Does Society Approve Lying?

Does society approve lying ultimately? This might be a controversial post, but I must focus on an observation I made of society. It is an observation that dwells into the boundary between being completely honest and embellishing details or altering mind-set by saying one thing while thinking something else (I call it lying). What are the moral implications of honesty being exploited and how is it problematic? In this blog, I try to figure out where to draw that line.

Photo by Susanne Nilson / CC BY / Change Resolution & Added text

Photo by Susanne Nilson / CC BY / Added text

Before I go any further, I must say that I do not condone lying, but it is society that tends to reward and maybe –just maybe– nudge people towards lying. I don’t say this based on some anthropology study I did or some some data I found, but simply as an observation of people & society. The world is not this “all-friends” or Barney’s song “I love you, You love me, We are a great big happy family. I wish it was truly a perfectly peaceful picture of the world that you were drawn as a child sheltered from the world. Maybe I was just naive as a child, but the last 5 years I have started to see things brighter than ever before.

Introduction

One of the harder things to do is figure out boundary between being clearly honest and clearly dishonest. I realize that in order to get on good side of people (i.e. a boss at job) or being friendly, you cannot always be completely honest with people.

approve lying

Photo by Ged Carroll / CC BY

There are, of course, some that are too honest and some that are too dishonest. I tend to fall into the former where I am often too truthful. Unfortunately, that has gotten me into trouble a few times or made me appear distant as I used to say exactly how I saw something. This includes criticisms – I used to openly criticize people and their ideas without thinking of consequences. For instance, I have criticized a few teachers in front of the class over why I disagreed with them over a notion they put forth. Now I understand why you don’t do that because it is unprofessional. You put the teacher in awkward position as they can’t respond back but they also can’t not say anything. One of my 8th grade teachers responded harshly at my criticism of her phrasing of an exam question that I got 2 points taken off, but after class, she told me that she can’t show any leniency in front of class even if I was right as it makes her look bad. At that time, I did not understand what she was talking about, but now I understand. You pull the teacher aside AFTER class so it does not come as humiliating the teacher (and for 2 points?? Honesty is not worth it then). That was not the first time or the last time either.

I have slowly pushed away from that the last couple years. I realized that often you have to tell people what they want to hear instead of what you may think. I did not learn this before, but in trying to avoid making enemies or insulting people, you have to suppress certain judgments, no matter how truthful they might be. This is not limited to a few specific situations but many types of situations, including both politics and religion. You cannot always be completely honest.

Online, it does not matter much as people will argue for a bit and then move on. In real life, this will affect you when it comes to jobs and working in teams or anything else. If you want to hold a job, you cannot tell your boss “You suck at your job. Let me show you how you can do x, y, and z more effectively & efficiently.” You might be fired on the spot, even if your objectives and vision are towards improvement. Sadly, society tends to nudge to the point that you might be better off saying something different than what you think (Again, I call that dishonesty a.k.a lying).

Deception & Self-Deception

There are also other lies that we tell ourselves or through self-deception. We talk or act a certain way to come across as being rich. We dress a certain way or put on makeup to look better. We walk with our heads held up high or with “swagger” to show self-pride. We might carry an expensive phone or lease an expensive car to look wealthy. In some cases, people might get plastic surgeries or breast augmentation to look more appealing. Women lose weight to reach a hip to waist ratio that society considers sexy or wear painful high-heel shoes to make legs appear longer. A drug addict may keep telling himself that he/she will quit soon. We post specific Facebook pictures to make ourselves look a certain way – rich, proud, appealing, sexy, smart, interesting, brave, etc. This is all self-deception and essentially lying by trying to deceive ourselves and others. Society indirectly nudges us to look and be a certain way.

society approve lying

Self-deception / Photo by Gobi / CC BY

If you want to get a job, you must respond a certain way and make yourself look smarter or more prepared for the position than you may be. You must sell yourself through some sort of deception if you want the job. You cannot say or appear to be lazy, careless, angry at the world, cynical, druggie, unprepared, etc. You may have to put on a suit and tie to look sharp & neat, which you may not truly be. You have to show formal manners, respect, sit up straight, and answer directly with a big smile (even if the interviewer is being extremely rude). Of course, you want to avoid showing political or religious views or affiliations unless if it is absolutely necessary. You cannot be completely honest unless if it is something that will help you get that specific job. People that are experienced in how to communicate or be persuasive can get a job that they may not even be qualified for! This is all deception and self-deception.

So now, where do you draw the line?

Path to Lying

To start off, this entire issue becomes problematic at the point of starting down the path to lying.

Once you start down this road, small lies will often lead to much bigger ones if you get away with it from one lie to the next. The road to becoming a liar is difficult to understand. Spotting one is even more difficult. I know I know, movies say to look for excessive blinking, nervous mannerisms and other behaviors, but without training you will not be able to tell. Even with training, a pathological liar may be almost impossible to spot. In worst cases, the lie might be so well-instilled that even tortures, such as water-boarding and electric shock, may not get the truth out (includes spies, terrorists, and government agents trained in lying).

