When promises are not promises
Truth and lies
This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 54 summer 2003
Like the vast majority of people everywhere I have told lies in my life. Nothing too serious – just the small, expedient lies that are so easy to slip into for the sake of convenience, to avoid embarrassment and so on. Yet, on every occasion that I have lied, I have felt somewhat diminished by my conduct. This feeling was with me even as a child; almost visceral.
I now ‘know’ why I ought to feel bad about lying, the arguments are clear to me. For example, it is clear that lying is an especially serious breach of trust – striking at the core of relationships between human beings.
As Jenny Teichman argues, lying is something that takes place within language. Language has not been designed to convey falsehood. If it is to be any use to us, then it must be as a means of communicating truth – at least the truth of what we mean to say. Given that we have no ability to ‘see into the soul’ of another human being and that actions can often be ambiguous in their meaning, we rely, to a considerable extent, on the use of spoken and written language to make clear what we really mean. To lie is to subvert the proper purpose of language.
Perhaps equally important, a lie usually serves as a mark of grave disrespect for the person being lied to. At least in the case of self-serving lies, the decision consciously to deceive is evidence of the fact that another person doesn’t count for enough, in the eyes of the liar, to deserve the truth.
Yet, it is not reasoning of this kind that typically prompted my remorse after telling a lie. Rather, my gut reaction was to be disappointed by my lack of courage. Faced with the need to confront a difficult situation, what did I do? I took the easy way out, I lied. I must admit that the temptation to lie on occasions is still with me. There are times when I am asked difficult questions that trigger the urge to flee – and hide behind a convenient falsehood. I now know how to rise above the temptation and stick to the truth. I now have the courage to face the fear of the potential repercussions. However, I also know that at the most difficult times – when you are in the crucible – the temptation to lie for one’s own sake remains real.
While the self-serving lie has no supporters, there are some who concede the possibility that lying may be justifiable in some circumstances, for example, when it is done for the sake of others. The most usual example cited is in times of war, when a deliberate ‘strategic’ lie may be made in order to deceive an enemy and protect one’s own. In this case, the argument is based, in part, on a rejection of the enemy’s right to know the truth – especially when this truth would be used to help prosecute its attack.
As Jenny Teichman also makes clear in her article, this justification for lying has been rejected by philosophers like Kant. Not only did Kant think that lying was always and absolutely wrong in and of itself – he also observed that in many cases it was questionable that it would even achieve the good being sought.
Even those who accept Kant’s arguments might still feel, at a practical level, that they want the odd ‘noble lie’ to be told – especially if this is done in extreme circumstances (such as war) where the public interest is at stake. It is at this point that the discussion of truth in politics becomes most challenging. It is easy to condemn politicians who bend or break the truth.
However, how should we react when we, as citizens, benefit from the lie? If we are honest with ourselves – do we claim the luxury of condemning lies and liars without having, ourselves, the courage to face the truth and its consequences? What room do we really give to politicians to be consistently honest when we ridicule them as being ‘foolish’ whenever their candour exposes genuine uncertainty or reveals that they too are confused by the complexity of the world they face?
I think that it is all too easy to condemn when not saddled with the demands of power and responsibility. Yet, to recognise that there are times when politicians are ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t’ should not be seen as condoning habitual and easy lying of any sort. The trouble is that far too many people in public life are drawn to lie for personal or party-political benefit – without a skerrick of public good hanging in the balance. Lies of this sort may be understandable; however, they are indefensible.
Apart form anything else, regard for the truth becomes so cheapened in these circumstances as to lead to a general state of cynicism about anything a politician might say. That kind of cynicism ultimately undermines the foundation of any democracy based on the consent of the governed. What kind of consent is really possible when promises are not promises and the ‘truth’ nothing more than a plausible falsehood?
Ultimately, there is one last concern. Reaching for a convenient lie can become habitual – an apparently easy escape from the harsh glare of personal and public accountability. The risk is that the habitual use of lies to escape difficult times eventually leads to a deadening of any sense that lying might be a serious wrong.
Yet, as I know from my own experience, it is difficult to silence a conscience completely. When all of the rationalisation and evasion is over, we still need to face ourselves. Perhaps this is why those caught lying react so aggressively. Liars probably find it hard enough living with themselves without having to share their guilt with the rest of the world.