The Care and Management of Lies

by Gerald Dworkin

I have been thinking and writing about lying and deception for a number of years. Readers with a long memory may recall these two blog posts written for 3QD when I first started my thinking on the topic:

Lying Around — Part I

Lying Around — Part II

Along the way I have encountered many passages in my rather eclectic reading that bore on the topic. Some of them were aphoristic or humorous. Some were real cases in which people decided to lie or not. Some were literary or philosophical. All were attempts to say something interesting and true about when we must be honest and when we should not.

Facts are for people who lack the imagination to create their own truth.


Every lie must beget seven more lies if it is to resemble the truth and adopt truths aura.

—Martin Luther

When the philosopher Henry Sidgwick started teaching at Cambridge in the 19th century every Fellow had to subscribe to the the 29 articles of the Anglican Church. He no longer accepted these beliefs. Since he did not want to sign this “best-motivated perjury” he wrote to John Stuart Mill for advice. MIll did not offer any but advised him to turn to the larger question of what utilitarian exceptions there were to the rule that we should tell the truth. See what you get when you ask a philosopher for some moral advice?


Dan Ariely Is a psychologist who has written a very interesting book The Honest Truth about Dishonesty which is more about when we cheat than when we lie–although there is a lot of lying going on in his experiments. He also writes about his experience recovering from terrible burns over most of his body. One of his stories concerns a procedure he had to undergo which involved putting pins into his fingers to support them while skin grew back. The procedure will take place two weeks later and, in fact, will be very painful. When he asks about how painful the nurses lie and say that the current removal of burned skin is the hard part. The procedure will be a snap.

In fact the removal proves to be extremely painful. Ariely, looking back, is grateful that they lied to him. He believes he would have had two weeks of agonizing anticipation which would have been both terrible in itself and would have possibly damaged his immune system. He does not comment on the fact that this deception can only be used once!


A very interesting article about the differences in cultures about the moral status of lying by Michael Slackman in the New York Times is well worth reading in its entirety. Some excerpts:

It is certainly unfair to accuse all Iranians of being liars. The label is judgmental and reeks of stereotype. The more appropriate way to phrase the Iranian view toward honesty, the way many Iranians themselves describe it, is to say that being direct and telling the truth are not prized principles in Iran.

Often, just the opposite is true. People are expected to give false praise and insincere promise. They are expected to tell you what you want to hear to avoid conflict, or to offer hope when there is none.

There is a social principle in Iran called taarof, a concept that describes the practice of insincerity — of inviting people to dinner when you don't really want their company, for example. Iranians understand such practices as manners and are not offended by them…

Muhammad Atrianfar, publisher of the reform-minded daily newspaper Shargh, said Iranians find Americans easy to deal with because they are straightforward. That, he implied, could give Iranians an advantage in any negotiations. But for Americans to understand Iranians, he said, they must recognize that with Iranians, “the mind thinks something, the heart feels something else, the tongue says something else, and manners do something else.

“It doesn't mean people are lying,” he said. “They are just dealing with you with a different character.

Americans are pragmatists and word choice is often based on the shortest route from here to there. Iranians are poets and tend to use language as though it were paint, to be spread out, blended, swirled. Words can be presented as pieces in a puzzle, pieces that may or may not fit together neatly. “In Iran, you praise people but you don't mean it,” Dr. Sanati said. “You invite people for all sorts of things, and you don't mean it. You promise things, and you don't mean it. People who live here understand that.”


When a young child's fingers brush against a crack in the world, a parent seeking to account for that fragility may lie or tell the truth. Either is permissible, depending on the circumstances. The intention behind the lie will be unimpeachably sincere and benevolent, while the truth will need to be doctored, simplified to the point of deception. At such a moment of parenthood, only irony is forbidden. One can tell a child, “But nothing bad is going to happen to you,” knowing the words to be false, or “I would never let anything bad happen to you,” appending to this partial truth a silent insofar as that is possible. One is not permitted, however, to say, “Dude, you are totally toast.”

