Archive for May, 2018

A great man – what is he?  He rather lies than tells the truth; it requires more spirit and will. –Nietzsche

Since I began this ‘series’ focusing on ‘LYING’ I have been thinking about ‘Two Perspectives’: The Deceived and the Liar.  I finally have enough thoughts together and so I will begin today focusing a bit upon each of these perspectives.

Consider, gentle reader, that we postmodern folks have nearly perfected two forms of deliberate assault on one another: Deceit and Violence.  Both are designed to coerce the other into acting against his/her will.   The harm that befalls victims via violence can also come to them via deceit.  Deceit requires more cleverness for it works on belief as well as action.  I am thinking of Othello.  Few would have dared to attempt to subdue him by force but he was brought to choose to destroy himself and Desdemona through falsehood.

Deception, like violence, can be employed in self-defense, especially when ‘survival’ is at stake.  Deception can also be trivial – think: ‘white lies.’  Nevertheless its potential for coercion and destruction is such that human society – any human society – could scarcely function without some degree of truthfulness when it comes to speech and action. [AN ASIDE: I know, as well as you do, gentle reader, that ‘truthful statements’ can themselves be coercive and destructive; they can be used as weapons to wound]

There must be a minimal degree of trust in communication for language and action to be more than clanging cymbals.  This is why some level of truthfulness must be an essential part of any human society, no matter its commitment to the observance of other moral principles.  Samuel Johnson once noted that even the devils themselves do not lie to one another since their society – Hell – could not subsist without truth (talk about a paradox).

A human society whose members could not distinguish ‘truthful messages’ from ‘deceptive messages’ would implode.  Prior to the general implosion, individual survival would be at risk, a trickle would become a ripple, a ripple would become a wave and the waves would come together to form a tsunami that would wash us all away. [AN ASIDE: Consider that our ‘Culture’ today is being eroded by the waves of ‘deception’ that wash over us each day; there are so many that we are becoming immune to their coercive effect]

All of my choices, of your choices, of our choices depend on our estimates of what is ‘the truth.’  These estimates must in turn rely upon information from the ‘other(s).’  Lies distort information and therefore our situation as we perceive it, as well as our choices.  A lie not only leads us astray, it injures us in untold ways.

We believe, in our Culture, that ‘knowledge gives power.’  Lies, then, impact the distribution of power.  Lies add to the ‘power’ of the deceiver and diminish the power of the one being deceived.  Lies alter our ability to choose.  Think about this gentle reader: Lies alter our ability to choose!

A lie, first, may misinform (think: Fake News) so as to obscure some ‘objective,’ something the deceived person wanted to do or obtain (think: information about a candidate in order to make an informed voting decision).  The ‘objective’ is no longer attainable.  The deception may give birth to a new objective – as when Iago deceived Othello into wanting to kill Desdemona. [AN ASIDE: Today, more than ever before, it might benefit us to read and study Shakespeare’s great tragedy: ‘Othello’]

Lies eliminate or obscure relevant ‘alternatives.’  Lies also foster the belief that there are more alternatives available when in fact the alternatives are limited.  Lies can also lead to the loss of confidence in what might well be the ‘best alternative.’  Lies alter the ‘cost-benefits’ and obscure the ‘unintended consequences’.  Think: the immense toll of life and human welfare from the United States’ intervention in Vietnam came in part from the deception + self-deception by those who fed overly optimistic information to the decision-makers.

Deception can make a situation falsely certain as well as falsely uncertain.  Deception will impact the objectives, the alternatives, the risks, the benefits and the consequences (intended and unintended).  Deception is a major way that ‘they’ gain power over ‘them’ and impact the choices open to the deceived.

Deception can help initiate actions one would otherwise never have chosen and deception can prevent action by obscuring the necessity for choice.  This is the essence of ‘cover up’ – creating apparent normality in order to avert suspicion.  Deception becomes the norm!

We human beings are, by nature, imperfect.  Thus we – each of us – relies on deception.  We deceive in order to get out of trouble, to save face, to avoid hurting another person’s feelings, etc.  Some of us use it more consciously in order to manipulate the other and gain an upper hand.

I believe that, for the most part, each of us is aware of the threat lies impose; we are aware of the suffering that follows – both to the deceived and to the deceiver.  Given this, I leave us this morning with this question: Why are such radically different evaluations given to the effects of deception, depending on whether the point of view is that of the liar or the one lied to?

