Sunday, January 12, 2003

Truth Telling And The Semantics Of Lying

Truth-telling is much
murkier than many people would like to

Last week I discussed lying on résumés and
heard a lot of comments from people who were moral
absolutists about lying. They would never, they said,
lie about anything. I have decided to have a very large
poker game and invite them all. I will supply
refreshments; they need only bring lots of

"Well, that's different," they'd say.
"Bluffing is part of the game." It's true, but it is
only one area in which we not only expect, but respect,
the ability to lie to other people. We lie in other
ways. Every time we tell a joke, we create a situation
that most likely never happened. When we get someone to
a surprise party on a subterfuge, we lie. All of these
"lies" are acceptable.

And then there's the
clincher. What happens when your neighbor, being chased
by a homicidal maniac, comes and hides in your cellar?
If the maniac comes to the door demanding to know if
your neighbor is there, do you point out the hiding spot
behind the furnace -- or do you lie?

that's different," say the absolutists. And they can
come up with numerous rationalizations about why this is

The problem with absolutes, of course, is
that they are so -- well -- absolute. Absoluteness is
binary -- something either is or it isn't. Once you
introduce an exception, any exception -- whether it's
jokes, poker, or saving your neighbor's life -- and no
matter how well it's rationalized, you can no longer
claim an absolute position about lying.

This is
what makes the whole area of truth-telling much murkier
than many people would like to think it

Perhaps what we need to be looking at is
honesty, rather than whether we would ever say something
that isn't entirely the truth. When we play poker, I
expect you to be bluffing. And when you do, you're not
being dishonest with me, even though you're not
necessarily telling me the truth.

The same goes
for jokes, surprise parties, and all those other
instances where minor falsehoods smooth the way for
social interaction. When casual acquaintances ask "How
are you?" they are not looking for a recitation of your
aches and pains, your marital stress, and your conflicts
with your neighbors. They want you to say "Fine," even
if you aren't. If you don't, they're going to start
crossing the street when they see you

None of those impedes an honest
relationship between us. On the other hand, there are
instances where I could refrain from lying -- satisfying
the most scrupulous demands of the moral absolutists --
and yet purposely deceive you.

Suppose I'm
feeling lazy one day. I drive to the office and park my
car in the CEO's spot. Just before noon, I get a call
from the CEO's secretary saying I've been summoned. On
my way out, I toss my keys to a co-worker and tell him
to hurry down and move my car to the open parking lot.
When I arrive in his office five minutes later, the CEO
asks, "Is that your car parked in my spot?" I truthfully
can answer "No." Had he said "was" instead of "is," I
would have a different problem. So much depends on the
use of the word "is."

The bottom line is that any
of us can lie without deceiving and deceive without
actually. Which is more important?

[Courtesy of Rich McLarty]


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