On Lying

Charles-PonziI know a young person who, like a lot of people, has learned from experience with his parents and at school that lying, frequently, routinely, works for him. It helps him to lead the kind of life he would like to lead, spend more of his time engaged in activities he enjoys and less time engaged in activities he does not enjoy.

It could be that this person is mistaken; over the long run greater honesty might offer more opportunities for pleasure and for avoiding pain or inconvenience. It could be that honesty is its own reward, and this reward is greater, more pleasureful on some level, than the more superficial entertainments that the lying is making such room for. It could be that the person’s current approach is risky; it only works so well because he does not have a reputation for dishonesty, and should he gain such a reputation, his life will become unpleasant, and he will come to regret the habit of dishonesty he now has. It could be, too, that the person has a poor sense of himself; he thinks he is enjoying himself and that his system is working, when it is not; he is mistaking for true pleasure temporary euphorias—to include the euphoria of getting away with something and the related euphoria of being able to fool other people, authority figures included.

It is certain, however, that, for the moment at least, habitual lying is an integral element in this person’s idea of the good, of the right way to live. I write this, first and foremost, to make a point about the good. Echoing Existentialist arguments, we can say that the current example shows how—even though we cannot know what the right way to live should be in some absolute sense, and even if we do not spend much or any time reflecting on the good or on how we think it best to behave—by our actions, however unconsciously or, say, genetically motivated, we are routinely and continuously defining what the good is for ourselves. This is as true for compulsive essay writers as it is for habitual liars.

WashingtonPost-NixonDeniesRoleInCoverUpOf course we might urge on habitual liars, compulsive essay writers, and many another that they stop and think, explore what the sources or drivers of their behavior may be, explore whether in the short run they are indeed enjoying the good feelings that they think they are enjoying and whether such feelings are likely to last. They might reflect, too, on whether they would like to live in a world in which many or most people acted as they did, or if they are in a sense “free riders”: their approach works because many other people have different approaches. Would the liar’s system work so well, or at all, among people who presumed that most everyone around them was lying? To what extent does a life of the mind, or of word-processing intellectual-sounding sentences, depend on ancestors or fellow citizens who have been or are now at least equally devoted to thievery (i.e. business) or to the treacheries of diplomacy, law and war?

Again from an Existentialist perspective, or from a Freudian one, it can be argued that those who stop and think, who get to know better the sources, meanings and consequences of their behaviors, may attain a degree of freedom that others do not have. Should there be no free will, this freedom would be that of a marionette who can glimpse the strings and fingers of the puppeteers and can therefore gain some partial understandings of what is happening to her and how. If there should be free will, then a greater level of understanding allows us to manipulate the strings ourselves and to have at least some percentage of our manipulations lead to consequences that we have well estimated and evaluated in advance.

I would note, too, that the fact that “my” particular right way of life may only be right if others are behaving quite differently—this does not make “my,” or any other, given comportment, necessarily wrong. It may be that a world in which people have quite various, even conflicting ideas as to the right way to live is a “better” (more pleasureful? more sustainable? more fascinating?) world than one in which everyone seeks to behave as he thinks everyone else, too, should behave. (We are here approaching a discussion of the limitations of the Golden Rule and of Kant’s categorical imperative.)

Trojan Horse 2Finally, I note that our behaviors, and thus the assertions they are making about the right way to live, are always taking place in specific contexts—e.g. in the context of our specific family, school, society, economy, climate, historical period. As regards lying, it may well be that on some deep level the human propensity to lie, or to tell the truth, has not changed greatly in recent decades, centuries or millennia. On the basis of my own personal experience, I do have the sense, however, that in the past decade or so the prevalence of what I will call superficial, every day, every hour, lying seems to have grown exponentially. Businesses, governments and individuals have all found it easier to tell a false story than a true one. Among the routine examples, there is the message offered to those who call for customer service: “We are experiencing unusually high call volumes.” This is a substitute for an honest statement which would be something like: “We do not wish to hire enough customer-service staff so as to be able to answer all your calls promptly.” Similarly, nowadays people who are not going to come to a meeting or party but rarely say so directly. The default is any one of a myriad of little lies, such as “I am still hoping to be at your reception, but I just wanted to let you know that first I need to go home and walk the dog.”

It might be said that statements such as this are becoming increasingly honest because increasingly we know to interpret them. “First I need to go home and walk the dog” may once have been (and may still be) a statement involving a canine, but now it is also one of the several ways we have of saying “I’m not going to come to the reception.” And yet there remains a sense in which the putative dog-walker is not being honest.

