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Lying & Deception

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The common view of lying is that it involves uttering a statement that you know to be false in order to deceive someone else that it is true. This view is so entrenched that lying and deceit are almost synonymns. On the other hand merely making a false statement does not in itself constitute lying as you could be mistaken and we would not regard that as culpable.

However consider the following situation. You are taking your child on an outing the next day and the weather forecast is for rain but you tell your child that the weather is going to be fine. You have lied in order to make your child feel better. A white lie perhaps. However, as it turns out the weather is fine and your assurance was correct, so have you told the truth and avoided lying by accident? Your intention was to lie but through no fault of your own what you said turns out to be true.

Another example. At the end of Oscar Wilde's play _The Importance of Being Ernest_ the hero Jack, who has been telling his love-interest, Gwendolen, that his name is Ernest, finally discovers at the end of the play that in fact his name really is Ernest. He says:

"Gwendolen, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?"

To which she replies, "I can. For I feel that you are sure to change."

He intended to lie but indvertently told the truth.

Or consider the case of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the film 'True Lies'. In the film Arnie is a secret agent whose cover-story is that he is an insurance salesman. His wife has no idea that he is a secret agent and when he comes home one evening she asks him 'How has your day been, honey?' to which he replies 'Oh well, I just saved the free world'. As it happens that is exactly what he has done in the context of the film but his wife takes it as a littlt bit of irony, indicating that it has been a normal, uneventful day.

Arnie has told the literal truth but done it in such a way that his wife will be deceived into thinking it's not true. When she later discovers he really is an agent and confronts him with lying to her, it would be deeply disingenuous of him to say 'But I told you the truth'. It is clear that Arnie's intention is to deceive his wife, and he does this by telling the truth, but doing it in a way that it will not be taken literally.

One of my favourite examples of using the truth to decieve occured a few years ago when there was a big media scare about the effects on health of various additatives and preservative in food. One of the big tinned food companies had printed on its labels 'Contains no preservatives'. This was quite true. Their canned food contained no preservatives and it never had. In fact no canned food has ever contained preservatives because canning is itself a form of preservation. The devious point here is that by placing this label on its tins the company was indirectly suggesting that other tinned food *did* contain preservatives and that their product was superior in this respect. They were deceptive although no lie had been told.

Some more cases to consider. A group of conspirators are talking in a room that they believe to be bugged so they start talking about innocuous activities they are intending to be involved in to cover their real intentions. They are telling lies to each other, but nobody is deceived as they know this is what they are doing.

Then there is the polite, social lie. A couple have a row in a party at a friend's house and excuse themselves by saying that one of them is 'feeling unwell'. No one is fooled by this untruth and it is accepted as a way of oiling the social wheels and avoiding embarrassment.

Likewise the lie told as a joke is one that no one believes so it is not deceptive. In fact St Augustine, who classified lies by their degree of seriousness, didnt regard the joke lie as a sin.

Lies are not always intended to deceive. They may be intended to convey some other message than the literal words state. Some years ago an acquaintance of mine was teaching in Indonesia and one on his Indonesian colleagues asked him what he earned. My friend said about £500,000 a year. He said that the colleague gave him a look that quite clearly said 'You liar!'. Because in the UK we regard it as impertinent to ask what someone earns, by his obvious exageration my friend was intending to tell his collegue to mind his own business. However, this was not understood by the Indonesian as such a convention does not exist in Far East. He just took it as a barefaced lie.

The polite or social lie is very much culturally circumscribed practice and as the example shows, can easily be misunderstood. I understand that in Japan, because it is regarded as rude to say 'no' someone will always say 'yes' to a request and then just do nothing. From their point of view they are not lying.

So it would appear that we can lie without causing deception and we can also decieve by telling the truth. Lying and deception, therefore are not the same thing and only losley connected. However, we are brought up with the belief that telling the truth is an unconditional virtue and that to tell a lie is axiomatic of deceipt. Some philosophers, like Kant, have even asserted that the truth is so sacred that one should not even lie to save a life.

I think that this simplistic equasion of lying with deception in popular culture has led to all sorts of corrosive evasions in public life whereby politicans and public figures to do not feel they are guilty of lying if they are telling the truth, even if they are hiding salient facts, exagerating or minimising.

We should therefore focus on the avoidance of deceit as the key moral issue and not on lying a truth-telling.

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