A new book argues that human beings are born to lie: that we cannot live without deceit. Is this true—and does it matter?by Julian Baggini / April 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
It is ironic that the same rules on unparliamentary language which ban MPs from calling each other liars also forbid them from describing another member as “drunk.” Members are banned from accusing others of not telling the truth on some occasions—and then forced to conceal the truth themselves on others.
There is nothing more common than inconsistency and confusion over the imperative not to tell a lie. While “liar” is universally a term of opprobrium, almost everyone accepts that the social world would cease turning without a good scattering of white lies, half-truths and evasions.
In his new book Born Liars: Why We Can’t Live Without Deceit (Quercus), Ian Leslie is the latest writer to try to work out some of what might follow from the simple realisation that lying is not always wrong. As I see it, the key is to recognise that lying is a problem because of what it is not: telling the truth. And if lying is a complex matter that is because truth is too. So once we get to the truth about lying, we’re already in a dizzying tangle of ideas. To give one example, I could promise right now to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The problem is that sometimes telling the truth is not the point, telling the whole truth is impossible, and there may be things other than the truth that matter too. So even if I went on without a single further lie, the promise itself would have been one.
The problem with telling “the truth” starts with the definite article, because there is always more than one way to give a true account or description. If you and I were to each describe the view of Lake Buttermere, for example, our accounts might be different but both contain nothing but true statements. You might coldly describe the topography and list the vegetation while I might paint more of a verbal picture. That is not to say there is more than one truth in some hand-washing, relativistic sense. If you were to start talking about the cluster of high-rise apartment blocks on the southern shore, you wouldn’t be describing “what’s true for you,” you’d be lying or hallucinating.