Some Philosophizing About Lying

by Ben Best




Lying is communication with the intention of creating a false belief. A sarcastic statement which is not intended or expected to create a false belief is not a lie, even if it creates a false belief. If a statement is true, but the communicator believes it is false, it still counts as a lie.

Although self-deception is possible, it is difficult to accomplish with full consciousness and intention. Therefore, lying is most often done by one person to one or more others.

Lies are typically motivated by a desire to persuade others to act or to refrain from acting in a certain manner — or to make decisions in one's favor. Sex, money, status, power, love — anything desired can provide temptation to kill, steal or lie. But lies can be motivated by nothing other than the creation of a false (misleadingly favorable or unfavorable) image or the fabrication of an entertaining story.

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Credibility is a form of wealth. Everyone has access to some credibility. If credibility is squandered, believers are less readily available — but "there is a sucker born every minute". This is reassuring only for persons who are content to continually populate their lives with newly-born "suckers".

Lasting relationships are built on credibility and trust. There is little that people will do for each other without some amount of trust. Truthfulness and trust are usually essential for goodwill. If one wishes to be believed when speaking the truth, one must have credibility. Credibility is also required if one is to be believed when lying.

The "perfect lie" is a lie that produces a benefit and which will never be discovered. Or a lie which misleads a person who will never again be of any consequence or value. But it is not always easy to predict who will never be of consequence. If the pattern is repeated often enough, a mistake will be made which entails a person of considerable consequence.

Maintaining a false perception in the mind of a person with whom there is an on-going relationship requires constant maintenance & diligence — an on-going cost which is not incurred by someone who tells the truth. Lying about one matter makes it easier to lie about others. Lies often require more lies to shore-up the false impressions. The liar must remember all the lies to maintain the illusions. Truth becomes a feared enemy of the liar. The intelligence of the duped person becomes the enemy of the liar. The accumulation of lies increases the probability of discovery. With discovery and the collapse of an elaborate fabrication comes a considerable loss of credibility and trust. Once credibility is lost it can be very difficult to regain.

The confirmed liar will only be comfortable in the company of those who are easily deceived — not those with intelligence and understanding. A person who resists lying has the capacity to build lasting relationships of trust. Trust is an important ingredient in every aspect of life which is dependent upon personal relationships — including work, business, friendship, love and family.

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The classic moral justification for lying is the World War II scenario of lying to Nazis about Jews hidden in the attic. Credibility to Nazis is essential for this scenario to work, however.

It is wrong to kill, but exceptions are made concerning persons regarded as deserving capital punishment. Enemies do not deserve truth, especially if they will use truth to kill. In war matters of life-and-death take precedence over honesty. If the enemy can be deceived about the intended site of invasion — such as the Beaches of Normandy on D-Day — the lies can make the difference between victory and defeat. On-going trust is of little value with enemies of war who seek to kill and defeat one another. Deception is the psychological side of combat. Armies have usually been expected to deceive each other, from before the time of the Trojan Horse. Sun Tzu (author of THE ART OF WAR) wrote: "All warfare is based on deception."

Because credibility is so low in war, it is generally fruitless for one adversary to attempt to directly lie to another. Credibility is created in espionage through double-agents who feed information in preparation for a big deception. False maneuvers as a ruse and even lying to allies are part of wartime subterfuge. Spy agencies are professionals in the art of deception. Machiavelli wrote, "never attempt to win by force what can be won by fraud", though his thinking was guided by cost/benefit analysis rather than lesser moral evils. The Geneva Conventions are intended to give rules of conduct to war, but lying is still regarded as "fair game". This can create problems when attempting to negotiate a truce — and, in fact, many so-called truces are simply ploys. In ON WAR, when Clausewitz described politics as an extension of war he meant more than the substitution of ballots for bullets. Propaganda is a tool of manipulation in both war and peace.

