Lying Around — Part I

by Gerald Dworkin

I have been thinking recently about lying. I don't mean I have been thinking of telling a lie. Many of the lies I tell do not need to be thought about very much. “I am fine.” “Not at all. I think that color is quite flattering.” “Let me pay. My university will reimburse me.” “Yes, Dr. Phillips, I floss every day.” I mean I have been thinking about what is a lie and is it ever okay to tell one and why, if we think lying is wrong, so many of us are liars.

This thinking is not occasioned by some personal crisis of character, or being faced with a difficult decision to tell the truth. I am a philosopher and have just finished teaching a graduate seminar called “The Truth about Lying.” That seemed a cool title last year when I had to propose one for the catalog. It seems to me now, well not quite a lie, but more like false advertising. If I really knew the truth about this difficult subject I would, as they say, be rich.

I wanted to think about this topic because it seemed to me to have a number of features not shared by other moral concepts– such as murder, cruelty, theft, or promise-breaking. First,while almost all of us would refrain from these acts, most of us lie on a daily basis. (As do doctors– at least if you think prescribing placebos is lying. In a recent survey 45-58% , depending on how the question was phrased, prescribe them on a regular basis. If it's any consolation, the sugar pill seems to have been replaced by vitamins.) Second, if any of us were to act cruelly when this was pointed out to us we would either deny that was an appropriate description of our action or admit we were cruel and, at least, feel guilt or remorse. Whereas many of us are prepared to defend our lies–indeed, to glory in them sometimes (“Boy, did I have you going! Gotcha.”) Third, there seem to be contexts in which not only does the fact that something is a lie not count in any way against what we are doing, but seems to count in favor–poker, spying, lying contests, getting someone to a surprise party, lying to the murderer at the door about where his victim is hiding.

There seem to be very large differences between people as to what they regard as a lie. A , who makes a mistake about the day of the week, says, ” Damn. I lied. It's Tuesday not Wednesday.” But many people distinguish between being wrong and lying. B, who believes that today is Tuesday ( it is actually Wednesday) says to C, “Today is Wednesday”. Some people think that B lied; others that he tried to lie but failed. Some people think that gross exaggeration– “I haven't eaten for over a year”– is a lie; others do not. Now most ethical concepts have borderline cases– is not returning the lost wallet theft? is failing to rescue the drowning child murder?– but with lying it sometimes seems that the borderline is the whole territory.

Another interesting feature is that some people make a sharp moral distinction between lying and other ways of misleading by what one says. If you ask me what happened to your mail, and I say “Someone stole it from your box”without mentioning that the someone was me, some people will say “Well, at least you didn't lie” as if that somehow makes what I did less serious. The medieval Catholic Church elevated the idea of equivocation– saying something true but meaning it one way rather than another, as in the Saint found who reported to would-be persecutors “That Saint is not far from here,”– to Clintonian heights. Many people—myself included—see a difference between lying to someone and failing to tell them something that they have an interest in being told.

Finally, I find striking the variety of views as to what makes lying wrong when it is wrong. Here are some of them.

  1. Because it is intrinsically wrong. This is philosophyspeak for “it’s just wrong, wrong because of what it is, wrong by its very nature.”

  2. Because it produces bad effects, i.e. harms social trust, damages various kinds of relationships—personal, professional, political— leads people to harm based on false information, etc.

  3. Because lying cannot be something that we all do. If we all did it, nobody would believe me when I lie and so it would be pointless to lie. But if we all cannot do it, why am I allowed to do it and not you and you and you… But then we are all doing it.

  4. Because it is an assertion of what you believe to be false and this violates a convention of language.

  5. Because of the intention behind the lie, i.e. to deceive another person.

  6. Because telling a lie is a violation of the autonomy of the hearer. It is an exercise of power over another rational individual—all the more insidious because it sometimes is undetected.

  7. Because telling a lie treats another person as a means to some end. This is true even of lies told to benefit the hearer. In such case he is treated as a means to his own good.

  8. Because telling lie is a violation of a duty to yourself to be truthful.

  9. Because a principle forbidding lying would be agreed to by all of us if we were trying to find a principle to regulate our common behavior that we could all agree to.

Now some of these differences simply reflect the variety of moral theories that philosophers have come up with over the years. (Product differentiation is a feature of the academy.) But the issue of lying seems to have what economists call a “multiplier effect.” A unit of thought produces more than an additional unit of explanations of what is wrong with lying.

Let me conclude today by inviting you to accept an assignment. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to define what it is to tell a lie. Here are some questions to start you off. I just heard on the radio someone listing the virtues of a friend claim that she never lied on purpose. Is it possible that she has lied unintentionally? Can one lie by not saying anything? By saying something true which is misleading? (Does the doctor who hands you a placebo and says, ”Try this. It has been found to be effective by many patients.” lie?) If one says something one believes to be false, but it turns out to be true, has one lied? Does lying involve an intention to deceive the hearer? What about bald-faced lies? (Think of the Monty Python Parrot sketch when John Cleese continues to profess that the dead parrot was “just resting.) Can one lie to oneself? Is there a difference between saying something, and meaning to be believed? (Is the actor on stage asserting to the audience that he has a terrible headache?) Is saying something ironically lying? (“Great dive” said to the person who just belly-whopped into the pool.) Suppose you say something that you do not believe false nor do you believe it to be true. You have no opinion as to its truth. It turns out to be false. Did you lie? Does your definition say anything about the rightness or wrongness of telling a lie? Should it?

Part II of this article can be found here.