Not Exactly a Lie, But...

Is it better to be evasive than to tell an outright lie?

Posted Jan 13, 2017

Ryan McGuire/Gratisography
Source: Ryan McGuire/Gratisography

Have you ever told a lie?  It can be hard to admit it, even to ourselves, but surely all of us have given into the temptation at least occasionally: you’re doing well if you can keep it occasional, and keep it away from the things that really matter in life. 

Lying carries a serious moral stigma, outside of politics at least.  An accusation of lying can be a very big deal, and it’s highly distressing when our loved ones lie to us.  Most of us will go to some lengths to avoid lying, whether that involves owning up to the embarrassing truth, or just trying to avoid those tricky questions. 

But when we do get cornered by a tricky question, and we can’t face confessing the truth, we often look for a middle way between lying and owning up: we try to mislead, but without getting trapped into a direct lie.  A teenager might tell her parents she’s hanging out with her best friend that evening, omitting to mention that she’ll also be hanging out with 50 other kids at a party.  She’s not lying – the best friend will be there – but she’s misleading by being ‘economical with the truth’. 

More sympathetically, an adult daughter might tell her elderly mother that her brother was not drinking alcohol ‘the last time I saw him’, even though she knows he’s fallen back into alcohol abuse since the last time they saw each other.  The daughter is trying to protect her mother from a painful truth, but she prefers to do so by misleading her, rather than simply lying and saying ‘he’s not drinking’. 

But why do we put such ethical weight on the distinct between merely misleading and actually lying? The consequences seem the same either way: we intentionally deceive the person we’re talking to, for good reasons or for bad.  How can it make a difference what form of words we use?

Philosopher Jenny Saul, of the University of Sheffield, explores this conundrum in her fascinating book Lying, Misleading and What is Said, taking in examples ranging from Bill Clinton’s notorious testimony about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, to the dilemma faced by professors writing letters of recommendation for less-than-talented students. 

Professor Saul argues that, ultimately, there is no fundamental ethical difference between misleading and outright lying.  Indeed, the decision to deceive without lying can sometimes reveal people to be even sneakier than straightforward liars: it shows a self-regarding concern for deniability, rather than a concern to treat others with respect. 

But if we think about longer-term trustworthiness, rather than just what we can get away with in the moment, we can appreciate that there are more admirable reasons for trying to avoid a direct lie.  The additional effort which is required to avoid a direct lie, even where we know we’re deceiving others, can be a valuable self-discipline, a way of avoiding the formation of bad habits.  None of us is perfectly trustworthy, but in attempting to get closer to that ideal, trying to resist the temptation of an outright lie is a step in the right direction. 

And for parents of teenagers: better get working on your cross-examination skills!

References

Saul, Jennifer M. (2012): Lying, Misleading and What is Said (Oxford University Press).

Saul, Jennifer M.: 'Just Go Ahead and Lie!' presentation slides.