By extension from the ethics of war, it is morally justified to lie to criminals who seek the truth in order to kill, steal or cause harm. Police officers commonly lie to suspected criminals. Lying is a tool for self-defense. But "enemies" who are less than criminals create a slippery slope in the calculus of deception. Although lying to enemies may be morally justified, there can still be a high risk and a high cost. Even lying to enemies should be avoided if it is feasible to do so — and not only because enemies can sometimes become friends. Integrity is always an issue.

There can be a fine line — or no line at all — between deliberate deception and crafted nondisclosure. A homosexual person in a work relationship with a group of homophobes may find it prudent to mislead the coworkers about his or her sexual orientation so as to avoid cruel taunts or mistreatment. The same can be said of persons with unpopular political or religious beliefs. But maintaining false impressions has a cost — the cost of living in fear can be disempowering. Gay pride parades and "coming out of the closet" is symbolic of the liberating relief of being open. Being open about one's true nature and dealing with the consequences can be a learning experience for all concerned. Nonetheless, there are unquestionably circumstances when it is more prudent to "remain in the closet".

Privacy is a means of protecting oneself from those who might intentionally or unintentionally cause harm. But lying is not essential for establishing privacy. Walls, remoteness, non-disclosure and even an explicit "I don't want to talk about it" may be all that is necessary to maintain privacy. Lying should be a last resort as a means to privacy. The benefit of the privacy should be weighed against the cost of the risk of loss of credibility that always accompanies lying.

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People justify lying to enemies by regarding them as people of no value or negative value. But people justify lying to friends, associates and loved-ones on the grounds of being people of value. To maintain or enhance the esteem of those valued it can be tempting to exaggerate personal accomplishments or to cover-up embarrassing mistakes. If we cannot trust the truth to those we love, to some extent we treat them as adversaries. While this may be emotionally safe or gratifying, it is also distancing.

So-called "white lies" are often justified as being acts of consideration. To decline an invitation with an untrue excuse is a ruse intended to protect both the liar and the deceived. To express gratitude for an unwanted gift or to express insincere concern about another's well-being are also regarded as politeness. Lies can be an easy way to reduce conflict or make others feel better. Nonetheless, these practices erode credibility and create distance. The consequences may be moderate, however, if the politeness is recognized and accepted as social custom.

Being close to people requires being open and honest. Being close to another person means knowing intimately what is going on in the other persons heart and mind — for better or worse — and this usually requires communication and disclosure. Warts become visible when you are up-close-and-personal. Lying is far more work — and the risk of exposure is far greater — in a close relationship.

Closeness to the point of intimacy involves such exposure as to require great trust. The closeness of intimacy can mean greater vulnerability to being hurt. We must not only be more open and honest to allow a person to come close to us, we must have the credibility to inspire trust in the other person for them to allow us to come close to them. Not lying is a necessary condition for true closeness, but it is not a sufficient condition. There must be trust not only in the honesty & openness of the other person, but in the good-naturedness of the other person — the sense of assurance that no harm will be done.

Although every relationship is different, in most intimate-love relationships it is assumed that each partner has a right to full knowledge of the other intimate relationships of the other partner — or, more likely, full knowledge that the intimate relationship is exclusive of sexual relationships with others. Failure to disclose another sexual relationship is tantamount to lying.

Broken promises can appear to be lies, but needn't be lies. Promises made without the intention of fulfillment are lies. Promises are commitments, unlike plans which only involve tentative expectations. Often people make promises which are unreasonable — in which case the broken promise is more the consequence of bad judgment than of an intention to deceive. Of special relevance to this discussion is the promise made during wedding vows to love the spouse until death. But the sweet-natured creature at the altar may turn into a roaring volcano of hostile criticism & attack. Or the love may simply disappear for some other reason.

