Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Sixteen Lies About Lying (Part 1)

Sixteen Lies About Lying (Part 1)

So strange--the village lived in terror of the marauder, a man who many had witnessed destroying their fellow villager's lives. And yet if you asked any of the witnesses to describe the marauder they seemed barely curious about who he was and how to identify him.  For all the damage the marauder did, people couldn't be bothered to pinpoint his nature.

The village is us and the marauder is not a person but a behavior: the act of lying. Though we are each of us wary and vigilant about being deceived, it's rare to find people trying to pinpoint exactly what lying is, and how, in general to know what is and is not a lie. We argue about who's lying but not much about what constitutes a lie.  When we're accusing someone of lying, we pretend it's obvious what a lie is, but it isn't. 

Here are the first eight of sixteen dubious but popular ideas about lying that come to our rescue when we're defending ourselves as honest or attacking others as lying, ideas we rest our cases on, but that, under scrutiny can't support the weight.

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1.     Lying is a single kind of behavior that is readily distinguished from not lying:  It's not that there are no formulas for deciding who's lying but that there are way too many formulas.  Is lying adding, subtracting or replacing known truths?  Can you only lie with words or can gestures or even silences count as lying? Is it lying only when you seek the benefits of altering the truth, or is lying also when you avoid the costs of telling the truth? Is lying only deliberate and conscious, or can one lie unconsciously?  Is it lying when it's not for personal gain?  Is it lying when the person claims not to be aware of any personal gain?  If a person claims to believe he's telling the truth, is it still a lie?  Can you tell a liar by his intention to benefit or only if, in fact he does benefit?  If he benefits but so do others, is he still a liar? So many questions!

2.     Lying is a rare pathology: According to this popular myth, normal people are realists, equipped to see the world truly, clearly and accurately. Only the rare degenerate with a brain or character malfunction is a liar. We talk about not getting the "whole truth," as though one could. We talk about wanting "just the facts" as though there were a limited number that add up conclusively to one definite interpretation of a situation. We talk about getting our egos out of the way so we can squarely face reality, as though one could. In debate, we pretend we have no vested interests, when each of us is more invested in our long-held beliefs than any new alternatives. We talk about people who "aren't reading the situation accurately" as though the situation were to be read like clear, unambiguous instructions, when they can't be.

3.     Lying and being tactful are objectively different: Lying is bad; being tactful is good, but, aside from preference theres' no clear definitive distinction. The difference between, on the one hand lying and deceiving, and on the other, being tactful, diplomatic, or telling white lies is not in the behavior itself but in our subjective response to it.  When we don't like the behavior we call it a lie; when we like the behavior, we call it being tactful. 

4.     If you stand to benefit in anyway from a misrepresentation, it's a lie: By this standard every tactful gesture is a lie, since, when we're being tactful we stand to gain, at least in avoiding guilt and conflict that would arise had we been less tactful.

5.     Lies are distortions of objective truth: When we say, "You lie!" we imply that we know the truth.  More precisely we mean, "I think you lie." When two parties both accuse each other of lying, they can go to third parties to determine the truth, but even in large numbers, there's no definitive objective truth. Large numbers can be deceived. 

6.     It's only lying when it's deliberate:  We tend to employ this criterion for distinguishing lying:  If you can't tell the truth because you don't know it, can't see it, or have a mental handicap that distorts your reality, then you're not a liar, but merely clueless. If this were a valid criterion, what's to stop a liar from simply lying about lying, claiming, "No really, I wasn't lying, I honestly believed I was telling the truth?"  This criterion makes a lie about lying indistinguishable from telling the truth, a problem we deal with a lot, for example when we speculate about whether a political tyrant is crazy like a fox, or just plain crazy.

7.     The more burning the question; the more truthful the answer desired: A lot of what motivates curiosity is skin in the game, a stake in the answer, for example, "I need the truth, and please, oh please, I hope it's good. Why are you dumping me?" Hence the Curiosity Paradox: The more we need to know why, the more we hope it's one thing and not the other. The more time and energy we have invested in trying to find an answer, the more likely we have preference for some answers over others.  This paradox affects everything from science to your get-together with an old friend. If it weren't for the Curiosity Paradox we wouldn't need the Scientific Method.  People would just be able to channel their curiosity into finding out what's true.  And how about that friend who says "I simply want your honest feedback," but in your gut you doubt it, you suspect he's really hoping for positive feedback only.

8.     The truth will set you free: Plenty of truths will not set you free, they'll constrain you, and as if by sheer coincidence those are the truths we're most likely to avoid.  Take, for example any can't-have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too truths:  You can eat all the rich food you like, or you can stay slim; you can't do both. Facing that truth, you're forced to make a choice you'd rather not make.  That truth doesn't set you free; it constrains and disappoints you.  If all truths reliably set us free, only idiots would avoid the truth, and we sure wouldn't need to be told that the truth will set us free, because it would just be obvious. Yes, the truth will set you free from carrying the burden of a lie, but the burden of the lie often feels worth carrying since the truth often would weigh upon us far more.

The other eight lies about lying are here.

And Parts 1 & 2 combined, here.

 

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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