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Moral Moments

The Truth about Lying

A new column by Joel Marks.

“Tomorrow is going to be a beautiful day,” you say to your child, who is afraid the planned family picnic will be rained out. But you believe the rain that has been falling all week will continue tomorrow. You are lying in order to put off your child’s disappointment for one more day.

But the next day turns out to be beautiful after all. So you told the truth. And yet you lied.

Is it possible to utter a falsehood and yet not lie? Suppose I say to you, “The Earth is flat.” This statement is false. But I am not lying. I know it’s false, and I know you know it’s false. I have only uttered it in order to make my point: It is possible to utter a falsehood and yet not lie.

In fact, lying has nothing to do with truth and falsity. It is simply not true that the definition of lying is the stating of a falsehood. Lying seems instead to be a relation between a belief and an intention. If you utter what you believe to be false (regardless of whether it is false) for the purpose of inducing another to believe that it is true, you have lied.

What about the converse situation: uttering what you believe to be true for the purpose of inducing another to believe that it is false? In the movie True Lies Arnold Schwarzenegger portrays a U.S. secret agent who hides his occupation even from his wife. One day when Arnold’s wife asks him what he did at work that day, he casually replies, “I saved the free world” (or something like that). As it turns out, he had done just that. But his intent in saying it was to disarm his wife’s suspicions, for presumably she would consider his reply to be ludicrous. Was he lying to his wife? Was this a true lie?

I think not. For suppose Arnold’s wife confronted him when she learned the truth (i.e., that what he has been telling her is true). If she accuses him thus – “You lied to me!” – his retort that, “No, I didn’t; I told you the truth!” would be true, wouldn’t it? And more to the point: unlike in the picnic example, he had even believed it to be true when he uttered it.

However, his retort would also seem rather lame. Although speaking the literal truth, Arnold is not speaking in earnest. Rather he is being disingenuous and once again trying to manipulate his wife’s beliefs by a subtle, verbal misrepresentation of his intention. Now he wants to convince her that he did not deceive her, by insisting that he did not lie to her, or at least that he did nothing wrong, because he did not lie to her.

But deceiving is a broader category than lying, and the latter is wrong (when it is wrong), I maintain, precisely when it is a form of the former. This is important to recognize because it implies that any comparable act of deception, lie or not, is just as wrong.

In the movie example, ‘Arnold’ may have had good reason to deceive his wife. “Loose lips sink ships,” and all of that. So I am not saying that deception is always wrong. But I believe it is crucial to clarify that when lying is wrong, it is almost always so because it is a form of deception, and not the other way around, namely, that deception is wrong only when it takes the form of lying.

The latter view leaves open a huge loophole large enough to let pass, for example, political life, advertising, and sales; for do not all of these expend great gobs of time, money, and effort to avoid lying in the perpetration of deceptions? It may be, therefore, that entire institutions and industries are founded upon a conceptual misunderstanding of ethics.

No doubt their ‘justification’ is to sidestep legal liability; for the law requires highly objective and visible standards, and lying breaks the law more clearly than do the infinite subtleties of deception. Hence also we can understand why U.S. President Clinton chose to engage in various deceptions to dodge a perjury charge regarding his relations with Monica Lewinsky.

But from an ethical standpoint, all of that cleverness is a complete waste of time.

I would speculate that the popular equation between lying and speaking falsely is a holdover from childhood, or from child rearing. A very young person presumably cannot grasp subtle conceptual distinctions. Thus, we counsel the child to “Always speak the truth.” Of course taken literally this is an impossible demand, even of a knowledgeable adult, for humans are always liable to error. But it is good enough to start the child on the road to honesty and integrity.

The problem is that, when the child reaches an age where subtler distinctions are possible, many, perhaps most parents do not revise the advice. Soon enough the child is, indeed, ready to practice law. “You lied to us! Your little brother told us you did break the vase.” “No I didn’t lie! I said I didn’t break it today. That was the truth!” The child is, I think, literally correct. But he did intend to deceive, and that, to my way of thinking, is what carries the moral weight. I couldn’t care less whether an explicit lie has been told.

The child is not evil, but mainly confused. New mental possibilities are being discovered and experimented with. But if the parents (or teachers or church, etc.) do not have the conceptual wherewithal to counter this kind of argument and thereby intervene on behalf of a subtler morality suited to a more sophisticated mind, a deceiving child may very well go on to become an adult who plays fast and loose with the truth, often to the long-term detriment of self and society.

Where does the truth lie? Better to ask: where does it deceive?

© Joel Marks 2000

Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A. The vase example was suggested by Scott Randall, one of his students.

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