The expression "All's fair in love and war" has been used to describe lawless circumstances in which usual rules of conduct do not apply. (The exact phrase comes from the English novelist Francis Edward Smedley, but similar sentiments were expressed earlier by other authors, such as Cervantes in DON QUIXOTE.) Although the phrase remains popular, its meaning is ambiguous. Does the phrase only refer to the treatment of love-competitors as enemies of war? Or is deception of others excluding competitors and their allies part of "collateral damage"? Deceiving the object of affection could have negative consequences for building trust. "Make love not war" seems a more apt phrase outside of love/hate relationships. (War is more limited to hate.)

"Love" is a word that can be used among relatives and others more out of duty or habit than as a sincere expression of feeling. If "love" simply means a warm or positive feeling, it is hard to say how dishonest it is to use the word. A person who hesitates to say the word "love" in reciprocation because of concern that feelings will be hurt does indeed have a sense of caring. Who is to say what positive feelings truthfully do or do not belong under the rubric of "love"? When the word "love" is used as manipulation or to gain cooperation, the dishonesty is more clear — although motives and emotions can be mixed.

Adults often engage in a special kind of lying to children. Lying about the existence of Santa Claus or fairies is a socially-accepted form of engaging the children in sentimental fantasy. Fantasy can be entertainment, including a lovingly sentimental fantasy like Santa Claus. Although fantasy is unreality, it needn't be a lie if it is not treated seriously. But these rituals do run the risk of undermining credibility with the children if too much effort is made to counter doubts in their questioning minds. Sheltering children from the harsh realities of life may not be a good way of educating them.

Lies by children are often explained by the idea that children have not yet learned to distinguish fantasy from reality (although this remains a challenge for everyone throughout life). Children (and adults) enjoy a good story — and can enjoy creating good stories. Children's lies are also explained by the idea that children are still learning right from wrong. Many learn the advantages of credibility in childhood, while others learn later or not at all.

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Magicians are professionals in the art of deception. But because they make no secret of this fact — and because their objective is entertainment — there is no blame or moral condemnation of magicians.

Deceptive advertising and salespersons who mislead are stereotypic images of business. But these images are most applicable to one-time sales or short-term dealings. Long-term business arrangements are absolutely dependent on trust and goodwill. Even one-time sales involving large amounts of money usually involve extensive investigation into credibility of the seller.

Although false claims about products are likely to destroy credibility, salespeople rarely go out of their way to detail weaknesses about the products they sell — and can easily exaggerate or hype the benefits. Consumers generally expect this behavior and discount the descriptions accordingly.

In business, broken promises are broken contracts — and can be the equivalent of fraud and lying. The fact that a promise (contract) was made with good intentions is small compensation to someone who was depending upon delivery of goods or services. Agreeing to provide goods or services without assurance that those goods or services will be delivered is not honest. A friend who borrows money may do so with the intention of repaying, but may have a change of heart when confronted with the reality of repayment. Honesty and integrity are a kind of competence — they require commitment and good judgement.

Physicians typically have vastly more medical knowledge than their patients. Full explanations would be time-consuming and often fruitless. Convenient oversimplifications may offer the best that can be expected. All experts face this difficulty when trying to communicate with novices. Physicians often make judgments about the patient that involve deception which is believed to be in the patient's best interest — such as administration of a placebo or giving misleading information about the purpose of a drug. (A patient may become upset at the thought of taking a tranquilizer or anti-depressant.)

Taxi-drivers commonly pocket the full proceeds of un-metered, un-dispatched trips. Taxi-owners commonly include this in their cost of business. Companies or government agencies often expect their employees to periodically call in sick when there is really no illness. Employees may spend some of their working hours doing non-work related tasks. Again, as long as these abuses are limited they are tolerated as a cost of business.

Employability is dependent upon perceived competence. The employee has motivation to cover-up mistakes. As long as a job is done satisfactorily the mistakes will attract little attention or concern. Employees have incentive to exaggerate accomplishments. Many people in organizations engage in an ongoing struggle to take credit for the accomplishments of others and to pass to others blame for inadequacies or mistakes.