—Michael Chabon


The philosopher Daniel Dennett, in his book Free Will, called my attention to the wisdom of DUMBO. DUMBO is an elephant who actually can fly but does not believe he can. MOUSE tells him that if he would just spread his ears and jump off a height he would be able to fly. But DUMBO quite reasonably is sceptical.

MOUSE then gives him a “magic” feather which he tells DUMBO has the power to make him fly. As a result of believing this lie DUMBO actually is able to fly. Later in the book he drops the magic feather and is so disconcerted by this that he plummets towards the ground. MOUSE quickly informs him that while the feather has no magic powers he really can fly on his own. As a result DUMBO pulls out of the dive and flies on his own.

Dennett does not draw any morals from the story, he is interested in the idea that in order to possess free will one has to believe one has it. I draw the lesson that there is a special subclass of paternalistic lies, i.e. lies told to produce good effects on the person being lied to. These are lies which are efficient means of producing a kind of experience which then leads the deceived person to realize he has certain abilities and capacities he did not recognize he possessed. It is similar, but not identical, to the praise we heap on our kids all the time about their earliest attempts to sing or dance or paint or write poems. For some kids this encouragement leads to the development of true achievement. But that is a result of their own future efforts. The Dumbo effect involves getting someone to do something he already has the ability to do. He just does not know it. Whether or not this class of paternalistic lies is easier or harder to justify than others I leave as an exercise to the reader.

And, children, you now can get your very own Dumbo Feather app here.


Life is the art of being well deceived.



I have been systematically rethinking the nature of the lying. The purposes of the liar might be better served by attacking propositional attitudes other than belief. Indeed, I suspect that tyrants often do not want all their underlings to be deluded. If they will act only on what they know, then they can be paralyzed by doubts that do not affect their beliefs.

—Roy Sorensen


Any long-term relationship that's successful is really a myth that two people create together … and myths are built of lies, and there's usually some kernel of truth…When you think about it, you meet somebody for the first time, and they're not presenting their warts-and-all self to you — they're presenting their idealized self to you, they're leading with their best. And then, eventually, you're farting in front of each other. Eventually, you get to see the person who is behind that facade of their best, and they get to see the person your facade, your lie-self — this lie that you presented to them about who you really are. And what's beautiful about a long-term relationship, and what can be transformative about it, is that I pretend every day that my boyfriend is the lie that I met when I first met him. And he does that same favor to me — he pretends that I'm that better person than I actually am. Even though he knows I'm not. Even though I know he's not. And we then are obligated to live up to the lies we told each other about who we are — we are then forced to be better people than we actually are, because it's expected of us by each other.

—Dan Savage


Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind –

—Emily Dickinson


A sentence uttered makes a world appear

Where all things happen as it says they do,

We doubt the speaker, not the words we hear,

Words have no words for words that are not true



The most infamous examples of an absolute ban on all lies is that of Kant who may have claimed–but see Allen Wood's Kant's Ethical Thought, for another view– that if a murderer comes to your door seeking to find and kill an innocent person, and one knows where the person is, one may not lie about her whereabouts. For a real example of someone who believed this, and acted upon it, see The Hiding Room by Corrie Ten Boom. She and her sister were in a room in Amsterdam with Annaliese who was a Jew. The Nazis came to the room and asked whether Annaliese was Jewish. Ten Boom's sister, as a matter of religious principle, believed she had to answer truthfully. Annaliese was taken to the Old Jewish Theater from which people were being transported to concentration camps. As it happened the underground broke into the theatre and rescued forty Jews–among them Annaliese. This has been used by some Catholic theologians to show that one should not lie, and leave the results to God!


