Are Lies Ever White?

For a long time I’ve been puzzled by the idea of lying. Various moral philosophies have fairly clear edicts on the matter (i.e. deceit = bad) and this seems to be the prevailing opinion. Sure, there are those who see absolutely no problem with lying, but they’re generally either fictional, psychopaths, or both.

But at the same time, this suggests that most people are hypocrites, in that they decry lying with one hand, and indulge in it with the other, justifying things as “social niceties” or “little white lies” (textbook denial-by-diminishing). But I tend to agree: there are plenty of times that to tell the truth would be impolite, unwise, in some way less good than not doing so.

So what’s the deal? Are we all filthy liars, or is lying not as bad as it’s portrayed?

Actually, I think there’s something else involved (from my perspective at least). Part of my confusion has been due to my perception of what a “lie” is, which has been influenced more than the average by “Knights and Knaves” logic puzzles (e.g. the two doors, two guards scene in the film Labyrinth).

The effect being that I had a very black-and-white view of lying: any false statement is a lie. More recently, harkening back to my thoughts on morality, I’ve realised that this neglects the “liar”‘s intentions. Do they realise what they’re saying is false? Or are they mistaken? Misinformed? Deluded? Why are they making a false statement?

Another distinction that should be made is between lying by commission (stating something false) and lying by omission (leaving out something true). It took me a while to come to grips with the idea that someone saying “How are you?” is just making conversation, and you don’t need to feel uncomfortable about saying that you’re fine even though you’re actually traumatised over yesterday’s episode of Days Of Our Lives. There’s nothing wrong with keeping private things private.

Another situation that seems, at face value, to be lying is the whole area of fiction: literature, theatre, comedy, etc. Knowingly asserting things that are not true, but without malice. Indeed, there is an implicit assumption that both parties know the story is false. Similarly in various types of games, deliberate deceit is a component (e.g. bluffing at poker, dummy passes in football), but it’s under specific conditions.

I don’t want to suggest by this that lying is a good thing; merely clarify the definition. Much of the function of society depends on there being a level of trust between people. What got me (back) onto this topic was an episode of the tv show Perception (another in the “abrasive, mentally-ill, but brilliant layman* helps solve crimes” genre – this time with a schizophrenic neuroscience professor) which mentioned that we react to lies with the same part of our brains that process pain: discovering you are being deceived literally feels uncomfortable. I also vaguely recollect reading (somewhere) that when we hear a statement, our brain processes it as though it were true (which I suspect is why rumours can hurt so much), and we have to actively refute it (literally have second thoughts about it).

To conclude with a metaphor (because I like metaphors**): tigers are dangerous, but we shouldn’t treat zebras the same way just because they’re stripey.

* Because they’re almost always men (which is a whole other kettle of worms).

** I’m rather fond of footnotes, too.