We often behave in ways that are guaranteed to make us unhappy.
Many of us spend our lives marching with open eyes toward remorse, regret, guilt, and disappointment. And nowhere do our injuries seem more casually self-inflicted, or the suffering we create more disproportionate to the needs of the moment, than in the lies we tell to other human beings.
Lying, even about the smallest matters, needlessly damages personal relationships and public trust.
What Is a lie?
To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication.
A person may be impeccably truthful while being mistaken. To speak truthfully is to accurately represent one’s beliefs.
But it is in believing one thing while intending to communicate another that every lie is born.
Of course, the liar often imagines that he does no harm as long as his lies go undetected. But the one lied to almost never shares this view. The moment we consider our dishonesty from the point of view of those we lie to, we recognise that we would feel betrayed if the roles were reversed.
The Mirror of Honesty
Research suggests that all forms of lying—including white lies meant to spare the feelings of others—are associated with poorer-quality relationships.
Knowing that we will attempt to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances, leaves us with little to prepare for. We can simply be ourselves.
To do this is also to hold a mirror up to one’s life—because a commitment to telling the truth requires that one pay attention to what the truth is in every moment. What sort of person are you? How judgmental, self-interested, or petty have you become?
Telling the truth can also reveal ways in which we want to grow, but haven’t.
Two Types of Lies
Ethical transgressions are generally divided into two categories: the bad things we do (acts of commission) and the good things we fail to do (acts of omission).
It is one thing to reach into the till and steal $100; it is another to neglect to return $100 that one has received by mistake.
There are many reasons to believe that lying is precisely the sort of behavior we need to outgrow in order to build a better world.
White lies are still lies. And in telling them, we incur all the problems of being less than straightforward in our dealings with other people.
Sincerity, authenticity, integrity, mutual understanding—these and other sources of moral wealth are destroyed the moment we deliberately misrepresent our beliefs, whether or not our lies are ever discovered.
By reassuring your friend about her appearance, you are not helping her to do what you think she should do to get what she wants out of life.
The opportunity to say something useful to the people we love soon disappears, never to return.
Failures of personal integrity, once revealed, are rarely forgotten. We can apologise, of course. And we can resolve to be more forthright in the future. But we cannot erase the bad impression we have left in the minds of other people.
When asked for our opinion, we do our friends no favours by pretending not to notice flaws in their work, especially when those who are not their friends are bound to notice these same flaws.
Many secrets—especially those we are asked to keep for others—can put us in a position where we will be forced to choose between lying and revealing privileged information.
To agree to keep a secret is to assume a burden.
Lies in Extremis
Even as a means to ward off violence, lying often closes the door to acts of honest communication that may be more effective.
In those circumstances where we deem it obviously necessary to lie, we have generally determined that the person to be deceived is both dangerous and unreachable by any recourse to the truth.
Nevertheless, I continue to find that a willingness to be honest—especially about truths that one might be expected to conceal—often leads to much more gratifying exchanges with other human beings.
When you tell the truth, you have nothing to keep track of. The world itself becomes your memory, and if questions arise, you can always point others back to it.
It seems that in protecting their egos, and interpreting their own behavior as justified, liars tend to deprecate the people they lie to.
What does it mean to have integrity? It means many things, of course, but one criterion is to avoid behaviour that readily leads to shame or remorse.
To lie is to erect a boundary between the truth we are living and the perception others have of us. The temptation to do this is often born of an understanding that others will disapprove of our behavior. Often, there are good reasons why they would.
Most of us are now painfully aware that our trust in government, corporations, and other public institutions has been undermined by lies.
Of course, certain controversies arise because expert opinion has come down on both sides of an important issue.
An unhappy truth of human psychology is probably also at work here, which makes it hard to abolish lies once they have escaped into the world: We seem to be predisposed to remember statements as true even after they have been disconfirmed.
In psychology, this is known as the “illusory truth effect.” Familiarity breeds credence.
Lying is, almost by definition, a refusal to cooperate with others.
By lying, we deny others a view of the world as it is. Our dishonesty not only influences the choices they make, it often determines the choices they can make—and in ways we cannot always predict.