In all these cases the criterion of truth is more a matter of quantity than of quality. Employers tolerate employees who provide positive net benefit. But employees who show more reliability, more trustworthiness and more credibility are more likely to be valued in positions of greater responsibility. The world is not one of perfect justice or meritocracy, however. Petty jealousies, favoritism, sex appeal and other factors can play important roles. Competence and credibility are important, but they aren't everything.

The classic paradox of employment is that employers only hire experienced workers, but without the job no one could ever gain experience. The classic solution to the paradox is to lie about previous experience. During the process of bumbling-through and fabricating additional lies about the previous work experience the new employee may gain the necessary experience and be relieved of the practical necessity of lying in the future. Or, if the lack of experience is unmistakable, the employee is fired and no worse-off than when previously unemployed. Lying about qualifications is most likely to be successful when an employer has an exaggerated conception of the amount of experience actually required. It also helps to be in a large urban environment where damage to one's reputation (credibility) is minimal due to anonymity. But even in big cities, work within a specific industry or profession can be a "small world" — and it is easy to run-into former associates at a new workplace. Being fired from a job for lying creates temptation to lie about having had the job when applying for the next one.

If the lying is indeed a temporary, loathsome ad hoc necessity which is not continued, caught or repeated, there may be no long-term consequences. A pattern of lying, however, will certainly lead to a pattern of low credibility. And the costs of being caught, if caught, can be high.

It is possible to rob a store and get away without being caught. Robbery is thus rewarded and thus appears more "practical" than honesty. It is rarely possible to habitually rob stores without eventually getting caught. Many people have been temporarily very successful in business by deep deception, but once the fraud is discovered the consequences can be severe. The higher the ascent, the greater the fall. But the majority of people neither know nor care about the difference between high honesty or moderate honesty — "honest enough" is good enough.

Nonetheless, many can be quite successful who practice mild deception which is augmented by special talents and/or hard work. It would be naive to claim that honesty is the key to success in every field. Politics is notoriously grounded in balancing honesty with deception.

There is a qualitative difference between lying to cover-up an accounting error and lying to cover-up an embezzlement. The seriousness of the lie is judged on the basis of the subject of the lie. It is regarded as worse to lie to cover-up a murder than to cover-up a parking infraction. President Clinton could more easily be forgiven for a lie to cover-up a marriage infidelity than President Nixon could be forgiven for a lie to cover-up a break-in at a Democratic Party office. The seriousness of the lie is judged on the basis of the subject of the lie.

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A salesperson may engage in self-delusion concerning the value of his or her product. A lawyer can quickly convince himself or herself of the merits of the case of a high-paying client. Extended into the realm of personal psychology, "affirmations" or self-programmed "positive thinking" is self-deception. Wishful thinking — believing what you want to believe — is self-deception. Nonetheless, life consists of both positive and negative aspects — and it is possible to choose to focus on one or the other without self-deception.

Intellectual honesty requires the ability to admit being wrong or having been wrong. A "know-it-all" has no room for additional knowledge. Cherished or long-accepted beliefs can be hard to abandon.

Intellectual honesty also requires being able to accept unpopular beliefs that are perceived to be true, but are at variance with cultural norms or at variance with the strong convictions of someone loved or respected. Mental conformity can be unconscious, automatic and self-deceptive. Honesty in this case requires a capacity for independence. For many, honesty and independence are not worth the price of alienation — although people rarely explicitly admit this to themselves.

Few people can think objectively about matters affecting their "vested" interests. Rationalization reduces internal stress, but it also reduces clear-sighted understanding. Effectiveness is greatest when there is clear understanding. Honesty is the way to truth, truth is the way to knowledge and knowledge is essential for effectiveness. The alternative is fantasy, not reality. By honestly acknowledging our embarrassing mistakes and shortcomings — to ourselves as well as to others — we are most empowered to learn what is required for improvement.