There are of course the many, higher-profile lies by prominent politicians, government and business leaders, and their representatives. The FBI’s COINTELPRO activities, the Nixon Administration and Watergate, Colin Powell and Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction—we are hardly scratching the surface here and ignoring countless examples from the business world which adds, on top of more basic forms of lying, derivatives such as tax fraud, insider trading and money laundering. In a celebrity profile of a venture-capital-fund manager (New-Age huckster?), I read that such companies keep their returns hidden (a.k.a., “lack of visible performance data”) and routinely overstate their returns, in order to attract investment and entrepreneurs. And thus, among other things, is disguised the apparent fact that from 1997 to 2012 such funds, as a whole, returned less money to their investors than the investors had invested.

ClintonsWilliam and Hillary Clinton seem to have adopted an approach quite like the “young person” with whom I began this piece. They seem to have found that they can earn a good deal of money and gain social status and a, likely superficial, kind of power by lying routinely, either through not admitting what they have been doing or by making false statements about their behavior. Given their prominence, the Clintons deserve to be singled out for their behavior, but it seems more the rule than the exception in this day and age.

With all this now in mind, we may wish to take a different view of our young person’s lying. It may not be so much a sly behavior as a form of conformism. Bombarded by the smaller or larger lies of parents, teachers and classmates, he has adopted his approach as the norm of his age. To not lie—to say, for example, “I’m sorry, but I’ve decided that your reception is not a high priority”—would not only sound unfriendly; it would make you seem like an oddball, for speaking so directly, “tactlessly.” People of greater refinement or with better manners know how to lie, and routinely. Along with hello, throw in a “What a beautiful new dress!” Or haircut or glasses or . . . It doesn’t really matter what you say because the truth is not your concern; you want the other person to feel pleased (and perhaps disarmed), or confused about your true feelings, thoughts, behaviors.

It may also be the case that a habitual liar is more prepared than an honest person to recognize and work with other people’s lies, and this may be yet another way in which habitual lying helps him, or her, get what he or she wants. I routinely get myself into trouble because I start with the assumption that other people are speaking truthfully. They may, as a result, be amused or flabbergasted by my naiveté, but the larger problem is that our interactions become tangled. I respond earnestly to statements that were not meant to be taken so seriously, and then my interlocutors struggle to reply with some equivalent level of earnestness, however feigned, and despite the fact that earnestness is not normally part of their repertoire.

tobacco-chief-says-cigarettes-arent-addictiveIn Mark Crispin Miller’s Boxed In, a collection of essays about television shows and advertisements, politics and the movies, there is a suggestion that people who do not watch television or who are not conversant with the current shows are like tourists; tourists in their own cultures. This idea has stuck in my mind particularly because I think it applies much more generally. I am also a tourist in my own culture insofar as I have no cellphone, Twitter, Netflix or Hulu account, or because I forswear GPS and other such gadgets (which I see as substitutes for using my mind). And I am a tourist insofar as I presume that most people are honest or have much interest in honesty or give any thought to what honesty might involve.

I may be rather alone in not having a cellphone, GPS or Netflix, but my sense is that, even if we are a minority, there are rather more of us who continue, anachronistically, to consider honesty a relevant value, who continue to think that people might be divided, significantly, into the honest and the dishonest. What I am proposing here is that this may no longer be the case, and thus that our young person, having bent with or been bent by our times, is also in greater harmony with them.

The plasticity, or malleability, of human beings may be among our most impressive qualities. It is also one of our more frightening qualities. We can be led by circumstances and “leaders” to decide that it makes sense to shoot and gas millions of our neighbors or to see what happens to mice when we grow tumors in them and inject them with our latest concoctions. We can be led to decide that our lives are better if we spend a goodly portion of them driving around in humongous cars complete with television sets.

Colin Powell with vialIn the midst of all this, hoping against hope, some of us, perhaps many of us, cling to the possibility that there are values—an overarching good—that transcends or exists independently of our circumstances and our responses to them. We may be able to appreciate the truth in the Existentialist claim that our actions routinely and continuously define some good for ourselves and contribute to how our society defines it, in an ever-evolving fashion. And yet, again, like Socrates, Plato and many another before us, we hold out for the existence of another, greater good against which our more pedestrian, unreflective goods must be compared. And we hold out even if and when we recognize that we cannot know what this greater good is, and even if and when we accept that there is no reason to believe that our recognition of our limitations and our quixotic struggles against them have any kind of special goodness.

To all this, you might say, our young person continues to give the lie. American born and bred, he is a pragmatist, seeking to flourish and leaving to others the bother of identifying whatever principles (beyond flourishing) his and his contemporaries’ actions may be promoting or dismissing.

