A good portion of speaking will consist in knowing how to lie.
Welcome back to a new chapter of Exploring Morality. In this chapter we will be discussing truth, lies, and deception. A complex subject full of grey areas. Again I will try to keep it as simple as possible, since I myself am new to the subject, and maybe provide a few funny quotes underneath some pictures. I will provide as many links as possible so anyone wishing to pursue this topic further can gather some information. So let’s begin.
There many types of lies, ranging from seemingly harmless white lies to to ethically questionable “big lies”. The reasons for lying are far more numerous. Sometimes we just don’t want to reveal certain information to someone and, though we don’t want to outright deceive the person, we may choose to not venture the full truth. We lie to save people grief and we lie to visit grief on people. On the outside lying may seem to have a dichotomy to it, allowing it to be used for good, but some argue that even well intentioned lies add to a sense of distrust that can only harm the whole of society. Many kids learn a lesson in deception early on when they discover there is no Santa Claus/Easter Bunny/Tooth Fairy. It is very much a harmless white lie intended to give children a sense of wonder and “magic” in the world. Most children figure things out for themselves and often times no damage is done. Some psychiatrists think children are more focused on the act of gift giving and when they realize their elderly, red suited benefactor is actually their parents, they don’t really seem to care.
Mostly because children have an implicit trust of their parents. Anyways, lying is a natural development in all of us. Many psychologists believe children begin developing what is called, Machiavellian intelligence, at around the age of 4 and a half. The ability to lie convincingly. Before this age they have little ability to judge whether a statement will be thought truthful or not. They just expect everyone to see things the way they do. But once they do begin to understand how lying works, they still don’t have the moral framework to best decide when and how to use it. Children could be classified as borderline sociopaths but, they’re just children. They don’t know any better. Lying to avoid punishment is all that matters. Lies that hurt or damage other people are never thought through because they have no understanding of their actions. Children do have great memories though. Our memory loses some of it’s punch as we age and we retain our highest volume of information as a child. This, combined with a very active imagination, can lead to some very amusing stories standing over a broken vase.
No one is really taught how to lie. You can learn how to lie well, but the concept of lying comes to everyone naturally, pretty early in life. It seems to be a natural part of our development and we have to take this into account when discussing the moral boundaries of lying. Philosophers from Aristotle to Immanuel Kant have all declared lying to be absolutely immoral. The argument is that any lie perverts speech and diminishes overall trust in society. Even if it meant facing death or torture, they believed you should never lie. This is a form of moral absolutism. The belief that the immoral act of lying is wrong no matter the intention and, therefore, one should never lie. There are utilitarian and consequentialist schools of thought which hold that lying is morally good if it achieves a morally correct end.
A very well known, and often cited, example of this is the ordeal of Anne Frank and the Frank family. For 2 years she and her family were hidden from Nazi soldiers and police inside secret rooms in her father’s office building in Belgium. Many, many times various people lied and deceived the Nazi forces looking not just for her but many Jewish families hidden all over Europe. At some point, someone told the authorities the truth and they were taken away to a concentration camp. According to Aristotle and Kant, the “betrayal” of the Frank family was actually a morally righteous act and the hiding of these families was the true immoral action. But, anyone not locked in a tiny room for years on end, praying for their life, has plenty of freedom to decide who is right and who is wrong.
Let’s talk about deception. Deception isn’t necessarily lying. You can deceive people with the truth. Or, the amount of truth you wish them to know at that time. Half-truths and lying by omission are examples of “lies” that may contain some truth in them. A half-truth is just what it sounds like. It’s a lie that has pieces of truth in it. Lying by omission is a standard form of lying in the corporate world. Again, it’s a way of concealing something while still providing bits of truth. Take the Iraq war. Saying that Saddam Hussein HAD WMDs is not a lie. But it was framed in a way to lead yo to believe he still possessed them. Certain facts where omitted in favor of a more agreeable narrative. Deception. But, as Sun Tzu said; “All war is deception.”
And it’s true. Most of our logistical power in WW 2 was centered around deceiving Axis forces. Blinding them to troop movement and positions, disseminating false assumptions among the opposing leadership, and good old fashioned sabotage. Deception is a part of everyday life though. Sometimes for good,often times for evil. A placebo is a kind of deception. The drug itself does nothing. It’s just sugar water. But you don’t know that. It’s all an attempt to fool you into believing you are being healed. The overwhelming success of placebos has led many to believe that the mind, and a person’s attitude, play a large role in recovering from injury and disease. Physical therapy and rehabilitation is just as much about improving mental conditions as it is physical conditions.
Half truths are the tool of the politician. A seemingly truthful statement that carries some bit of deception with it. For example, when Republicans say the country has amassed more debt under President Obama than the entire previous decade, the statement appears true. But they fail to mention that most of that debt pertains to policies from the previous administration. A half truth. It’s a common ploy in politics. Like talking about SS and debt in our economy when SS has few ties to the federal debt. It’s deception with the “truth”.
Is there such a thing as a “necessary lie”? I’d like to pull an example from pop culture if you’ll indulge me. In the movie Dark Knight Gotham District Attorney Harvey Dent’s face is horribly disfigured by fire and it drives him insane. He “falls from grace” and begins killing people he feels are responsible. The only people who know what is really happening are Batman and police commissioner Jim Gordon. In the end Dent is killed in a final confrontation with Batman. To keep peace and stability in the city Batman assumes blame for all of Dent’s crimes and the tragic circumstances of his death are covered up. Dent is buried as a hero to the people of Gotham. It was a necessary lie. A case where the truth could have been 100 times more damaging than the lie. It’s not uncommon to allow people to believe something that isn’t true simply because it will maintain peace or the truth is so benign or similar that it it irrelevant in the end.
So now I would love to know what you think. Is lying always wrong or can good be accomplished by it? It seems that lying develops naturally, very early in our lives. Does that mean lying is just a natural thing or is it a perversion of language as some would say? As usual, being a consequentialist, it all depends on the ends. If lying will help you achieve a noble goal, lie your ass off. Do you lie often? Would you consider yourself an honest person? And yes, we’re counting white lies. 🙂