Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!
It has been a great year for headlines about lying. In March, Baltimore Orioles player Rafael Palmeiro denied steroid use in front of Congress, only to test positive weeks later. Martha Stewart served time for lying about insider trading. And a New York Times/ CBS poll this month found that 52 percent of Americans believe that the Bush administration "intentionally" misled the country in making its case for war.
When we think, rightly or wrongly, that public figures are lying, it creates a climate of dishonesty in which all lies seem less objectionable. Should you lie? When is a lie worth the consequences?
David Livingstone Smith, author of Why We Lie, says the roots of deception spring from the heart of life itself--the desire to survive and procreate. We've all seen pictures of insects that evade predators by mimicking a brown twig or green leaf. "The tendency to lie is natural," says Smith. "Any moral system based on the principle that lying is avoidable is unrealistic."
Studies seem to back Smith's views. At the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, students told to appear likable and competent lied three times in 10 minutes on average, often without even noticing. "I didn't expect the level of deception and the casualness," says social psychology Prof. Robert Feldman, an author of the study. "It's such a part of the social fabric, it's not noteworthy." Men lied to misrepresent themselves, while women lied more often to ease conversation and make the other party feel better.
Noble fibs. Were the Amherst women guilty only of harmless white lies? Not to philosopher Immanuel Kant, who believed that no lie is ever acceptable, even if told to save an innocent life. Plato disagreed, promoting the Noble Lie--one told by the leaders of a utopian society to the masses in order to preserve social order. And philosopher Leo Strauss--influential among pro-Iraq war neoconservatives--espoused lying in politics.
Looking for divine intervention? The Ninth Commandment does not read, "Thou shalt not lie"; instead, it states, "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." Some scholars interpret that as an injunction against lies that harm others, not against lies in general.
Most mainstream ethicists today believe a purely altruistic lie told in a crisis--say, when a would-be murderer asks a bystander where his potential victim has gone--is acceptable. Yet this solution can be a slippery slope--down which we lie to an unreasonable boss, to an unjust criminal system, or to a public viewed as unable to grasp the threat of terrorism.
Sissela Bok, ethicist and author of Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, uses this test: "Would I be able to explain this afterwards?"
Consider the benefit you accrue by lying, the people hurt, and the consequences of detection. If your child is sick, and you have no vacation days, is it acceptable to tell your boss that you yourself are sick? If you've put in weeks of unpaid overtime, is it acceptable to take a two-hour lunch on a slow day for Christmas shopping?
Think you know? Then take Boston College psychology Prof. Joseph Tecce's litmus test for lying: "Is what I gain today worth what I might lose tomorrow?" Is your child's health worth harming work relationships? Is Christmas shopping?
One thing is sure: No one likes to be deceived. Even if we ease through life buoyed on a current of soothing half-truths, exaggerations, and the occasional fib, we self-righteously demand honesty of others. Once a lie is detected, trust and credibility are lost. Lies also beget other lies. "If you find out your boss has lied to you, it makes you feel OK to tell lies to your boss," says Feldman, who has documented the phenomenon.
If you seek the truth, perhaps you should spread that instead of lies.
This story appears in the December 26, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.