What Your Favorite Thinkers Say About Lying

Posted on February 29, 2020Comments Off on What Your Favorite Thinkers Say About Lying

Lying is variously defined. One word that maintains a broad consensus in the definitions of lying is “deception”. Other words that usually accompany this are words that are synonymous with “deliberateness”. In essence, lying can be described as a statement that is told with the intention to deceive the hearer(s).  Lying is as old as civilization. It is a recurring theme with history and has always drawn and held the attention of psychology and philosophy. Friedrich Nietzsche, for one, depicted lie as the condition of life. For Leonard Saxe, Professor of psychology at Brandeis University, “Lying has long been a part of everyday life. We couldn’t get through the day without being deceptive.”

There are degrees and types of lying. There are white harmless lies that involve one saying things such as he has eaten when he hasn’t, he is not anxious when he is, he is on his way when he is still in bed, etc. a woman lying about her child’s paternity, a boyfriend lying about his genotype, a doctor telling a patient his disease is mild when in fact it is dangerous, etc. There are lies that fall in between these two in terms of degree and consequence. Whatever the degree, whatever the consequence, lying is a matter of ethics and runs contrary to the dictates of morality.

Emmanuel Kant on lying

Two thinkers who have, directly or otherwise, dealt with the ethical issue of lying are Emmanuel Kant in The Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals and John Stuart Mill’s Unitarianism. For Kant, his advice on the issue of lying is to treat lying as a “conception of pure reason”. That is, lying must be viewed to the degree of its moral force of what he termed “absolute necessity”. In essence, to lie or not to lie is a question of disguising whether the lie “is an action which agrees with duty, is done off duty, or from a selfish view.” Because one can tell the truth not for the sake of telling the truth, but for the reason that telling the truth serves his or her selfish intents.

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Kant would advise thus because he believes that the reason behind telling the truth is as important as the truth. Lying is harmful but telling the truth for the sake of self alone and not for the general good is as bad. He counsels that one must act “as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.” Kant places emphasis on the truth that is not of a narrow benefit. So by not lying so as to gain an advantage, is to Kant a moral failure even worse than lying itself.

John Stuart Mill

For Mill, on the other hand, lying is an action, and to him “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness”. Happiness, he defined as “intended pleasure and the absence of pain”. On this issue, Mill’s advice would be to gauge the end result of the lie and not be led by the noose of seeing only the moral aspect of lying.

Mill would give this advice because Mill does not see truth as an exercise of morality alone. He views truth as a relation of one of the important elements of life which is happiness. When confronted with a situation where a lie is an option, the option to be taken is not about whether to tell this lie or not, it is rather about whether this truth or the absence of it can aid to the attainment of happiness since “happiness is the end and aim of morality”.

Which is the superior argument?

To argue for any of the positions of the above theories is not in itself a total validation of the theory, nor is it a total nullification or disregard of its weaknesses. To argue for any of the positions is to analyze the merits in relation to morality as a whole and in the proportion of its consequences. Something Mill himself pointed out:

The great majority of good actions are intended not for the benefit of the world, but for that of individuals, of which the good of the world is made up; and the thoughts of the most virtuous man need not on these occasions travel beyond the particular persons concerned, except so far as is necessary to assure himself that in benefiting them he is not violating the rights, that is, the legitimate and authorized expectations, of anyone else.

Both Kant and Mill’s theories carry crucial importance, but Mill’s advice is superior. Mill’s advice is important for a few valiant reasons. One, it is a piece of advice that takes to cognizance the inevitability of lying. People tell lies every day; in fact, according to Robert Feldman of the University of Massachusetts, 60 percent of people average three lies in a ten-minute conversation. Most of the time, these lies are not told consciously.

Can lying be a good tool?

According to Narayan, in his seminal short story “Like the Sun”, “Morning till night, the essence of human relationships consisted in tempering with the truth so that it might not shock.” Hence, people tell lies that would not hurt the other person and the human brain becomes wired in such a way that it collaborates with these lies. Since falsehoods as a whole cannot be removed from human relationships, it must serve a good cause which is happiness, Mill advises.

Telling the truth blindly will not serve the cause of happiness. A man who eats his wife’s prepared meal would not champion the cause of happiness if she tells the truth about the taste of the meal. The same goes for compliments. People ask how they appear and hope that they are told the truth. The truth is that they do not expect the truth—they expect to be complimented. One who goes about saying the raw truth as it is is a person of low emotional intelligence who has no claim whatsoever to diplomacy.

The example of Donald Trump’s removal

Besides these small lies, there are times lies need to be told in major issues for the sake of happiness. In April, a man from Oregon, Michael Garland Elliot lay on his sickbed dying. Surrounded by friends and well-wishers, he had few moments to live on earth. His best friend and ex-wife Teresa was the last person to talk to him, on the phone, and she lied to him that Donald Trump has been impeached and removed from office. Mr. Elliot who disapproves of the president died a happy man.

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This is a good example where a serious act of falsehood caused happiness. Mill’s writing in relation to this reads thus: “What is there to decide whether a particular pleasure is worth purchasing at the cost of a particular pain”, in this case, the lie she told “except the feelings and judgment of the experienced”, in this case, Ms. Elliot.

A lie works against the wrong of what Mill tags as “the reverse of happiness” when it is told to directly confront and alleviate pain. Preventing pain is an activity worthy of lying. A man who has lost his job would, if he cares for the health of his hypertensive mother, keep the news away from her, and, in the case that she asks, tell her a lie. Another angle where a lie serves as a guardrail for pain is in governance.

A right-thinking government must as a duty lies to the citizens, from time to time, in order to prevent the panic that telling the truth would cause. They may lie that they have eliminated a notorious criminal or terrorist. As far as they are able to counter the activities of this fellow, the lie will serve to reduce tension among the populace and save them the loss of emotional and political energy managing tension.

Is lying postponing doomsday?

Another argument against Mill’s theory is pointing out that lying in order to protect someone from the pain of the truth does not entirely protect the person but postpones doomsday. This is a good argument but its weakness is its assumption that the person who lies in order to protect one from the shock of the truth is idle. This type of lie is a lie in transit. Lying to your hypertensive mother that you have a job when you just lost your job is not postponing doomsday if you work hard towards getting another job.

Of course, there is no guarantee of getting another job, but the process might be fruitful, you might get help, she might never find out, you might have provided a cushion with the passing of time for the bitter truth. This type of lie doesn’t just postpone the day of reckoning, it provides diverse options for taking charge of the situation.

You are as broke as the people you sleep with

A naysayer might argue that lying to loved ones in order not to hurt their feelings is contrary to tough love and might close the door of improvement of some unflattering habits of the person being lied to. Again, this argument is not true in that it assumes inactivity on the side of the lie teller.

Lying that your friend is well-dressed when he is actually badly dressed will protect him from hurt and still keep him a bad dresser if you let it be. You must go ahead to make corrections despite praising their effort. In that case, they improve without suffering.

Conclusively, lying is an integral part of mankind. Since lying as an act cannot be eradicated, there is a need to look at the merits of lying and question the absoluteness of morality’s disdain for lies. Emmanuel Kant and John Stuart Mills questioned the moral aspect of lying. However, Mill’s argument that lying must be judged in the proportion it served happiness and protected against pain is deemed superior.

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