A good portion of speaking will consist in knowing how to lie.
~Desiderius Erasmus

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.


"I keep telling you. No one is buying the story about Gandalf showing up and leading you on a magical adventure across the bedroom."


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.

Immanuel Kant: Brilliant philosopher. Kind of a dick.


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. 🙂








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Perhaps this guy could help in our discussion!!!!
I was living in Chicago at the time- it was a Huge story!



Lying as an act in itself is neither right or wrong. The substance of a lie, the context that it lies in and the effects of the lie are what matters.


God, it felt good getting that pun out.


Oh Caru… 😉


Adonai, I think you will find this interesting;



Deceptions concerning the reasons” for war are different than the deceptions that Sun Tsu referred to. Sun Tsu was referring to tactics used in war. Deceptions used to go to war are the more morally objectionable. That would be outright lying.


So, I’m watching the Tudors right now (and Netflix streaming has them all out of order and some missing… but, I digress).

Anyway, I’m a little past the point where St. Thomas More was put to death because he couldn’t lie and accept the 1534 Act of Supremacy recognizing King Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. In the dramatized version, at least, the King didn’t actually care what he still believed, as long as he took the oath publicly.

But because he was an absolutist, he was convicted of treason.

Think of had all the Crypto-Jews held to the same absolutism, or the Shi‘a? They’d have both been decimated wordlwide, and annihilated wherever they were locally persecuted. What’s the greater good? Living to fight another day and preserving your faith (or in the case of the Dönme of Turkey, at least your progeny), or being a vainglorious martyr convinced by the purity of your cause?

I see nothing wrong with dissimulation (taqqiya in the Shi‘i tradition) in such cases of duress in extremis – or as a pragmatic precaution even. Poor Thomas More died with integrity intact, but for what? God would have understood what was in his heart. No uttered word could have changed that.

*Side note, ever hear the anecdote about Kant and the town clock? Also, in an age before the rap-battle, Nietzsche tore Kant a few new ones. Then again, Fritz was a bit of a dick, too.

Speaking of, this is classic Nietzsche,

The most common lie is that which one lies to himself; lying to others is relatively an exception.

Roll that around in your head a few times. Perhaps we are never so clever as we think ourselves. How much of lying is simply just polite, subtextual, if not mutually subconscious understandings? How often do we actually fool each other? Or are we not all lying to ourselves a lot. Most often people want to believe the lie – or at least those are the most successful of lies.


What is the anecdote about Kant and the town clock? I have never heard it.
Kant is very complex and a bit confusing at times. Somewhat of a moral absolutist. His distinctions between objective principle and subjective maxims become a little entangled. Or his distinctions between acting for the sake of duty and acting out of the imperative for that duty. Does one do a good act because it is his moral duty to do so? Or does one do a good act because he is inclined to do that act, regardless of duty? Kant implies that to do a good act, even though it may be unpleasant, is more moral than someone doing an act because they are inclined to do it. Talk about confusing!


You sound like Nietzsche, but much kinder.

The way Fritz went after Kant, was brutally funny. It would have been better had they been perfect contemporaries. The letters they could have written each other would have been most entertaining.


HA! Letters between them would be rather funny. One thing they did have in common was their unorthodoxy concerning religion, even though Kant firmly believed in God.


Interesting topic, AD. I have also come across various people who write, or opine, that it is never good to tell any kind of lie. That our words must be used to only say what is true, because anything else only further corrupts our ability to trust each other.

But I don’t buy that at all. I lie sometimes. Usually to make somebody feel good, I would say. Right now I am reading a book idea from a friend of mine. She is a wonderful person, and she has really good ideas. But the way she writes is very loose and unstructured, and it all feels very rushed, because it doesn’t have any transitional passages. I will make some suggestions that I think will improve her work, but there is no way I am going to tell her all that I am writing here. I will “lie” to her in order to encourage her, and then tag on some suggestions at the end.

Other times I lie to avoid unpleasantness. Not very often. I generally take responsibility for my own actions. But sometimes things are really small, and some people can be pretty picky about things that I consider minor. I lie to “protect myself”, but that’s okay, because I think I’m worth it. 🙂

So there you have my true confession.
And may I say that this piece of yours is not only the finest piece of writing I have ever encountered here on the Planet, it is by far the most brilliant writing I have ever come across in all my twenty one years.




“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.”

Kant used the example of “the killer at the door.” Which could easily be exemplified by the NAZI Jew hunters. But Kant was talking about a very individual moral code, not a societal one. Kant did suggest that the killer could be tricked. Exactly what the difference between lying and tricking is, in this case, I could not say.
Nietzsche described Kant as a “moral fanatic.” I tend to agree, in this instance.
For me, I try to live by a set of principles that would never get me into a situation where I would have to lie. Key word here is “try.”
I do think that lying or deceiving, that leads to an absolute good, is sometimes necessary. Like in the film Schindler’s List. Schindler deliberately lied when he referred to many of his employees as “essential workers,” when they really had no special talent. They were doing jobs that anyone could have done, but Schindler exaggerated their importance, to keep them from being sent to Auschwitz. He literally saved their lives by lying to the SS.