Bill Clinton. John Edwards. Richard Nixon.
David Vitter. Former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.
Here’s a couple more names…
James Frey. Jayson Blair. Stephen Glass.
Notice the pattern?
How about this one:
Still don’t see it?
Ok. Think then-Secretary of State Colin Powell announcing to the United Nations that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.
Got it yet?
Ok, last one: “Remember the Maine”.
Well, just in case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’ll tell. Each of these men (and one wooden boy) told lies. They were lying.
Not just little white lies, mind you. BIG LIES*.
The forces-you- to-resign-from-elected-office kind of lies.
The subject of a week’s worth of stories on TMZ kind of lies.
The has to talk to Oprah in a public display of contrition kind of lies.
The kind of lies that’ll have you end up doing this:
Public humiliations galore.
Whether we tell half-truths or little white lies, spin tall tales, rip yarns, or lay down the kind of lies that would put Goebbels to shame, the funny thing about lying is even though no one likes it when somebody tells them, everyone lies.
Don’t say you don’t. You’d be lying.
We’ve all lied about one thing or another. We know that lies and lying are an inevitable part of human interaction. We might even say that the occasional lie is useful.
Yet we’re offended when it happens. We don’t like it when people lie.
Especially when they lie to us.
It’s not even that we’re merely offended by lies – we completely flip our wigs when we discover we’ve been lied to. We’re so put off by lies and liars that anyone who’s caught in a lie not only knows they’ve messed up big time, but also know that a long journey of mea culpas on the path of liar redemption is essential if one wants forgiveness.
If all works well, all will be forgiven.
However, if you’re a regular schmo like me – you get caught in a lie it might ruin you forever.
Contrition is not my forte.
But why is that?
Why do we get so butthurt when someone lies?
I mean, after all, even the Bible admonishes us against lying. Exodus 20:16 specifically states, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”.
According to the Bible there’s an especially awful kind of lie: false witness.
Whatever that is.
I don’t know. I don’t read the Bible.
That’s why I’m going to hell.
Alright. I remember in my English 101 class, my professor said if you introduce a term you have to define it. So it might help us a bit to get clear on what exactly a lie is.
A lie, at least according to the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), has three “essential features”:
1. A lie communicates some information
2. The liar intends to deceive or mislead
3. The liar believes that what they are ‘saying’ is not true
According to the BBC, if you’re not doing any of those 3 things, you ain’t lying.
But if lying is sometimes useful, we must ask, is lying all that bad?
Before you say yes or no you might want to ask around.
Psalm 31:18 may say “Let lying lips be put to silence”.
Obviously God has never heard of Socrates or noble lies.
Noble lies, in case you didn’t know, are fictions told with the intent to preserve loyalty to the state and the social order.
Wait a minute, you say. Lies are bad. Anyone who watched what followed Lance Armstrong’s admission that he used performance-enhancing drugs knows that lying causes nothing more than absolute misery. So why does Socrates think that lying ever serves a useful, even a good, purpose?
You see, Socrates thought that people need to be lied to because most people are too stupid to handle things.
And by people, Socrates meant people like you and me.
Socrates says in Book III of Republic:
“Could we,” I said, “contrive one of those lies that come into being in case of need, of which we were just now speaking, some noble lie to persuade in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of the city?”
According to the late Socrates fan and political philosopher, Leo Strauss, the state may lie to the public when “an extreme situation in which the very existence or independence of a society is at stake.”
So according to Socrates and Strauss, so long as your lie serves a greater good for society, we should heartily approve of some lies.
Perhaps our anger at Colin Powell was misplaced.
… that’s because deposing Saddam Hussein would be good for everybody.
Keep that point in mind.
Socrates tells us so long as a lie is told by the right people for the right reasons, lying to people is perfectly fine. In fact, according to Socrates, lying to people is a necessary function of the ruling class.
Alright. Hold on a minute. Before you think Socratic noble lies gives us free rein to fib at will, remember that point I told you to keep in mind. ‘Cause you should be thinking there’s something extremely rotten in the polis.
- We get angry when we are lied to.
- Even if a lie is justified, we feel that some punishment or an apology is necessary.
That’s why Lance Armstrong ended up on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
There’s a reason why we feel a sense of moral indignation when we find that someone has lied to us. There’s a reason why this guy’s nose grew every time he lied.
The reason is because no matter what explanation, cause or excuse we give for telling a lie, a lying is wrong.
We feel an innate desire to hear the truth.
We prefer the company of those who tell the truth over those who tell lies.
This is what Aristotle wrote about people who tell the truth:
Such a man would seem to be a good man. For he who loves truth, and is truthful where nothing depends upon it, will still more surely tell the truth where serious interests are involved; he will shun falsehood as a base thing here, seeing that he shunned it elsewhere, apart from any consequences: but such a man merits praise.
According to Aristotle, a person who tells the truth is trustworthy. An honest person is someone of good character who we can rely on when we deal with them – we can expect that what they say is true and that by trusting them we will not experience emotional, philosophical or physical harm.
Of course, we well know that’s not what happens when someone lies.
Let’s remember: the second and third essential features of a lie states that the liar “intends to deceive or mislead”, and that a liar “believes that what they are ‘saying’ is not true”.
Intentional deception and misleading, no matter what justification for doing so, always deprives others (those to whom the lie is directed) of the full knowledge of a situation. If we lack full knowledge, we cannot make fully rational decisions.
Kant says this is what happens, folks, not me.
That means that a lie is inherently pernicious. The short-term benefit of a lie is almost always obliterated upon the discovery of the lie.
Lance Armstrong lost his Tour de France medals. Roger Clemens was tried on charges of perjury. President Clinton was impeached.
Twelve years and we’ve still got troops in Iraq.
And if you read Plato’s Republic, you would know that in no way did Socrates think that average Joes and Janes like you and me could – or should – be a part of the ruling class.
What that means for us is that a lie, no matter what noble intention the speaker may have, can do nothing other than to cause harm.
And a liar, no matter what he tells you, is almost always up to something bad.
However, songs about liars are nearly always entertaining.
* I realize there’s a matter of what exactly constitutes a lie, especially concerning the intent of the liar. I realize that instances of lying include a liar being unaware that his false statement is indeed false or when an individual tells the truth with an intention to deceive. For an example of this kind of lie, I suggest watching Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones – in particular, the scene between Count Dooku and Obi-Wan Kenobi.
NOTE: Socrates details the purpose of noble lies in Book III, 414 d – 415 a-d, of Plato’s Republic.
2) Plato. Republic. 1968. Trans. Allan Bloom. NY: Basic Books. Bk. III, 414 b-c.
3) Leo Strauss. Natural Right and History. 1953 . Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 160.
4) Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. 2004 . Trans F.H. Peters, M.A. NY: Barnes and Noble Books. p.91.