The real invention of lying

The proverb ‘honesty is the best policy’ isn’t as easy as it seems

The Silhouette (McMaster)

HAMILTON (CUP) – “After prolonged research on myself, I brought out the fundamental duplicity of the human being. Then I realized . . . that modesty helped me to shine, humility to conquer, and virtue to oppress.” – Albert Camus, The Fall

Camus’ words revealed the complexity of honesty and dishonesty, virtue and vice. Through his observation that moral behaviour can cause damage, he implied the potential of immoral behaviour to prevent that damage. I’m talking about lying, that baffling concept that has the power to destroy relationships and restore egos.

Camus’ quote above, among others, introduces Sissela Bok’s Lying. Bok’s text shows us that dishonesty can become a complex moral issue. For example, the first lines of the book ask, “Should physicians lie to dying patients so as to delay the fear and anxiety which the truth might bring them? Should professors exaggerate the excellence of their students on recommendations in order to give them a better chance in a tight job market? Should parents conceal from children the fact that they were adopted?”

These are difficult questions that reveal the potential of lies to bring comfort, confidence and closeness, however false they may be. The familiar proverb “honesty is the best policy” may not be as simple as it seemed when we were told to believe it as children.

Research has shown that most people lie; however, Dr. Violetta Igneski, a professor of ethics in communication at McMaster University, is not concerned with empirical research

“In my class, I aim to teach students ways of reasoning through difficult situations and ways of weighing various reasons and ordering different beliefs and values they hold, rather than teaching them facts about lying,” she said.

Igneski is interested in moments when it might be good or right to lie, and if doing so is ever “right.” Motivation informs whether a lie is justifiable. We are all familiar with little white lies that protect others’ self-esteem. Altruistic lies protect those being lied to from painful or difficult truths.

Igneski listed questions individuals can ask to determine whether lies are justifiable.

“Would it really protect the individual being lied to? Would it really bring about the best consequences? Are they really doing it for altruistic reasons, or is there an underlying personal benefit?”

Convincing yourself that your motives for lying are selfless when they are not is common, but problematic, she said.

“It’s important for people to look at the big picture,” Igneski said. “Before one is able to figure out if it justifiable to lie in the situation, they have to consider all of the effects and whether or not they would want to be treated in this same way.”

From a broader societal perspective, many have argued that lies are beneficial – even necessary – to maintain balance in a world of chaos.

Nietzsche, for example, stated, “There is only one world, and that world is false, cruel, contradictory, misleading, senseless . . . We need lies to vanquish this reality, this ‘truth,’ we need lies in order to live.”

From a broader societal perspective, many have argued that lies are beneficial – even necessary – to maintain balance in a world of chaos.

Bok presented this example in her text as a confusion of the many unintentional or blameless deceptions in life and deliberate lying. She argued that we must distinguish between the intentional deceit of others and other factors that influence human experience to determine whether it is possible for people to be entirely truthful.

Lying is frequently a problem in relationships, romantic or not, and altruism is not always a sufficient justification for the person being lied to.

“I think at the centre of any [close] relationship is respect and trust. You would have to ask yourself if you feel like you are being respected by a person who is deceiving you” for the good or for the bad, Igneski said.

Trust is built on honesty, which means lying can be a damaging force.

“We couldn’t engage in the most simple or basic relationships with others if we couldn’t trust that they were telling us the truth. Think of a simple example of stopping a stranger to ask for directions. All of our interactions and communications with others rest on an assumption that they are generally being truthful.”

However, Igneski maintained that there are certainly benefits to lying.

She gave the example of telling me I was the best journalist she had ever read and as a result, theoretically giving me the confidence to continue writing. 

While this is a positive outcome, she cautioned against missing more subtle implications of lies like this. Could I trust anything else she tells me? If I believed her and chose writing over another pursuit, would she be responsible for misleading me? 

She also added, “Is it up to me to decide what you would want to hear or what is best for you? Isn’t this too paternalistic?”

Her provoking questions returned to the issue of whether or not any lie is completely harmless in the grand scheme of things.

“Does it matter if there is a benefit to it?” Igneski stated.

People lie to protect themselves and others, sometimes with damaging effects. Nonetheless, Igneski felt it was important to try to avoid lying.

“I think it would be an unrealistic goal for someone to say they will never lie; however, it would be realistic for someone to say that they will more seriously consider the perspective of the person being lied to, the long-term consequences to their relationships and to society more generally.”

Published in Volume 64, Number 16 of The Uniter (January 21, 2010)

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