This leads us to explore our topic: ‘Lying – Two Perspectives: The Deceived & The Liar.’



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By a lie a man throws away and, as it were, annihilates his dignity as a man. –Kant, ‘Doctrine of Virtue’

I have offered my ‘current’ definition of ‘Lying’ and (there is almost always an ‘AND’) at the same time I see nothing wrong with either a narrower or a broader definition of lying.  There is a caveat: Each retains the prerogative of morally evaluating the intentionally misleading statements, whether they fall within the definition of lying or outside of it.  Here is an example.

Consider that all faith and humanist traditions and all ‘Cultures’ espouse the following: Thou shalt not kill!  A simple, clear, concise, unambiguous statement.  YET, all faith and humanist traditions and all ‘Cultures’ amend this statement; they espouse one idea and live by another.  Oddly, there is no agreement as to when it really is wrong to ‘kill.’

Consider that, like ‘Thou shalt not kill!’ all definitions of lying smuggle in terms – moral or amoral, generally not immoral – that also require an evaluation.  To say, for example that it is not lying to speak falsely to those with no right to your information often glides over the vast question of what it means to have such a right to information.  This leads us back to my more neutral definition of lying: an intentionally deceptive message in the form of a statement.

Consider this, gentle reader.  All deceptive messages, whether or not they are lies, are often affected by one or more of three factors: self-deception, error, and by variations in the actual intention to deceive.   These act as filters that distort, color and/or alter the ways in which a message is experienced by both deceived and deceivers.

In order to complicate matters even more, a person who intends to deceive can work with these filters and manipulate them.  The deceiver can play on the biases, the imaginations, the prejudices, the fears, and etc. of the other(s).  Watch any number of ‘attack ads’ during an election year and you can see this clearly play out.  It has become so common that ‘We the People’ have become immune to the deception – to put it bluntly, ‘We the People’ just don’t care – if the ‘attack ad’ supports our prejudices we will agree with it if it does not we will dismiss it as ‘fake news.’

All of this involves great complexity and each year we learn more and more about the complexity of communication and about the role my-your-our brain plays in sending and receiving messages. We are learning more and more about the intricate capacities of each person for denial, deflection, distortion, and ‘selective loss of memory.’  Add to this the fact that communication often takes place over a period of time – sometimes over a ‘long time’ – and often includes a number of people and the complexity increases, often exponentially.

I am thinking of the ‘Telephone Game.’  I have played this game with forty adults – all ‘leaders.’  A simple one sentence message was whispered into the ear of the first person.  Then, he or she would whisper the ‘same identical message’ into the ear of the person sitting next to him/her.  This continued until the last person receiving the message would repeat it out loud to the entire group.  In every instance, the final message was not even close to the original message.  ‘Distortion’ at its best.  No one person intentionally set out to deceive and yet deception occurred.

Next time we will begin to focus on ‘Two Perspectives: The Deceived and The Deceiver.’

Never have I lied in my own interest; but often I have lied through shame in order to draw myself from embarrassment in different matters.–Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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A great man – what is he? . . .He rather lies than tells the truth; it requires more spirit and will.  There is a solitude within him that is inaccessible to praise or blame, his own justice that is beyond appeal. –Friedrich Nietzsche (‘The Will to Power’)

I concluded my last entry with a definition: Lying = an intentionally deceptive message in the form of a statement.

There are many philosophers and theologians who would accept this definition – but not all.  One of the things we do know is that the choice of definition frequently presents a moral dilemma.  Specific religious and moral traditions have been – continue to be – rigorously, if not absolutely, opposed to all lying; my definition is too narrow for them.

Yet, when examined more closely even these ‘absolutist’ traditions define lying in such a way that some deceptions-falsehoods did not ‘count’ as lying.  The Dutch jurist, Hugo Grotius (considered by many as the ‘Father of International Law’) argued on the behalf of Protestant thinkers that speaking falsely to those – like thieves – to whom truthfulness is not owed cannot be called lying.

The ‘absolutist’ tradition was so confining that ‘wiggle room’ was necessary (actually, much of what emerged was a much larger room than a ‘wiggle room’).  One ‘out’ was the emergence of what is commonly called the ‘mental reservation.’  The beauty of this concept is that I can tell you a lie and convince myself that I am not lying.  What a great concept!  This is how it works.

