Lying Quotes

by Gerald Dworkin

In three previous columns I have discussed the ethics of lying. I am still working on this topic and, in the course of doing so, have accumulated some interesting remarks. Here is a sample:

Some topics–is it decaf?–require absolute honesty. With others–military secrets, some non-contagious diseases–some legitimate exceptions may be allowed.

—Michael Kinsley

Real love amounts to withholding the truth, even when you’re offered the perfect opportunity to hurt someone’s feelings

—David Sedaris

Can’t come. Lie follows.

—Charles Beresford

If you can only be good at one thing, be good at lying. … Because if you’re good at lying, you’re good at everything.

—Anonymous tweet

Don’t lie, because lying only fixes everything.

—Louis CK

It seems strange if we may not lie, if lying will defend us better against a palpable invasion of our rights… Common Sense does not seem to prohibit this decisively.

—Henry Sidgwick

The rule of veracity…concerning which it is obvious that although many cases exist in which a deviation from the rule would in the particular case produce more good than evil, it is necessary for general security, either that the rules should be inflexibly observed, or that the licence of deviating from them , if ever such be permitted, should be confined to definite classes of cases, and of a very peculiar and extreme nature.

—J. S. Mill

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.

* * *

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.

—Michael Slackman NY Times

* * *

Truth is scarcely to be heard but by those from whom it can serve no interest to conceal it.

—Peter Godfrey-Smith

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

In On the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche speaks of “blue-eyed lying”—a phrase directed at the German Empire’s Aryan, antiSemitic politicians, whom he despised. “Our ‘good’ men do not lie,” he wrote. “The real lie, the genuine, determined, ‘honest’ lie … would prove too tough and strong an article for them … it would be asking them … to learn to distinguish between ‘true’ and ‘false’ in their own selves.”

Trump l’oeil

A technique designed to fool people into thinking that the objects represented are really there.

Actual dictionary definition.


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

The wise thing is for us diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully, judiciously; to lie with a good object, and not an evil one; to lie for others’ advantage, and not our own; to lie healingly, charitably, humanely, not cruelly, hurtfully, maliciously; to lie gracefully and graciously, not awkwardly and clumsily; to lie firmly, frankly, squarely, with head erect, not haltingly, tortuously, with pusillanimous mien, as being ashamed of our high calling.

—Mark Twain

To be natural is such a difficult pose to keep up.

—Oscar Wilde

The fact that he does not tell me the truth all the time makes me not sure of his truth at certain times, and then I work to figure out for myself if what he is telling me is the truth or not, and sometimes I can figure out that it’s not the truth and sometimes I don’t know and never know, and sometimes just because he says it to me over and over again I am convinced it is the truth because I don’t believe he would repeat a lie so often. Maybe the truth does not matter, but I want to know it if only so that I can come to some conclusions about such questions as: whether he is angry at me or not; if he is, then how angry; whether he still loves her or not; if he does, then how much; whether he loves me or not; how much; how capable he is of deceiving me in the act and after the act in the telling.

—Lydia Davis “Story”

Everyone is told as much as he needs to know including the self.

—David Carr

According to Clifford Geertz, the Javanese use the word étok-étok to mean “proper lying”, which is not quite the same as our “white lie”. An informant explained it to him like this:

He said: “Suppose I go off south and you see me go. Later my son asks you: ‘Do you know where my father went?’ And you say no, [you]étok-étok [that] you don’t know.” I asked him why should I étok-étok , as there seemed to be no reason for lying, and he said, “Oh, you just étok-étok. You don’t have to have a reason.”

Geertz elaborates:

When we tell white lies, we have to justify them to ourselves even though the justification be weak…For the Javanese it seems, in part anyway, to work the other way around: the burden of proof seems to be in the direction of telling the truth. The natural answer to casual questions, particularly from people you do not know very well, tends to be either a vague one (“Where are you going?” — “West”) or a mildly false one; and one tells the truth in small matters only when there is some reason to do so.

Many of my highly educated, academic friends—philosophers and non-philosophers alike—participate in the Santa Claus deception. These are people who unequivocally condemn the lies told by the rich and powerful to manipulate the poor and powerless, who unequivocally endorse the ethic of respect for persons, and who applaud the practice of speaking truth to power. But when it comes to telling their kids about Santa, these principles seem to vanish like melting snowflakes. Ask them why they think it’s OK for adults to lie to their offspring about Santa Claus and suddenly it becomes acceptable, or even entertaining, for the big powerful folks to pull the wool over the eyes of the small vulnerable ones.

—David Kyle Johnson

By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing.
And he vows his passion is,
Infinite, undying.
Lady make note of this —
One of you is lying.”

―Dorothy Parker

Someone who knows too much finds it hard to lie.

—Ludwig Wittgenstein

A gaffe is the opposite of a lie; it is when a politician inadvertently tells the truth.

—Michael Kinsley

Unclothed truth can be vulnerable, ungainly, shocking. Overdressed it becomes a lie.

—Rachel Cusk

Truth is sometimes like a toothbrush, and you only share that with people you really trust.

—Will Sharpe, FLOWERS

One of the great serendipitous pleasures of life is achieving a desired end by telling the truth.

I’m basically unfamiliar with the phenomena and the few times it’s happened, I’ve felt embarrassed, sort of exposed and uneasy, and once or twice I’ve cried. Mostly when I want something I shape the truth. I place a strong emphasis on what may be a secondary emphasis of the situation, at least.

—Richard Greenberg

Henry does not lie because it is in his interest. He lies because it is in his nature.

—Said of Henry Kissinger

Dare to be true. Nothing can need a lie

A fault, which needs it most, grows two thereby.

—George Herbert

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