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Lying is distinct from not being open, although there can be similarities. A sharp distinction between lying and openness seems evident concerning private financial information. What friend would feel mistrusted or betrayed by not being informed of the password code on your credit card? Even people with very intimate relationships may feel it is prudent to keep a distance concerning financial matters so as to avoid misunderstandings that might arise from joint bank accounts, etc.

I can be a very private person and do not normally reveal a much about myself. Most people have very different views than I do about most things: religion, politics, life, etc., and I see no reason to unnecessarily arouse hostility, argument or disapproval. What I say about myself will be minimal, but what I do say will nearly always be true. On the other hand, if I feel that I am or want to be close to a person I will feel an obligation to reveal a great deal of "personal" information.

Lying is active, whereas not being open can be passive. Not being open can be a way of supporting falsehood, in which case it is passive lying. One can remain silent concerning a flattering false belief about oneself or one can take active steps to correct the misunderstanding for the sake of truth (rather than being a passive accomplice of untruth).

Distance from others varies with the amount of self-disclosure. When I want to be close — and I feel it is safe to be close — I aggressively self-disclose. But with people I distrust I have gone to great lengths to find devices for conceilment, evasion and distancing (a "safe distance").

A complicated, stressful or dangerous medical condition may be a private matter simply because to attempt to explain the condition or to deal with the reactions of others would create too much additional stress or complication. It could be particularly difficult to explain such matters to children. Any sensitivity to possible criticisms and/or misunderstandings by others creates defensiveness and/or a desire for privacy.

The ability to keep confidences and to respect the privacy of others is an aspect of integrity which is counter to openness. Keeping discussions to a minimum or stearing conversation is a means to avoid direct questions which could force a choice between lying and disclosure. On the witness stand, however, evading questions can be more difficult and refusal to answer a question (Fifth Amendment) is generally seen as an admission of guilt.

There are unquestionably risks to telling the truth. Telling the truth can cause a great deal of embarrassment, but admitting to failures often leads to learning how to do better in the future. For someone who values learning and effectiveness, the gain usually more than justifies the pain. There is also risk when a disclosure can seriously affect the regard of a person we care about or possibly destroy the relationship altogether. In such a case lying can still usually be avoided and disclosure can be withheld until circumstance makes the disclosure more safe.

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This essay is being written by a real person in the real world: me. I am not a detached observer. I don't mean to piously preach. I cannot claim that I have never lied or will never lie again. I know there are situations when I weigh the costs and benefits of lying and decide that the risks of telling the truth may be too horrific to contemplate. These would generally be situations where the person I am dealing with is an adversary with power, not a person I am wanting to be close to or expect to relate to on an ongoing basis.

The journalist/essayist H.L. Mencken said, "Conscience is that wee inner voice that says somebody might be looking." Whether or not conscience is paranoia, I think it is valuable conditioning for those who experience a high emotional cost associated with lying. When situations arise where lying seems to be the most expedient solution, the emotional cost factor can add additional motivation to find solutions that do not involve lying. Often with some imagination and a willingness to spend time thinking about the problem, satisfactory solutions can be found which do not involve lying.

It is easy to be hurt or morally outraged by the lies of others. But our integrity is not measured by our outrage at the behavior of others — it is measured by our own honesty. If we value the "wealth" that being trusted can bring, then our integrity will be important to us. People are not as naive as we sometimes imagine and we lose more credibility than we are aware-of by a dishonest frame of mind. If we want people to be honest with us, being honest with them is a better policy than trying to intimidate them with our moral outrage.

Once a witness lies on the witness stand the credibility of all the witness's testimony is in doubt. If I have lied before, why not lie again? Of course, if my credibility has been lost, my lies may not gain me very much. If all of my associates lie in moderation, I may not think there is much to gain by being an extremist who never lies.

It may be too risky or difficult for me to admit to past lies, but I can begin the road to renewal by being more honest on a go-forward basis. If we can learn from our mistakes in a metaphysical sense, we can also learn from our ethical mistakes — and be better in the future than we were in the past.

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