Maybe it is about how you say it. A big smile? Friendly pat on the back then lie your face off? A few compliments to get other person comfortable? A big one politicians exploit is using your emotions to their advantage — they bring up your family (“Choose best future for your children by voting me *wink wink*”), your religious beliefs (“I share your religious beliefs. What would god do? *wink wink*”), making you well (“I will make you wealthy and chase your dream! *wink wink*”). I saw many politicians step in and exploit people with lies right after 9/11 to push their own agendas when families were most vulnerable from fear. Emotions have been exploited many times since recorded history. Lucky for me (sarcasm), I can recognize these situations quickly when emotions are being exploited as I am anything but an emotional person (double-edged sword as emotions don’t guide me, but I tend to stay distant/cold from others due to this).

People can become masters of deceit after just a few big lies. Politicians are usually the GREATEST masters of lying. In sports, there are those like Lance Armstrong and Alex Rodriguez that lied about cheating with steroids. Some media journalists and radio political commentators – another big one whose job is to shift opinions of the listeners. A few lies here, a few lies there. Before you know it, you become a masterful pathological liar that even the best psychologists may have hard time spotting.

Question of Morality

We started off with small lies/dishonesty and moved up the scale to bigger lies. The picture I drew in the section above shows that more liars get away than those that don’t. Biggest lies are perpetuated by those that have the most the gain and the least to lose. That is where we enter the point of this blog entry.

Morality is not as simple as “A trumps B and C trumps D.” You still have to prove that it was in-fact a lie. For years, a liar might get away, but eventually I believe the lie will catch-up IF lie is a) big enough and b) people have evidence and reason to speak out against it. As we know, “He said she said” is not legit argument and so people might get away with whatever lie they want without some sort of evidence to hold them accountable even if many people speak out.

So considering everything, I believe it is both a question of principle and realizing when it is going too far. Unfortunately, the argument does not end there. It goes another step further. If lying goes against ethics and people realize their lie goes too far, money (a.k.a power) changes the entire equation. OJ Simpson, who every person knew had murdered his wife with the evidence piled against him and had lied his face off, was able to get away with his superstar lawyer team.

Morally, I think we will all agree lying is wrong. Realistically, if people get away with it through cheating, loopholes & big lawyers for the most heinous crimes (murder) and financial crimes that lead to massive economy meltdowns most recently, how is it wrong now? As far as the economy goes, the precedent was set that if anything goes wrong in the future, the companies will simply get bailed out by government/tax money with limited consequences even if they used fraud and lies. It cannot be wrong if it is tolerated by society.

Lying has been seen as a threat to civil society, by authors such as Kant. A society that tolerates lies – the argument goes – is a society in which trust is undermined and, with it, the sense of collectivity. (Ethics of Lying)

More importantly, how do you teach children about how real world works? You cannot be 100% honest and somehow instill into children the mindset that lying is acceptable because society lets it go. You cannot not mention it though or lie about the real world to children because otherwise they will be up for a rude awakening when they get out there and see how the world works. I am not sure if I have an answer at this moment as I need time to reflect on it – future blog entry.

Takeaway Points? Does Society Approve Lying?

My answer to the title question is YES. Society does approve lying, dishonesty, deception, self-deception, whatever you want to call it. In the past, I would have said no, but I was wrong. Deception is everywhere. It is not limited to heinous crimes only; every time you walk with swagger with your pants pulled down, put makeup on, get a cool haircut, spray on expensive perfume or put on expensive brand name anything, you are involving in deception and self-deception of some sort. Truthfully, deception is not limited to just humans. Other animals like chimpanzees show deception: chimp deception and more here.

The moral of the story is to find the right balance. The best boundary is, of course, do not get stuck in a big lie that goes too far or damages the good of society. Unfortunately, you also cannot be 100% truthful (which is what I don’t understand yet). How can I say something that is mostly truthful but not too brutally honest that it gets me into trouble OR is a straight out lie that also gets me into trouble? I never thought I would see the day when being too honest is just as damageable as being too dishonest. I guess any extreme can fester if given the chance.

As far as money and power letting you off the hook for the most damageable lies, cheats & frauds.. I do not know. All I know is that sometimes you have to let the evidence speak for itself. I understand every person is entitled to a lawyer since you are innocent until proven guilty. On the other hand, what sort of message does it send if the evidence is piled against you but a great expensive lawyer is able to get you off? We see this with professional athletes and politicians all the time. Somebody poor may be at the mercy of whichever lawyer is assigned their case even if they’re innocent. In my view, this is where the justice system often falls apart. Do I have a solution? Not yet.

The boundary between truth and lie is blurred based on how societal values are set. My belief is to be honest with yourself as truth DOES matter. Sometimes, we cannot help ourselves. We all want to look good, knowledgeable, fashionable, smart, rich, etc. At the end of the day, honesty is a choice. Dishonesty might get you far in life and make you wealthy, but is that worth losing your integrity? Not for me to decide for you. Only person that can decide that is YOU.

Photo by Duncan Hull / CC BY

Photo by Duncan Hull / CC BY

Feel free to state your opinion and/or disagree. I welcome all debates, discussions, and comments!

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Harsh Shukla

I am an Information Technology graduate from Rutgers University New Jersey, USA. I like to blog about my interests in science, technology, philosophy, and about the wonders of life.
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One Response

  1. Florencio October 19, 2016

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