1. Is truth an idea more about our incessant demand for certitude than about the nature of our world?

2. Is lying so extensive and so multi-faceted that dishonesty is inescapably just another attribute of our humanity, say something like the desire to belong?

3. Are there positive dimensions to lying?

I see little purpose in exploring this question until we acknowledge the definitional obscurity of lying and truth.

We get very angry when people lie to us, and we cast ourselves as seekers of something called "truth." We say truth will make us free. We discipline children for lying.

Yet, Mary Poovey's magisterial A History of the Modern Fact should reduce any belief that thee most basic unit of truth, the fact, has evolved in meaning and use amidst a clash of opinions concerning what does and does not qualify for that award.  

A truth would be what?

1. The received wisdom of the current scientific community? For example, by this criterion, the question of whether human decisions have caused potentially cataclysmic climate change is one that can justifiably be placed into a dichotomous ordering system of truth and falsity.

2. The best probability estimates that experts can generate about the nature of our world, using existing understandings of ourselves and our world. This definition of truth would invite belief in many more truths than would be yielded from using the first definition. Lying would be a much more complicated concept as well, than when using the first alternative definition of truth. Probability estimates are embedded in many complicated assumptions that stimulate debate about just how truthful their alleged implications may be.

3. And here I am jumping over many intermediary versions of truth to get to this third one. Our judgments and the decisions that flow from them often rely on a form of truth that is perspectival. For instance, Richard Rorty famously defined truth as "those perceptions we compliment because they have proved useful to us." Others in this tradition of perspectival truth argue that truth is a social construction. We see only in a context of prior belief; those prior beliefs provide the foundation for what we now see as the truth.

The Rashomon Effect is an illustration of this third form of truth at work. In both movie and play forms we experience Rashomon through the eyes of a victim of a crime, the eyes of her fiance, the eyes of a woodsman who saw the alleged rape, and the eyes of the accused, one after the other. The 4 versions are quite different.  The audience is left to wonder "but what really happened?"  Ah, yes, but in whose eyes?

Another powerful illustration of this concept of truth is provided in Sarah Polley's exploratory documentary Stories We Tell. She asks 5 family members to answer questions she has about her family. As you can probably tell from her title, the results are quite revealing in terms of the complexity of truth.

Now to lying. Seth Godin's All Marketers are Liars presents an argument that could be altered only slightly to say that we are all liars and on a regular basis.  Why? Because we have an understandable inclination to sell an attractive version of who we are, what we look like, and what we are selling or pitching. We press our clothes; we brush our hair; we tend to color our narratives with elements that emphasize our merits.  Even self-deprecation can be cleverly used to attract others to us.  Do we feel the self-deprecation such that we are not coloring/lying? Who knows whether in this instance we are shading the truth or being transparently honest/truthful.

Businesses in the United States are presumed to lie all the time. The legal construct of a "business lie" is perfectly legal because the courts hold that what the businessperson said is so outrageous a lie that we all would recognize the falsity of the claim.  When 29 pizza places in NYC say they sell the "world's best pizza", judges see no business or moral problem associated with claims that go far beyond what we typically would tolerate when we ask our children, "which of you are the cookie"?

We lie because lying produces, or at least promises to produce, results we desire. Why then is lying a horrible act? On one important level, lying destroys trust. Once damaged, trust is usually most difficult to repair.  In that most of our relationships lean heavily on the shared bond of trust, transparency tends to trump lying in our thinking. 

But lying could be conceived of as but one more tool used to achieve what may well be good ends. Aristotle: All tools can be misused, even my beloved reason. That lying is horribly destructive at times is therefore not a damning characterization of lying. 

When lying is seen as a disgusting violation of truth, we owe it to ourselves to think about what version of truth we are hereby defending.  Can that version of truth sustain the weight of moral judgment implied by a face awash in anger because a lie has been unearthed? 

Nothing I have said here in any manner suggests the desirability of lying as a virtue ranking right up there with perseverance. Rather, the argument here is that we should more reflectively consider the reflexive intense hostility we feel when we discover a lie.


1. Is it meaningful to distinguish analytically and morally between lying about our natural world and lying in a social context? In other words, is there a moral difference of significance between lying about the extent of the melting of glaciers and lying to your grandparents about how vigorous they look?

2. In that lying is instrumental toward some end, under what conditions would lying be not only tolerable, but morally mandated?

3. Should lies be encouraged when they fulfill positive purposes? The August Scientific American contains an article documenting the absence of evidence that acupuncture has positive health benefits, at all. Yet the Mayo Clinics and Massachusetts General continue to invest resources into acupuncture as curative. An important reason may be the documented placebo effects of  acupuncture therapy.


AuthorM Neil Browne