Click Map for Details

Flag Counter

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Handy Tool of Lying

Who or what makes a lie okay? Conversely, do you always have to tell everybody anything they ask? Can you protect yourself by letting people be misled? What examples come to mind.... (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.530).

When I was an undergraduate I read a small book Science and Human Values by J. Bronowski. The book has three chapters: 1) The Creative Mind; 2) The Habit of Truth; 3) The Sense of Human Dignity. I have to admit I have forgotten most of the book. But the chapter headings, especially that of chapter 2, stand out in my memory. Clearly, the habit of truth is an essential contributor to the progress of humanity in discerning facts and identifying “that which is so, regardless of what we may say about it.” Inevitably, credibility and trust are fatally damaged by the discovery of self-serving and expedient lies. This alone should make us very reluctant to develop a habit of lying.

But it is likewise clear that lying is sometimes justifiable. Like Huck Finn protecting Jim from the hands of the slave hunters, sometimes lying is the only decent thing to do. A great difficulty arises, however. For once we learn that lying can get us out of tight spots, there is a great temptation to rely on the practice habitually. Once we have found that lying is a handy and useful tool, we develop a bias to use it.

So when we lie, it should clearly be an exception and not the rule. A lie must only be told when it confirms a greater truth – as in the greater truth of Huck's friendship and loyalty to Jim contrasted with the slave hunters' evil intent. But even so, we should be aware of the human weakness that so readily can rationalize away any felt moral difficulties. Lying and rationalization are very best friends and in combination easily become addictive.

It is a plain fact that lying is not only verbal, but also behavioral. I can lie in my demeanor and phony body language and facial expressions. I also can lie through indirection and the imposition of an essentially insincere tone. How often, I wonder, has malevolence been cloaked in seeming compassion? There can even be conventions of lying as in the common assumption that resumes habitually stretch the truth and that speeches purportedly given by the speaker are actually ghost written. All of this more sophisticated lying simply suggests that when a parent skewers a six-year-old for a verbal untruth, that parent should humbly consider the complete spectrum of their own behavior.

Print Page