‘Richard, did you cut down the cherry tree?’  After a bit of quick thinking I reply, with great conviction: ‘No I did not!’  Now, I add the ‘mental reservation.’  In my ‘mind’ I add these words: I did not cut down the cherry tree last week.  This is a true statement.  With my ‘mental reservation’ I make my ‘verbal statement’ true; I do not ‘tell a lie.’  Yup, this is truly a great concept.

By adding these addenda to the definition I can subscribe to a strict tradition and at the same time have the leeway to practice what I truly desire – in this case, to lie without lying.

Here is another example.  My son, Nathan, when he was 12 years old announced the following (I do not remember the situation but his insightful words have remained with me).  Nathan announced: Dad, I will never lie to you; I will always tell you the truth. ….Pause…. As long as you ask me the right question!  How great is that.  How many young folk actually abide by this rule?  Actually, we adults are even better at this; we have built upon this.  One way we do this is to deflect the question (listen to a daily Whitehouse press briefing and you can experience this being played out on a daily basis; yesterday’s was a classic).

Consider this, gentle reader, that whenever a law or rule is so strict that most folks cannot actually live by it, creative efforts to discern loopholes quickly ensue; the rules about lying are no exceptions.  We will continue exploring this next time.

Today I will conclude with the words of the goddess Athena.  She is addressing Odysseus in the ‘Odyssey’:

 Whoever gets around you must be sharp
and guileful as a snake; even a god
might bow to you in ways of dissimulation.
You!  You chameleon!
Bottomless bag of tricks!  Here in your own country
would you not give your stratagems a rest
or stop spellbinding for an instant?
You play a part as if it were your own tough skin…
No more of this, though.  Two of a kind, we are,
contrivers, both.  Of all men now alive
you are the best in plots and story-telling.
My own fame is for wisdom among the gods –
deceptions, too. 

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The abuse of truth ought to be as much punished as the introduction to falsehood. –Pascal, ‘Pensées’

As I noted last time, Gentle Reader, this morning we will briefly explore ‘Dumping-Delight’ and ‘Truth-Dumping.’  Then we will delve deeper into a definition of ‘Lying’.

Dumping-Delight.  This concept evokes the pleasure, excitement, allure and challenge that lying involves.  The concept includes any or all of the positive feelings that emerge when one lies.  I might well feel pleasure when I lie to a gullible friend  or to the glee that I experience when I mislead the other.  When I was seven years old I was standing on the street corner by our house.  A car pulled up and the driver asked for directions to a certain place.  I had no idea where this place was but I acted as if I did and provided him with detailed directions and felt great glee when the driver thanked me and drove off.

The liar might feel the excitement of anticipation – as the lie is being delivered; I felt this as I was weaving the fabric of my lie.  I felt more excitement as I was offering the driver the completed fabric; the excitement that comes with the unknown – will the dupe accept what I have woven?

After the lie has been accepted there is the pleasure that comes with relief, pride of achievement or feelings of contempt for the one duped.  At ‘seven’ I did feel pride; I don’t recall a feeling of contempt for the driver [‘contempt’ is an abstract concept that seven year olds can’t grasp – thankfully].

Truth-Dumping.  This concept conveys the harm that brutal, often needless and uncaring truth-telling can wreak.  Parents do this when they bombard their children with criticisms.  Spouses do this when they dwell on the short-comings of one another – when they focus, over and over again on each other’s dreariest traits.  Curt health-care professionals shock unprepared, or ill-prepared, patients with grim news.  Each would – often does – claim that ‘I am only being truth-full!’  They do not realize that they are violating standards of care, compassion, love and respect (or they counter this realization with the ‘I am only telling the truth!’ or ‘This person needs to hear the truth!’)

Consider, Gentle Reader, this question: What would the world be like if each of us told nothing but the truth ceaselessly?

To pose this question we must assume that we operate, in our world, with only two alternatives: lying or constant, no-holds-bared truth-telling.  Yet, there is something amiss with this either-or.  It leaves no room for discretion, for the ability to discern what is and what is not intrusive or injurious or cruel.  Part of our challenge as people who care is the challenge of how to be ‘truth-full’ without being seduced by ‘truth-dumping.’

This leads us back to: How do I-You-We define lying?

