Sunday, June 3, 2012

On the Nature of Lies

This is more for a question than a rant, as I'm hoping to start a dialogue. I don't know that there's a right answer, but I'd like to collect a few viewpoints here, or on my twitter @beardedskeptic.

So when is it okay to lie? I refuse to take any absolutist standpoint on this, as there are extreme situations on either side, but where is the line? Of course, if a lie can save a life (gun to head), by all means lie. However, lying as a matter of course is no way to get through life. A common theme I hear is that it's okay to lie in order to protect someone else.... from what, though? Violence, obviously. Hurt feelings, maybe. That's the sticking point, and that's where it breaks down for me, because it's been yes in some cases and no in others.

The nature of the white lie is a curious thing... For friends generally I'd rather say "That dress is not for you, let's try this other one" than to tell them they look great if it's not the best showcase of their physicality. That one's pretty easy. What about when you're asked "How are you?" Society demands that you respond in the positive in order to give the questioner a happy escape. Perhaps it depends on the context in which the question is posed. Generally, it seems though that when the question is posed, the questioner hopes that the questioned will politely skirt around the real answer. I wonder if that's a failing of society or a failing of individuals.

I think the next time I ask someone how they are, I'll inquire a little harder and see if I can't get a meaningful dialogue going on that subject. Maybe folks don't talk about self-improvement enough because they're scared of the stigma that admitting weakness brings, and I'd love to see that change.


  1. One of the reasons people don't truthfully answer "how are you?" is because they don't feel like talking about it, not because they are scared of a stigma or feel weak. Often, it's not the asker's place to inquire farther. Pushing it can just make the person uncomfortable and/or you to look like an asshole.

  2. is this is about something specific? i'm imagining so. i am so honest it makes people uncomfortable, and yet a few months ago i realized that i wasn't always honest. if someone angered me or hurt me, i would talk myself out of the anger/hurt - which was frankly a way of lying to myself - and not being honest was the root of my anger. honest freaks some people out. some people are so steeped in passive aggressive behaviour that they don't konw they're not being honest. honest and kindness can exist together, people forget this. you will meet people who are so unused to and uncomfortable about honesty that it will take gentle hands and maybe more explanation, but i think if we all acted and reacted honestly, at some point, there would be less anger and hurt. pollyanna maybe, but true. i hope you figure out the answer to your specific question because it's likely you're dealing with a specific and acute situation. i find it's good to be either honest or quiet. maybe just prep your person for the fact that you are about to be honest. good luck.

  3. Have you read Sam Harris' "Lying"? It's a quick, interesting read. I disagree with him on most points, especially since I feel it's always acceptable to lie about surprise parties and presents. All kidding aside, I feel that being brutally honest all the time is not really a feasible approach--our society loves the lie. And we have the social conventions in place, as mentioned in the first comment, that will perpetuate what we've established. Still, it's a pretty fascinating conversation to have.