strange–the village lived in terror of the marauder, a man who many had witnessed destroying their fellow villager,s lives. And yet if you asked any of the witnesses to describe the marauder they seemed barely curious about who he was and how to identify him.  For all the damage the marauder did, people couldn’t be bothered to pinpoint his nature.

The village is us and the marauder is not a person but a behavior: the act of lying. Though we are each of us wary and vigilant about being deceived, it’s rare to find people trying to pinpoint exactly what lying is, and how, in general to know what is and is not a lie. We argue about who’s lying but not much about what constitutes a lie.  When we’re accusing someone of lying, we pretend it’s obvious what a lie is, but it isn’t.

Here are sixteen dubious but popular ideas about lying that come to our rescue when we’re defending ourselves as honest or attacking others as lying, ideas we rest our cases on, but that, under scrutiny can’t support the weight.

  1. Lying is a single kind of behavior that is readily distinguished from not lying: It’s not that there are no formulas for deciding who’s lying but that there are way too many formulas.  Is lying adding, subtracting or replacing known truths?  Can you only lie with words or can gestures or even silences count as lying? Is it lying only when you seek the benefits of altering the truth, or is lying also when you avoid the costs of telling the truth? Is lying only deliberate and conscious, or can one lie unconsciously?  Is it lying when it’s not for personal gain?  Is it lying when the person claims not to be aware of any personal gain?  If a person claims to believe he’s telling the truth, is it still a lie?  Can you tell a liar by his intention to benefit or only if, in fact he does benefit?  If he benefits but so do others, is he still a liar? So many questions!
  2. Lying is a rare pathology: According to this popular myth, normal people are realists, equipped to see the world truly, clearly and accurately. Only the rare degenerate with a brain or character malfunction is a liar. We talk about not getting the “whole truth,” as though one could. We talk about wanting “just the facts” as though there were a limited number that add up conclusively to one definite interpretation of a situation. We talk about getting our egos out of the way so we can squarely face reality, as though one could. In debate, we pretend we’re have no vested interests, when each of us is more invested in our long-held beliefs than any new alternatives. We talk about people who “aren’t reading the situation accurately” as though the situation were to be read like clear, unambiguous instructions, when they can’t be.
  3. Lying and being tactful are objectively different: Lying is bad; being tactful is good, but, aside from preference theres’ no clear definitive distinction. The difference between, on the one hand lying and deceiving, and on the other, being tactful, diplomatic, or telling white lies is not in the behavior itself but in our subjective response to it.  When we don’t like the behavior we call it a lie; when we like the behavior, we call it being tactful.
  4. If you stand to benefit in anyway from a misrepresentation, it’s a lie: By this standard every tactful gesture is a lie, since, when we’re being tactful we stand to gain, at least in avoiding guilt and conflict that would arise had we been less tactful.
  5. Lies are distortions of objective truth: When we say, “You lie!” we imply that we know the truth.  More precisely we mean, “I think you lie.” When two parties both accuse each other of lying, they can go to third parties to determine the truth, but even in large numbers, there’s no definitive objective truth. Large numbers can be deceived.
  6. It’s only lying when it’s deliberate: We tend to employ this criterion for distinguishing lying:  If you can’t tell the truth because you don’t know it, can’t see it, or have a mental handicap that distorts your reality, then you’re not a liar, but merely clueless. If this were a valid criterion, what’s to stop a liar from simply lying about lying, claiming, “No really, I wasn’t lying, I honestly believed I was telling the truth?”  This criterion makes a lie about lying indistinguishable from telling the truth, a problem we deal with a lot, for example when we speculate about whether a political tyrant is crazy like a fox, or just plain crazy.
  7. The more burning the question; the more truthful the answer desired: A lot of what motivates curiosity is skin in the game, a stake in the answer, for example, “I need the truth, and please, oh please, I hope it’s good. Why are you dumping me?” Hence the Curiosity Paradox: The more we need to know why, the more we hope it’s one thing and not the other. The more time and energy we have invested in trying to find an answer, the more likely we have preference for some answers over others.  This paradox affects everything from science to your get-together with an old friend. If it weren’t for the Curiosity Paradox we wouldn’t need the Scientific Method.  People would just be able to channel their curiosity into finding out what’s true.  And how about that friend who says “I simply want your honest feedback,” but in your gut you doubt it, you suspect he’s really hoping for positive feedback only.
  8. The truth will set you free: Plenty of truths will not set you free, they’ll constrain you, and as if by sheer coincidence those are the truths we’re most likely to avoid.  Take, for example any can’t-have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too truths:  You can eat all the rich food you like, or you can stay slim; you can’t do both. Facing that truth, you’re forced to make a choice you’d rather not make.  That truth doesn’t set you free; it constrains and disappoints you.  If all truths reliably set us free, only idiots would avoid the truth, and we sure wouldn’t need to be told that the truth will set us free, because it would just be obvious. Yes, the truth will set you free from carrying the burden of a lie, but the burden of the lie often feels worth carrying since the truth often would weigh upon us far more.
