The whole truth

A new book argues that human beings are born to lie: that we cannot live without deceit. Is this true—and does it matter?
April 20, 2011

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.

So while it is not possible to give “the truth” about Lake Buttermere, it is possible to offer any number of accounts that only contain true statements. To do that, however, is not enough to achieve what people want from truth. It is rather a prescription for what we might call “estate agent truth.” The art of describing a home for sale or let is only to say true things, while leaving out the crucial additional information that would put the truth in its ugly context. In other words, no “false statement made with the intention to deceive”—St Augustine’s still unbeatable definition of a lie—but plenty of economy with the truth.

This is also the truth of many lawyers, who always instruct their clients to say only true things, but to leave out anything that might incriminate them. This exposes the difference between a truly moral way of thinking and a kind of legalistic surrogate. Legalistic thinking asks only “what am I permitted to do?” whereas truly moral thinking asks “what would be the right thing to do?” As I have argued in my book Complaint: From Minor Moans to Principled Protest, moral ways of thinking are increasingly being replaced with legalistic ones. We think more of our entitlements, rights and strict legal obligations and less of what is required to be a good person.

Moral codes that stress the avoidance of telling lies are more legalistic than moral because they ultimately focus on the technical issue of whether a claim is true or false, not on the moral issue of whether one is being appropriately truthful. Not telling lies becomes a virtue in itself when, as the philosopher Bernard Williams argued in Truth and Truthfulness, there are two positive virtues of truth, and each is somewhat complex. The first of these he calls accuracy, the second sincerity. People who claim we should never lie not only neglect the second, they also have an impoverished understanding of the first. To say that the truth requires accuracy does not mean simply that everything you say must be 100 per cent correct, but that it must include all the relevant truths. So, for instance, the estate agent may technically be accurate when she describes a property as being 307 metres from the local shop, but it would even more accurate, in Williams’s sense, to point out that the direct route is blocked and so it’s about half an hour’s walk away. Accuracy requires us to say enough to gain an accurate picture; not telling lies only requires us to make sure what we do say is not false.

The second virtue of truth, sincerity, is not required at all by lie-avoiders. Sincerity concerns the earnest desire to say what you truly think and describe what is truly there. That helps explain why one of the most famous “lies” of recent decades is not a lie at all, but objectionable nonetheless: Bill Clinton’s famous “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” As many people have pointed out, to a Southern Baptist, this could indeed be interpreted as being strictly true. “Sexual relations” is, in many parts, a euphemism for coitus, not any other sexual acts between two people. If this is so, then Clinton was accurate only in the legal sense, not in Williams’s. Even more clearly, he was not sincerely trying to convey the truth of his situation.

Williams’s stress on the virtues of truth is therefore much more valuable than the legalistic stress on the vices of lying. It shows that truthfulness—the whole truth if you like—requires more than just true things being said, while acknowledging that there really is no such thing as “the whole truth” anyway. Full disclosure is never possible. Truthfulness is largely a matter of deciding what it is reasonable to withhold.

Nevertheless, even Williams’s account leaves out something else which is very important: the question of whether or not truth always trumps other virtues. “Nothing but the truth” is the wrong maxim if things other than truth matter more. The most obvious examples are of courtesy and concern for people’s feelings, where kindness matters more than revealing the full, naked truth. Even here, however, we need to be careful. There is a risk of second guessing what is best for people or what we think they are able to deal with. Normally, it is better to allow people to make up their own minds on the basis of facts. Withholding truth for someone’s own benefit is sometimes justified but often it simply diminishes their autonomy. This is what Kant got right when he claimed that lying violates the dignity of man.

We might sometimes be justified in lying to others for our own dignity too. Bill Clinton lied, for sure. But he only did so only because a zealous prosecutor brought to public light what should probably have remained private. If what you did is nobody else’s business, aren’t you entitled to lie to preserve your privacy?

Even when it comes to matters that truly belong in the public domain, we should ask ourselves whether we would really prefer politicians to simply speak the truth. Would it really be wise for a prime minister to announce, when a crisis breaks, that no one really knows what’s going on yet or has a clue what to do next? Leadership in a crisis may require projecting more calm and control than one really has behind closed doors. More honesty in politics would certainly be a good thing; complete honesty most probably disastrous.

But perhaps the most interesting counter-example to the twin virtues of sincerity and accuracy was proposed by the sociologist Steve Fuller, who has been widely condemned for suggesting that intelligent design theory merits a hearing. Many of Fuller’s colleagues know he is a smart guy and can’t understand why he persists with this kind of argument. The answer is perhaps to be found in a piece he wrote in the spring 2008 edition of The Philosopher’s Magazine explaining his modus operandi. The idea that one should always say what one truly believes is narcissistic nonsense, he argued. The role of the intellectual is to say what they think needs saying most at any given time in a debate, not to bear testimony to their deepest convictions. Although this might involve some dissembling, it serves the cause of establishing truth in the long run better than simply saying the truth as you see it. What matters is how what one says helps build and expand the widest, most expansive truth—not whether as a distinct ingredient it is more or less true than another.

I find Fuller’s argument very persuasive. Indeed, it fits with my own tendency to want to talk more about the virtues of religion around atheists than with believers, or to question the value of philosophy with philosophers. The quest for truth requires a constant critical edge. In the case of intelligent design, I think Fuller is sharpening the wrong blade, and a dangerous one at that. But the idea that the contemporary consensus needs some shaking from its dogmatic slumber is not such a stupid one, and may justify a suspension of sincerity in the name of furthering debate.

There are, then, numerous reasons why lying is not always wrong, and why telling the truth is not always the main priority. Nevertheless, it is vital to remember that—ultimately—truth matters. You could concoct a hypothetical situation in which we had to choose between lying or creating misery for all humankind, but until and unless we ever come against such scenarios, most of us value truth, even to the detriment of some happiness. That is why we should develop the habit of telling truth, and distaste for lies. Truth should be the default; lying an exception that requires a special justification.

In Born Liars, Ian Leslie rightly points out that lying is deeply connected to what makes us human. We may not be the only creatures who have a “theory of mind”— the ability to see the world from the point of view of others—but we are certainly the species in which that capacity is most developed. It is precisely because of this that the possibility of lying emerges. We can lie only because we understand that others can be made to see the world other than as we know it to be.

But theory of mind is also connected to another human capacity: empathy. As Adam Smith and David Hume argued long before modern psychology strengthened their case, our ability to understand how other people feel is what makes morality possible. Emotional insight is what drives the golden rule: simply by imagining what it would be like to suffer a wrongdoing shows us why it is indeed wrong. So it is with being lied to. In that way, our ability to take up the viewpoint of another is both what makes lying possible and gives us a reason not to do it—usually, at least.