Consider, Gentle Reader, that when we undertake to deceive others intentionally, we communicate messages meant to mislead them, meant to make them believe what we ourselves do not believe.  I-You-We do this through gesture, through disguise, by means of action or inaction, even via our silence.

Now here’s the question: Which of these innumerable deceptive messages are also lies?

I offer, again, my ‘current’ definition [‘current’ means for the past 30+ years]: A lie is any intentionally deceptive message which is stated.

‘Statements’ are most often made verbally or in writing, but can of course also be conveyed via smoke signals, Morse code, sign language, etc.  For me, ‘Deception’ is the umbrella category and lying is one part covered by the ‘Umbrella of Deception.’

Now, Gentle Reader, I am aware that it is possible to define ‘lying’ so that it is identical with ‘deception.’  For my purpose, however, I invite you to hold a primary distinction between ‘deceptive statements’ –lies – and all other forms of deception.

Here is my definition again: A lie is any intentionally deceptive message which is stated.

We will explore this a bit more next time.

Certainly, it is heaven upon earth to have a man’s mind move in charity…and turn upon the poles of truth. –Bacon, ‘Of Truth’



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When regard for truth has been broken down or even slightly weakened, all things will remain doubtful. –St. Augustine, ‘On Lying’

Consider Gentle Reader that trust is a precious resource easily squandered, hard to regain.  Trust can thrive only when deeply grounded in respect for veracity rooted in moral integrity.

When it comes to engaging our topic, ‘Lying,’ it is crucial to remember that how we define ‘Lying’ is crucial.

You cannot see me, Gentle Reader, sitting here in one of my favorite coffee shops attempting to decide how much I want to ‘muddy the waters.’  Pause…Pause…Pause…

Part of me wants to offer a simple, clear, concise definition of ‘Lying’ and another part of me wants to briefly explore four topics (of many available) that might be helpful to us AND (remember, there is almost always an ‘AND’) add to the complexity of our topic – hence the ‘muddying of the waters.’

More Pausing. . .

I think I will risk muddying the waters a bit.  As I noted above, I will offer us four topics to consider: Confabulation, Compulsive-Pathological Lying, ‘Dumping-Delight,’ and ‘Truth-Dumping.’

Confabulation.  My unabridged dictionary offers us a number of definitions; the one I think that might help us is the one that is offered by the discipline of Psychiatry.  Confabulation = the replacement of a gap in a person’s memory by a falsification that he or she believes to be true.

‘Confabulations’ are stories told by those suffering from Alzheimer Disease and by those suffering from a variety of other psychiatric and neurological conditions.  These people fill gaps by spinning false tales about their lives with utter confidence that they are true-real.  They cannot, therefore, be thought of as engaging in lying or any form of deceit.  At the same time, because their statements so clearly depart from the ‘truth’ or from ‘reality,’ it is equally difficult to speak of ‘truthfulness’ in characterizing their stories.

Now, consider this, Gentle Reader.  There is a large category of statements where deceit is not intended but where truthful communication is far from being achieved.  It is important, therefore, to take into account all that can help to distort communication quite apart from an intention to deceive.

I know from my own life’s experience that I have conveyed false information in the belief that it was true.  Upon reflection, I discerned that I was exhausted, misinformed, inarticulate, or that I had been duped by another.  My INTENTION was not to mislead or to lie; deception occurred – Did I lie?  My statements may have been false, yet, I did not knowingly utter falsehoods.

Now, there is also a second (at least one other) party involved.  The recipient of my message.  The person(s) may become deceived through no fault of mine – consider that the person might be hard of hearing or the person might not have a good command of the English language (children and those whose first language is not English often hear the ‘concrete’ and miss the ‘abstract’).

Compulsive-Pathological Lying.  Consider that Pathological Lying is to ‘lying’ what kleptomania is to stealing.  Any consideration of ‘moral choice’ (Lying involves a moral choice) regarding whether or not to lie must, I believe, take into account cases involving such compulsions and the ways they can take over a person’s life.

We will continue with ‘Dumping-Delight’ and ‘Truth-Dumping’ and other considerations next time.

If, like truth, the lie had but one face, we would be on better terms.  For we would accept as certain the opposite of what the liar would say.  But the reverse of truth has a hundred thousand faces and in infinite field. –Montaigne, ‘Essays’


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