Wednesday, May 25, 2011

To Lie is Human?

Is lying always wrong? If not, when is it right? Julian Baggini considers these questions—and many others—in his review of Ian Leslie's new book Born Liars: Why We Can’t Live Without Deceit, not yet available, it seems, in the United States.

Baggini begins his exploration by examining the simple maxim "always tell the truth," which we are told as children to obey. We soon discover, however, that telling the truth can be dangerous and that telling the "whole truth" is almost always impossible.  Baggini explains how defining "the truth" is a complex epistemological problem:
The problem with telling “the truth” starts with the definite article, because there is always more than one way to give a true account or description. If you and I were to each describe the view of Lake Buttermere, for example, our accounts might be different but both contain nothing but true statements. You might coldly describe the topography and list the vegetation while I might paint more of a verbal picture. That is not to say there is more than one truth in some hand-washing, relativistic sense. If you were to start talking about the cluster of high-rise apartment blocks on the southern shore, you wouldn’t be describing “what’s true for you,” you’d be lying or hallucinating.

So while it is not possible to give “the truth” about Lake Buttermere, it is possible to offer any number of accounts that only contain true statements. To do that, however, is not enough to achieve what people want from truth. It is rather a prescription for what we might call “estate agent truth.” The art of describing a home for sale or let is only to say true things, while leaving out the crucial additional information that would put the truth in its ugly context. In other words, no “false statement made with the intention to deceive”—St Augustine’s still unbeatable definition of a lie—but plenty of economy with the truth.
Baggini goes on to categorize two ways of thinking about the truth: moral and legalistic. To speak truthfully in a legalistic sense is to say nothing that is a (known) lie. When Bill Clinton said, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," he was, in a legalistic sense, telling the truth. He felt no burden to reveal anything more. On the other hand, to speak truthfully in a moral sense requires us to speak honestly, sincerely, and accurately. Moral truthfulness, Baggini writes, borrowing the ideas of the philosopher Bernard Williams, "requires more than just true things being said, while acknowledging that there really is no such thing as 'the whole truth' anyway."

Baggini then goes on to explore the question: Does the truth always trump other virtues? He considers the merits of several arguments against the contention that truth telling—in the moral sense—is the greatest virtue:

Feelings. We may choose not to tell people how we feel about something in order to spare their feelings. "Little white lies" allow us to get along well with others, right? Baggini argues that we must tread carefully when adopting this rationale. He writes, "There is a risk of second guessing what is best for people or what we think they are able to deal with. Normally, it is better to allow people to make up their own minds on the basis of facts. Withholding truth for someone’s own benefit is sometimes justified but often it simply diminishes their autonomy. This is what Kant got right when he claimed that lying violates the dignity of man."

Personal Dignity and Privacy. We may choose to withhold information in order to protect our dignity. Arguably, this may have been what Clinton sought when he delivered his aforementioned statement about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. On this account, Baggini asks, "If what you did is nobody else’s business, aren’t you entitled to lie to preserve your privacy?"

Hysteria. We often wish that our political leaders would speak simply and tell us the truth. We often feel that politicians are lying to us because, in so many cases, we find out that they are. Baggini suggests, however, that we may not appreciate the value of politicians limiting their expression. "Would it really be wise for a prime minister to announce, when a crisis breaks, that no one really knows what’s going on yet or has a clue what to do next?" he asks. "Leadership in a crisis may require projecting more calm and control than one really has behind closed doors. More honesty in politics would certainly be a good thing; complete honesty most probably disastrous."

Greater Good. We need not say what we truly believe so long as we are working toward the establishment of truth in the long run. Sociologist Steve Fuller, Baggini notes, contends that intellectuals must, at times, conceal their deepest convictions in order to further debate. Fuller, who has argued that scientists should not reject intelligent design theory out of hand, plays the devil's advocate. He withholds the truth in order to require his colleagues to think critically about evolution.

Baggini does not dismiss these four arguments against the truth. But, he argues, telling the truth does matter. "You could concoct a hypothetical situation in which we had to choose between lying or creating misery for all humankind," he writes, "but until and unless we ever come against such scenarios, most of us value truth, even to the detriment of some happiness. That is why we should develop the habit of telling truth, and distaste for lies. Truth should be the default; lying an exception that requires a special justification."

Still, Baggini concludes the article by arguing that "lying is deeply connected to what makes us human," an argument Leslie makes in Born Liars. Baggini writes:
We may not be the only creatures who have a “theory of mind”— the ability to see the world from the point of view of others—but we are certainly the species in which that capacity is most developed. It is precisely because of this that the possibility of lying emerges. We can lie only because we understand that others can be made to see the world other than as we know it to be.
So perhaps, as the title of Leslie's book suggestions, we are born liars—at least in some sense of the word.

1 comment:

  1. In a human society where we all try to get along, we have to lie to each other about many things. We naturally do that to be charitable to others with whom we disagree, and to find common ground for getting along with regard to common goals. However - - - I personally would much prefer a society where we tell fewer such lies (i.e., a truth society), and learn to live with real differences among people. I think we've all become way to sensitive...