I pause to note a position of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s that Louis Menand offers in his book on American pragmatism:

The assumption that people are justified in defending what they have become accustomed to is obviously an assumption heavily biased toward the status quo. “Justice” and “fairness” [and, we may add here “honesty”] are slogans propping up particular struggles, not eternal principles . . .

A website about the “Top 10 Famous Liars Throughout History” nicely included, at #4, Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish businessman and diplomat who, during the Second World War, saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews. “In history’s greatest act of forgery,” the website reports, Wallenberg “distributed thousands of illegal phony passport visas” which allowed these people passage to Sweden.

Meanwhile, our young person certainly has nothing against telling the truth (not that he often stops to notice whether he is telling it or not). What he opposes, more tacitly than outspokenly, is having to stop doing something he enjoys in order to do something he does not enjoy. Hardly stupid, he could argue (if he felt like taking a break from having fun) that if the end—this end: pleasure, or “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” as we say—if this end is so clearly a good one, only someone like a compulsive essay writer would spend his time worrying about how people nowadays are enjoying themselves. (Though, certainly, they could be having rather less fun than they say they are.)


I can't believe it's not butterCredits & Links

Top photograph is of Charles Ponzi, namesake of the Ponzi scheme.

Photograph of the Clintons at Hillary’s swearing in as U.S. Secretary of State, February 2, 2009. Xinhua/Reuters Photo.

Photograph of George W. Bush Administration official Colin Powell holding a model vial of anthrax vial, while giving false testimony about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Speech to the United Nations Security Council, 5 February 2003. Credit: Mark Garten, UN.

Mark Crispin Miller, Boxed In: The Culture of TV(Northwestern University Press, 1988).

Louis Menand. The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001).

As regards venture capital companies, see Tad Friend, Tomorrow’s Advance Man: Marc Andreessen’s plan to win the future, The New Yorker, May 18, 2005, and Diane Mulcahy, Six Myths About Venture Capitalists, Harvard Business Review, May 2013.

Raoul_WallenbergDustin Koski, Top 10 Famous Liars Throughout History, TopTenz, 14 January 2013. Photo at right is Raoul Wallenberg’s passport photo from June 1944.

One related Zeteo piece: “I Don’t Know What to Believe Anymore”: “no matter where we live or what we believe—awash in theater, in versions (or tall tales), in reports we can’t verify, beliefs we cling to like pieces of a wreck.”

Two related Montaigbakhtinian pieces:

  • Fear of the Self: “in my experience, it is better not to trust other people until they have proven themselves trustworthy, rather than to begin by trusting people and be deceived and disillusioned time and again. Shall we then conclude that the malicious gossip, because of his fear of what other people might say about him, begins a job not only better armed, but also better prepared to be pleasantly surprised than someone of a more laudable character?”
  • Stealin’, Stealin’: “Some readers may object that these businesses and their leaders are not only engaged in criminal activities, that ill-gotten gains account for less than half, perhaps much less than half, of their profits. This may be the case. But supposing that we were then left with the following alternative conclusion: Committing crimes, violating rules and regulations, engaging in deceit and helping others engage in it forms a part, large or small, of the standard successful business career. In some cases, this part may be relatively small, and in other cases—Cyprus’s bankers, the hedge-fund trader willing to pay a $600 million fine to avoid more dire consequences, HSBC’s laundering of billions for drug cartels and for banks with links to terrorist organizations—the criminal part may be rather larger. But in either case, be the take big or small, it would seem that business involves criminal activities.”


  1. I like the fact that a compulsive essay writer has written a (presumptively truthful) essay about one of his worries without necessarily agreeing with all of his observations or concerns. Thus we both enjoy ourselves — albeit separately, at either end of the essay.

    • Thanks, Nina. It seems to me axiomatic (if also iconoclastic) that a writer’s job, and most particularly in our twenty-first century, is to promote wondering, to include about the writer’s own beliefs. That said, may I also note — and I’ll have to find a way to revise the piece to include this . . . When I was Googling “famous liars,” I came across this excellent suggestion: Raoul Wallenberg. The text read: “Raoul Wallenberg’s magnificent lies saved thousands of lives in Hungary in 1944. In history’s greatest act of forgery, this Swedish representative distributed thousands of illegal phony passport visas, that would allow Jews who had been previously seeking relative asylum in Hungary passage to Sweden.” True to those of my roots that are Puritan, my reasoning is simplistic, black and white. While life, as a rule, is more sophisticated. Best, Wm.

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