  9. You can lie about the future: “I’ve got a decent chance of becoming a NBA basketball player,” says a young boy.  Statistically his chances are slim to vanishing.  Is he lying?  Technically, no, because he is a specific case, not a general statistic, and the future is not predetermined.  We could say he’s being optimistic about his chances but not that he’s lying, but even that’s subjective.  And we’re deepl ambivalent about such potential distortions about the future.  We think dreaming, hoping, aspiring, aiming high, and being optimistic are virtues, but think that living in a fantasy world, engaging in wishful thinking, living a lie, and being delusional are vices. What exactly is the difference between a hope and a delusion?  Our subjective assessment of whether it will pay off.
  10. The more intimate the relationship the less you’re motivated to lie: This is half-true, but so is its opposite:  The more intimate the relationship; the more motivated you are to lie.  Think about it.  Are you more likely to blurt your honest anger at your partner, or someone you’ll never see again?  The person you live with might make you angrier, but you’re going to pay a longer and bigger price for expressing it to your partner.  You might vent at a driver who cuts you off, or some technical support person.  You’re less likely to vent at your spouse.  The more intimate you are with someone the higher the stakes for both lying and not lying.
  11. Political leaders lie because unlike us, they lack character: Whether or not they lack character, they are more motivated to lie than those of us traveling in smaller circles, because they have to stay intimate with far more people. Media technology makes us more intimate with politicians than ever.  The stakes go up for them to both tell the truth and lie more effectively. Media captures their every word, so they can’t afford to lie blatantly. Still, there are so many soft ways to lie big (lies of omission, vagueness, ambiguity, etc.) and politicians now depend on them more than ever.  We lie about politicians when we say we just want to hear the truth from them.  We’re ambivalent about hearing the truth again, because so many truths don’t really set us free.
  12. Being honest means you’re brave: Honesty has consequences, welcome and unwelcome, distributed unevenly amongst us.  One man’s dreaded, hope-destroying truth is another man’s glib obvious honest assessment.  If you’ve got a better job waiting for you somewhere you can tell your awful boss what you honestly think of him.  When you’re in the best job you can ever hope to find, you can’t afford to say, let alone face the truth about your awful boss.  And yet there’s a tendency for us to ignore stakes and pretend that if we’re more honest about something than other people, it’s because we are braver.  We lie to ourselves, pretending stakes makes no difference and character makes all the difference in what we’re willing to say.
  13. Being honest means you’re astute: Also ignoring stakes, we often assume that our ability to call a spade a spade when others can’t means we’re sharper than they are.  Often though it’s simply that we have less at skin in the game than they do. It’s easy to spot the blind spots in someone else’s thinking. It’s harder by far to spot them in our own thinking.  The ability to pinpoint other people’s delusions neither proves we’re experts on our delusions or on delusions in general.
  14. A half-truth is half as good as a whole truth: This lie is my personal pet peeve. We’re inundated with half-truisms, simplistic nostrums that instruct us to always be a certain way or do a certain thing: Always be kind, generous, honest, caring; always hope and follow your dreams; always be honest, etc.  I agree with each of these whole-halfedly, meaning that they’re the best policy in all situations except the ones in which they’re the worst policy.  Touted as absolute truths, these “Always do X” rules distract us from the crucial questions about when, for example, to be generous and when to set a firm boundary, when to follow your dreams and when to wake up and drop your dreams. To make these unworkable “Always do X” rules appear to work, we end up distorting our definitions of the “X’s” involved, saying, for example, “Well I’m always honest, but I’m also always diplomatic too,” which leads to subjective self-serving double standards, for example that my blunt blurts are honesty and your blunt blurts are failures to be diplomatic. Our popular half-truths make us think we don’t need to cultivate careful discernment. They’re a particularly nasty kind of lie.
  15. Hey, we all lie. Lies are no big deal: Yes, we all lie, but no, it’s not all good. Some lies are beneficial, some are benign, and some kill millions and destroy our children’s opportunities for satisfying lives.  There should be no escaping the life-long challenge of deciding where a lie will help and where it will hurt.  Generally, we can and should work our way from one half-truth, to its opposite, to the middle way as the answer, to the middle way as the question.  I call it “Hard left; hard right; hard center, hard choices.” For example:Hard left: Always tell the truth. The truth will set you free.
    Hard right:  Be kind, tactful and diplomatic, even if it means telling white lies.
    Hard center:  The answer is the middle way, be honest and tactful.
    Hard choices:  No, that’s not the answer, that’s the question that I’ll have to revisit over and over: When to lie and when not to lie.
  16. Never Lie: If you tell people that you have embraced the life-long question about when to lie, you’ll freak them out. So most of us just say or imply that we never lie, which is perhaps the most popular and pervasive of all lies. It’s a meta-lie–a lie about lying.  It shows up, for example in the common “No really…” which translates as “I know you don’t believe me but believe me you should believe me,” which is the position taken both by people being honest and people lying about their lying.

Lying is sometimes horrific; sometimes a godsend.  Pick your lies carefully.