…[the] supreme test of right and wrong in an act, the balance of all its consequences, by what approach to omniscience can we pretend to predict that such balance must always be on one side, in every conceivable diversity of Cases? How can we foreknow individual circumstance in such a manner as to assure ourselves that in no imaginable incident of private life can the specific evil of telling truth outweigh the general evil of telling falsehood?….If evil will arise in any specific case from our telling truth, we a r e forbidden by a law of morality from doing that evil:we are forbidden by another law of morality from telling a falsehood. Here then are two laws of morality in conflict, and we cannot satisfy both of them. What is to be done but to resort to the primary test of all right and wrong, and to make a specific calculation of the good or evil consequences…the evil of departing from a well-known and salutary rule is indeed one momentous item on that side of the account; but to treat it as equal to infinity, and as necessarily superseding the measurement of any finite quantities of evil on the opposite side, appears to us to be the most fatal of all mistakes in ethical theory.



A truth about the outdoors is that it causes people to lie. Strange forces out there in the wild have always conspired to corrupt human honesty. Over time, intelligent listeners and readers came to accept that an adventurer's reports would not consist of one-to-one representations of fact but instead would contain exaggerations, distortions, omissions, additions, events that foolish people wanted to believe had happened but hadn't, and deliberate, implausible fantastical lies……An enormous attraction of far places has always been that no one else was inconveniently in the neighborhood to check.

—Ian Frazier


Some disguised deceits counterfeit the truth so perfectly that not to be taken in by them would be an error of judgement.

—La Rochefoucauld


We find it easy to believe that praise is sincere: why should anyone lie in telling us the truth?

—Jean Rostand


Sometimes the truth is not good enough. You need something more.



Only enemies speak the truth. Friends and lovers lie endlessly, caught in the web of duty.

—Stephen King


If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.


Truth is the most valuable thing we have, so I try to conserve it.

—Mark Twain


A halber emez iz a gantzer legen. A half-truth is a whole lie.

—Yiddish Proverb


In many years of asking doctors for the best case of justified lying to their patients I have found very few convincing cases. The following seems to me to be one of the more plausible ones. A man drives off a bridge and drowns in his car. It is clear that he died an agonizing death trying to escape from his car. At the hospital where he was brought his wife asks the attending physician what kind of death he suffered. He replies that the man died instantly from the impact of the car hitting the water.

The opposite view is well-put by Korsgaard; not in response, although relevant, to the above case:

If someone asks you for information pertinent to her own life, it is because she has decided that she should have that information, that it is good for her to know. If you lie, you take it upon yourself to decide that it is not good for her to know. But she is the one who has the right to decide what it is good for her to know, where the information is relevant to her own life, and you are not. Perhaps the information she requests is painful or tragic. She may or may not have realized that, but you must assume that because she asks she has decided it is worth it to her to know the truth. It is not for you to say that a deluded pleasure is better for her than an honest grief.


Most lies in shortest words:

Thompson Twins.

Not twins. None named Thompson. Most popular incarnation was a trio.

(Yes, I know about the Tintin comic strip origin)


Death-bed Premises:

In the French film, For a Woman, an auto -biographical work by Diane Kurys, she has a scene in which her father, a die-hard member of the Communist Party, is on his death-bed in a hospital. She and her sister want to make his dying moments happy ones. They discuss various possible lies they can tell him. One is that the Russians are back in Berlin rebuilding the Berlin wall! She whispers something in his ear, his eyes lights up, and he says, “Great news.”


It isn't that to have an honorable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you.

It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us.

The possibility of life between us.


We take so much of the universe on trust. You tell me: “In 1950 I lived on the north side of Beacon Street in Somerville.” You tell me: “She and I were lovers, but for months now we have only been good friends.” You tell me: “It is seventy degrees outside and the sun is shining.” Because I love you, because there is not even a question of lying between us, I take these accounts of the universe on trust: your address twenty-five years ago, your relationship with someone I know only by sight, this morning's weather. I fling unconscious tendrils of belief, like slender green threads, across statements such as these, statements made so unequivocally, which have no tone or shadow of tentativeness. I build them into the mosaic of my world. I allow my universe to change in minute, significant ways, on the basis of things you have said to me, of my trust in you.


An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love” — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.


Adrienne Rich Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966–1978. This book is hard to find. Here is a pdf: