In plain truth, lying is an accursed vice. If we did but discover the horror and gravity of it, we should pursue it with fire and sword, and more justly than other crimes…” So wrote 16th century philosopher Michel de Montaigne. He also claimed he was so horrified by lying that he wasn’t sure he could bring himself to lie, even to save himself from “the most manifest and extreme danger”.
We all hate lies, and no one wants to be a liar. Every one of us, though, lies on an almost constant basis—to strangers, to friends, even to those closest to us. Research has shown that strangers and recent acquaintances lie to each other at the rate of about three times per ten minutes.
In order to never lie, you’d have to be suffering from some sort of mental disorder, and interacting with you would be seriously awkward. Think of the Jim Carrey movie Liar Liar. When the main character, Fletcher Reede, finds himself incapable of lying, his world is thrown into chaos. Lying, as it turns out, is essential to behaving like a rational person.
While we all abhor the idea of lies, we often lie to others because we feel we have to.
So does this mean that lying is not wrong, or sometimes not wrong? The matter is so convoluted that it’s been debated and discussed and written about at length for centuries.
Searching for an answer on the morality of lying leads to something like intellectual motion sickness, so take a deep breath before we go over the basics.
The great philosophers of Western Civilization fall into two camps: lying can be okay, or even good; or lying is never, ever okay.
Aurelius Augustine, the Christian philosopher of the late 4th and early 5th centuries, wrote the most extreme—and unpopular—opinions on the nature of the lie. His opinion is unequivocal: Lying in all forms, for all purposes, is sin (While this is the position of the Catholic Church, it is not the position of all Christian theologians, or even all Catholics.).
Augustine defined eight categories of lies, with three of them being types of lies that are either harmless or possibly beneficial. As Augustine saw it, though, all lies—despite the intent or result—are sins. His eight categories of lies amount to gradations of sin.
The modern philosopher Immanuel Kant also believed that lies are absolutely immoral. He had two main reasons for this belief.
First, he believed in the “categorical imperative” to treat other human beings as ends in themselves, not as means. To lie to people is to treat them not as ends, but as means to what one wants.
His other problem with lying comes from the idea of “universal law”. Basically, something cannot be good unless it is always good, and there is no way to declare all lies good without a serious breakdown in social order.
“True falsehoods” are bad and corrupting to the soul. “Verbal falsehoods” are imitations of true falsehoods–whatever that means–and told with good intention.
Plato also coined the concept of the “noble lie”, one that benefits the soul. This concept was meant to apply to lies told by the state to the people for their own good. The general populace might want the truth, but according to Plato, they can’t handle the truth.
Plato might have not only excused, but praised Bill Clinton’s lie about his “sexual relations” and “that woman”, as that was something we were all—with the exception of late-night comedians—better off not knowing about.
According to Friedrich Nietzsche, there is no objective truth that can be represented through language anyway, so lying is just unavoidable.
He also saw lying as essential to the structure and reproduction of human life. That seems likely enough. Without lies, people would never wind up in bed with each other. But then again, Nietzsche acknowledged the damage done to human relationships through lying when he wrote, “Not that you lied to me but that I no longer believe you has shaken me.”
Absolute moral stances aside, lying seems to be both unavoidable and essential to ordinary human life. And no matter what Michel de Montaigne claimed, he, too, was a liar.
Griffiths, Paul G. Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity.
Montaigne, Michel de. “Of Liars.” Essays of Michel de Montaigne.
Harp, Jerry. “What is a Noble Lie?” Kenyon Review Blog. February 22, 2007.
Solomon, Robert C. “Is it Ever Right to Lie?”
James, Edwin Mahon. “Kant on Lies.” Proceedings of the Eighth Annual Harvard/MIT Graduate Student Philosophy Conference. 2000.
Simpson, David. “Truth, Truthfulness and Philosophy in Plato and Nietzsche.” British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 15 (2) 2007, 339 – 360.
Michel de Montaigne image: Detail from a portrait of Michel de Montaigne. Photograph: The Bridgeman Art Library
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