Arguably, there is no more rudimentary experience in a person’s life than lying or being on receiving end of lies. The amount of art that investigates the issue through the prism of fiction (which potentially makes this exploration less genuine) is glaring. Among the greatest liars, there is an array of a cult fictional characters – Gatsby, Mr. Darcy, and Mephistopheles. Moreover, in my estimation, lying may be considered fine art. With the number of researchers determined to expose a liar at any price, it may seem even tempting to gain mastery in this craft. Nevertheless, not possible beauty but the morality of deception interests certain philosophers – one of them is Sam Harris, author of the book that takes its readers on an exploration of harms of lies.
A large number of people would tell that being untruthful is morally unacceptable behavior. This standpoint is not without ground – theology, and ethics well established this opinion in their long-standing heritage (Meibauer 2018). Sam Harris in Lying follows classical tradition and explains not only the ethical dubiousness of lying but also its familiar repercussions (Harris 2013). Consequently, all kinds of lying are generally condemned as this approach fails to see its potential day-to-day practical value. Nonetheless, a more complex and systematic approach to lying is emerging in today’s society. Lying may be seen as a mental ability of a human being without inherent vice, whereas its usage for bad or good could push it to one or another side of the morality spectrum.
The word “lying” bears ethical evaluation and emotional charge that may push one to hasty conclusions and disregard a more in-depth exploration of this notion. The effect of lying should be evaluated, taking into consideration a number of factors, such as an individual’s motivation or goals and situational context (Meibauer 2018). The acceptability of lying, partially, depends on the enumerated factors and may vary significantly. While some acts of lying may be prohibited by law and be legally punishable, others are tolerated and even deemed necessary in the right circumstances – prosocial lies belong to this type (Lupoli et al. 2017). An example of a prosocial lie would be deceiving one’s parent to protect a sibling and blaming a terrible mess on an uncontrollable dog. A variation of this story has happened to me and potentially to a large percentage of humankind, making a social lie a trait of the human condition.
Prosocial or white lies may be found in almost all spheres of societal life, and in some of them, they are taken for granted, as in politics. Furthermore, it seems that a lying politician has become a stereotype for this professional path. For instance, an ability to give a particular flavor to an interpretation of an event in order to turn it to one’s benefit may not already be considered as a lie but as mastery in politics. Omitting detail, favoring a flattering description over an undervaluing one, and intentionally misinterpreting – from my standpoint, these are tools not of a liar, but an inspiring social climber. To observe a lie or an embellished truth, the only thing a person needs to do is to switch on a TV or ask someone how they are doing. Social lies may be so profoundly incorporated in the structure of our society that answering honestly to a simple question can be considered a bad form.
Viewing lying as merely bad or good, as I see it, may be a little simplistic. Moreover, the philosophy of utilitarianism suggests that lying if it can bring more good than telling the truth is morally superior. Michaelson and Stokke (2018) argue that “it is implied that lying is morally right if it is necessary in order to bring about much better (much less bad) consequences that can be achieved by not lying” (146). In my opinion, the moral value of lying fluctuates depending on the person who benefits from the act. For instance, if the action is advantageous to the performer, then it may be considered morally reprehensible. Still, if it is done to the benefit or to avoid harming a third party, it is perceived differently. In such a way, lying to help another is, in a way, altruistic: liar accepts the perceived corruptive effect of deception for the sake of another human being. I believe that in this case, as in many others, it is the intention that matters. For an altruistic individual with an aim to help, lying becomes just a tool devoid of inherent immorality.
Philosophical, ethical, and theological successful attempts to categorize lying as a sinful or deplorable act reach back the origins of these disciplines. Sam Harris in Lying supports this immemorial tradition to condemn any untruth, enumerating its potential dangers and moral backlash. The duality of lying in a person’s life is contained in the factor that lie is an intrinsic part of it, and at the same time, it is opposed by the society of liars. It is an act for which children are punished and from which adults benefit.
Harris, Sam. Lying. Four Elephants Press, 2013.
Lupoli, Matthew J., Lily Jampol, Christopher Oveis. “Lying Because We Care: Compassion Increases Prosocial Lying”. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, vol. 146, no. 7, 2017, pp. 1026–1042.
Meibauer, Jörg, editor. The Oxford Handbook of Lying. OUP Oxford, 2018.
Michaelson, Eliot, Andreas Stokke. Lying: Language, Knowledge, Ethics, and Politics. Oxford University Press, 2018.