show the audience exactly how cups and balls work yet are still entertaining and captivating. However, there exists a continuum between these two extremes. Here lies the heart of the argument.
    obrienmagic likes this.
  14. It is absolutely wrong to try and convince people that you have supernatural powers. It is completely unethical to call yourself a god.

    If you are performing magic for people, you are an entertainer, and nothing more.

    Single Malt likes this.
  15. What we do is art, which-at it's core is meant to evoke an emotional response. Art is for entertainment, expression, enlightenment, and insight. It is a break from reality, introspective, and though in our art we create illusions of miracles, it is wrong to convince anyone that it is a reality.

    We are in service to our audience, without them we are nothing.
    obrienmagic and Mr.Book like this.
  16. Very wise and deep words!
    Single Malt likes this.
  17. "The essence of magic is “doing the impossible.” The “doing”
    is accomplished by the performer, but the “impossible” must
    ultimately be supplied by the audience." -Simon Aronson

    Like the quote says, it's our job not just as magicians but as entertainers to give justice to the effect we are performing. Whether the audience chooses to believe it or not is up to them. Magic is of course hacks of life and we use these hacks for entertainment purposes. It is because most people don't know of these hacks that they willingly think to themselves: "Wow. That was magic."
    The persona of each magician may differentiate. You can play as a person with ominous supernatural powers, or an outgoing person who shows people these hacks in order to get laughs, smiles, or even a "HOW THE @#$% DID YOU DO THAT?", that is entirely up to the performer. But we all know that it is an act, just like a theatrical performance. So to answer the question, I don't think you should necessarily convince the spectator that what you have done is truly magical. Let them reflect on it themselves and if you did a stellar job in making your performance flawless, then you've done your part. It takes both parties(The magician and spectator) to truly make magic happen!
  18. Let's splash a little cold water on some of the premises here for perspective. If you can make a playing card rise to the top of the deck five times in a row, you are not going to inspire a religion or deceive people into thinking that you have super powers. Having the ability to make small balls vanish and reappear at will, does not cause your audience to believe that somehow you have found a way to overcome the laws of physics (assuming that the even know any laws of physics). Most magic is too trivial and most performances make it more trivial ("look what I can do and you can't).

    When we move into mentalism, the risk becomes greater. In that context, you need to look at the intent.

    I was helping a good friend with a mentalism / mental magic theatre show for a charity. The woman who was in charge of the charity and I were talking after the show. She mentioned how amazing it must have been for the people on stage and seemed disappointed that she wasn't able to participate. I picked up an ordinary book which had been used as a prop in one of the effects and did an impromptu book test. At the end, she said something like "that's amazing." I commented that she was relatively easy to read. She asked, "is that a bad thing?" Having heard her passion for the charity when she did the introduction, I responded "No, you tend to wear your heart on your sleeve. You are very open with people and you are the type of person that people trust. You are very passionate and enthusiastic about what you do and that shows." She now had an amazing story and everytime she told it, the story reaffirmed her positive view of herself.

    Many psychics function the same way as preists, hairdressers and bartenders. They are someone to talk to about your problems. What is the difference between a priest telling you that god has a plan for you and you need to do what is right, a bartender telling you that he's seen lots of guys in your situation before and they somehow end up OK and a psychic telling you that she sees that you are going through a rough patch, but that she sees you will make it out stronger? Yes, there are psychics that victimize their customers, but there are also stockbrokers, lawyers, doctors and teachers that use their positions to exploit the people they are supposed to be helping.

    I'll take it a step further. If the audience is looking for a method, you have failed to present magic. That is my main gripe about shows like Fool Us is that it makes audience think the purpose of the magic show is to figure out how it is done. Sigh.

    I think kids believe in pretend magic. It is a show. I also think that adults, given the right presentation can believe in pretend magic.

    As an adult, I belive in magic. @Timewise, you've held your newborn children and grandchildren. Tell me there isn't such a thing as magic. For adults, real magic lies in our hearts.

    If I think about this debate, does that mean I am? What is the essence of nothingness and the meaning of meaning? Doesn't every end result in a beginning?

    I'm always leary of anyone who uses the term "art." Most of the emotional response I see people trying to evoke is "H*!y $#!t"

    Now, if you are talking about using magic to touch real emotions (friendship, love, hope, loss, despair, fear, anger, forgivness), then I completely agree.

    I like the movie analogy, but will take it one further. Our methods are like the fact that the movie actually isn't moving but is an illusion of showing a number of still photos in sequence and like the special effects. However, you don't want people to be wondering "How did they do that?" regarding the special effects. Rather you want the spectators to not even notice that there was a method but instead talk about what they saw and how they felt. A movie with cool special effects but a dull and uninteresting plot won't be a blockbuster

    Yes, but there are things we can do to engage our spectators and make them want to believe what they saw was a reality.
    obrienmagic likes this.
  19. Purely from my perspective, magicians are supposed to be entertainers. Just the other day, I was performing Watermark by Matthieu Bich and one of the spectators wanted me to continue. Here is what he said: "You got me interested. Now entertain me!"

    From that moment, I was driven farther into the belief that magicians are purely entertainers. The goal of an entertainer is to not make others believe something which is not true. Simply, his goal is to keep people interested in what he is doing. Therefore, attempting to convince others that magic is real is completely unethical. Men are mortals. Not gods. We shouldn't pretend to be something with which we will never be.

    As a magician, I look for seemingly impossible effects to perform to others. I do this not to try and convince others into the reality of magic. I do this because I know that the more impossible something seems, the more interested others will be in it. Then, I am able to REALLY entertain people.
    Fierrmagic and Mr.Book like this.
  20. I always make it clear that there is no superhuman or psychic powers being used. I don't believe in lying even if for the sake of art.

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