Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Lying Around

I have been thinking recently about lying. I don't mean I have been thinking of telling a lie. Many of the lies I tell do not need to be thought about very much. "I am fine." "Not at all. I think that color is quite flattering." "Let me pay. My university will reimburse me." "Yes, Dr. Phillips, I floss every day." I mean I have been thinking about what is a lie and is it ever okay to tell one and why, if we think lying is wrong, so many of us are liars.

This thinking is not occasioned by some personal crisis of character, or being faced with a difficult decision to tell the truth. I am a philosopher and have just finished teaching a graduate seminar called "The Truth about Lying." That seemed a cool title last year when I had to propose one for the catalog. It seems to me now, well not quite a lie, but more like false advertising. If I really knew the truth about this difficult subject I would, as they say, be rich.

I wanted to think about this topic because it seemed to me to have a number of features not shared by other moral concepts-- such as murder, cruelty, theft, or promise-breaking. First,while almost all of us would refrain from these acts, most of us lie on a daily basis. (As do doctors-- at least if you think prescribing placebos is lying. In a recent survey 45-58% , depending on how the question was phrased, prescribe them on a regular basis. If it's any consolation, the sugar pill seems to have been replaced by vitamins.) Second, if any of us were to act cruelly when this was pointed out to us we would either deny that was an appropriate description of our action or admit we were cruel and, at least, feel guilt or remorse. Whereas many of us are prepared to defend our lies--indeed, to glory in them sometimes ("Boy, did I have you going! Gotcha.") Third, there seem to be contexts in which not only does the fact that something is a lie not count in any way against what we are doing, but seems to count in favor--poker, spying, lying contests, getting someone to a surprise party, lying to the murderer at the door about where his victim is hiding.

There seem to be very large differences between people as to what they regard as a lie. A , who makes a mistake about the day of the week, says, " Damn. I lied. It's Tuesday not Wednesday." But many people distinguish between being wrong and lying. B, who believes that today is Tuesday ( it is actually Wednesday) says to C, "Today is Wednesday". Some people think that B lied; others that he tried to lie but failed. Some people think that gross exaggeration-- "I haven't eaten for over a year"-- is a lie; others do not. Now most ethical concepts have borderline cases-- is not returning the lost wallet theft? is failing to rescue the drowning child murder?-- but with lying it sometimes seems that the borderline is the whole territory.

Another interesting feature is that some people make a sharp moral distinction between lying and other ways of misleading by what one says. If you ask me what happened to your mail, and I say "Someone stole it from your box"without mentioning that the someone was me, some people will say "Well, at least you didn't lie" as if that somehow makes what I did less serious. The medieval Catholic Church elevated the idea of equivocation-- saying something true but meaning it one way rather than another, as in the Saint found who reported to would-be persecutors "That Saint is not far from here,"-- to Clintonian heights. Many people—myself included—see a difference between lying to someone and failing to tell them something that they have an interest in being told.

Read the entire article by Gerald Dworkin from 3QuarksDaily. It is interesting.

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