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Written by Stephen Rainey.


I’ve been thinking, lately, about lying. Not doing it, just puzzling over what it means.

We all know lying can be morally wrong. But sometimes it can also be a kindness, when the truth might serve no good. Within the constraints of a job, lying might be a professional obligation, morals aside. So I was thinking about the word, ‘lying’, and how maybe it labels a variety of acts that may have different moral implications.

There are some clear-cut cases of wrong that we can spot easily. If we saw a bully shoving someone around, we’d know straight away that was bad. Physically intervening on another person for sadistic kicks, and without their cooperation, is plainly egregious. But the inclusion of sadism and cooperation in the description points to other dimensions of physical intervention that aren’t clearly so bad.

Physically constraining one person for the protection of others involves intervention without cooperation, but neither is there sadism. There can also be cases of sadism with cooperation, and cooperation without sadism, that exemplify physical intervention as a mixed bag.

Can we extend this physical example to lying, and discover some parallels that might clarify the variety of practices glossed in the single word?

Physically shoving someone around can stand as a decent analogy for lying as rationally shoving someone around. If I tell you lies in order to get something I want, it’s as good as any physically coercive act, like threats of violence or strong arming. The effect is rationally coercive in that I make you reason in ways you might not have, were all the facts on the table.

Let’s imagine I tell you about an amazing investment opportunity. You give me €100 and I will work my magic, returning €200 to you next month. Maybe you think about what you could do with the €200, and start making plans for next month. Maybe you invite your friends on a big night out. Maybe you plan to give it away, and begin to imagine the good you’ll be able to do.

I’m lying to you about this, of course. I’m just going to take your money and spend it on cake and whiskey for myself. In four weeks’ time, when I’m nowhere to be found, you realise my lie had led you to a train of thought that had no station. You’re aggrieved, and also have the inconvenience of having to cancel plans. The egregious part of the lie comes in having given you false reasons to work with.

But then again, this same rational shoving around can serve good ends. The sadism, or at least indifference, of my pilfering your money isn’t an inherent part of all economising with the truth. Plato writes about protecting a friend by lying to them, if they’ve become enraged and are looking for a weapon they’ve previously given to you. Withholding the truth about having the weapon will protect them from acting in a rage-induced and harmful way.

Lying protects the character of a friend, as well as the safety of their rage’s object. Plato also proposes the ‘Noble lie’, which is untruth told in order to provide a basis for greater things. Politically, this might amount to projecting a national myth aimed at uniting a people. The Noble lie is a kind of rational shoving aiming to land the shoved in a particular place, for some grander purpose. We’re likely familiar with this kind of lying, and the pitfalls when it’s done particularly badly.

And there are far less dramatic versions of lying without recourse to fraud, weapons, and national mythos. Classic lies include, surprise parties, and soothing words in the face of rough circumstances. ‘Everything will work out for the best’, can’t really be said truthfully, only in hope. This might reveal what the single word ‘lie’ conceals. The idea of reassurance isn’t a prediction about the future, but an act in the present of solidarity, or sympathy, or defiance, or something else. Not revealing the secret of an upcoming party isn’t about concealing truth, but ensuring the integrity of a future good (like not opening the oven door before the cake has finished rising). This is a kind of noble lie in a sense far more predictable than the weaving of national myths.

Lying can amount to rationally pushing someone around. But it can also be protective of another, edifying, or the groundwork for delayed gratification. It depends on what act the lie conveys. It is morally problematic when it’s done without regard for the good of the lied-to. Without good reason to mislead, or with narrow and self-serving reasons, the act is mean.

If there’s an epilogue here it might be about the consequences of lying on liars. Once I’ve had your €100, I’m unlikely to get another chance at your cash. You’ll be wise to me. Similarly, one can only organise so many surprise parties before expectations grow. Even noble lies leave the liar less able to lie, as the lied-to grow more savvy, or maybe tired of the pretence. Liars diminish their standing in some way even if all that comes from their lies is good. For those whose lies are egregious, they will be seen as mean and worth ignoring.

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