Lying’s OK – Honestly!


More people are lying on application forms to obtain credit, insurance and other products, according to the UK Fraud Prevention Service (CIFAS). The CIFAS database indicated a jump of some 24 per cent from 62,000 in 2004 to 77,000 in 2007 in fraudulent loan applications.

The most frequent lies were to conceal poor credit histories and exaggerating the length of time an applicant was at an address. Fraudsters believe that stability increases the chance of getting a loan.

Richard Wiseman reports in the Guardian (April 21, 2007) that he carried out a national survey into lying, focusing on adults in Britain. Only 8 per cent of respondents claimed never to have lied. In another experiment, he invited people to keep a detailed diary of every conversation they had and all the lies they told over a two-week period. The results suggest most people tell about two significant lies each day, a third of conversations involve some form of deception, four in five lies remain undetected, more than 80 per cent of people have lied to secure a job and more than 60 per cent of the population have cheated on their partners at least once.

I suspect that very few people are really comfortable telling a lie, yet most of us have become used to a society in which lies are told openly. Think about politicians, who strenuously seek to avoid making too many specific commitments. To diminish accountability and avoid actually lying, many people use deliberately vague language that is full of ambiguity so a contradiction cannot be identified at a later date. It is just as important to listen to what is not said as to listen to what is said.

part and parcel

So is telling lies a part of our society as much as, say, eating breakfast? Consider the world of business. There is a thought that suggests the maxim, “If it is legal, then it can be done.” Some feel it may be necessary to reinvent one’s past on an application form in order to get that job. “Buyer beware” implies it is not the job of the company to disclose everything. If employees need not know the factory will be closing in three months, they can be told, “For the foreseeable future, things will be fine.” Other common statements one hears are, “If I don’t do it, somebody else will”; “If we always told the truth we would go out of business”; and “Everyone does it.”

There is, however, an obvious weakness in the argument that equates morality and ethical behaviour with the majority. The majority can be wrong. Somebody doesn’t become more or less right according to the number of people who believe it. To take an extreme example: slavery was wrong, even at a time when most people believed it not to be. We know better now. The arguments being used to justify it then and now seem to be completely unutterable. Could it be that some other old and accepted traditions need to be revised-or even thrown out?

honestly, it’s OK

While lies are told at every level of our society, it seems that honesty is one of the most sought-after attributes in a friend, partner, employee or employer. Most of us actively seek out people whom we feel would not lie to us.

In building our relationships, we look for people we feel are faithful and honest. Honesty generates trust and is an important ingredient in any relationship. Marriage is built on trust and openness. If there is no honesty or trust, there is not much left.

Yet everyone is aware that dishonesty is very common. We are no longer surprised when we hear about leaders in politics, religion, medicine, academia or journalism saying and doing things that betray trust. And if we are really honest with ourselves, there have been times when we deceived others. So it should not surprise us to see and hear of people who tell and live lies.

the truth of the matter

In her book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, Sissela Bok defines lying as a statement, believed by the liar to be false, made to another person with the intention that the person be deceived by the statement.

Bok argues that one insignificant lie can easily become habit-forming and deception by silence or omission can be dishonest. People who tell the little “white lies” easily find themselves in a situation where far more serious lies are being told and lived out.

In determining whether a lie can be justified, Bok offers some suggestions. She says people ought to consult their own conscience. Then she suggests we consider all the truthful alternatives. Further issues to consider would include the context of the lie, the relationship between the liar and the dupe, and the pros and cons brought about by the lie.

After following this more subjective process, she suggests the perpetrator consider how an audience would feel about the lie. Any defence needs to be acceptable to a reasonable public.

The executive director of the St James Ethics Centre in Sydney, Dr Simon Longstaff, thinks lying and falsehood may have become easier in today’s society because we are effectively anonymous. Much of our communication is online or by remote means-on Facebook or by phone, email or SMS. Using these methods, people cannot read your body language or see your face and eyes. In fact, the consequences of your lying may be entirely removed from anything affecting you. But it can work the other way, too, he said.

“In a highly networked environment, if what you do is discovered, it does not just affect your individual relationship with a single person, but in fact, becomes apparent almost immediately to the whole network that you’ve engaged in lying. It may be that the ‘peer pressure’ of the network and its connections is such that it works against lying.”

We still live in a world in which much trust exists. We still live in a world in which people expect to be told the truth. It is this trust that makes it possible for people to deceive. Lies work best in a system where truth-telling prevails-simply because a lie that is not believed is hardly a deception.

Maybe some wise counsel from the apostle Paul that was given a long time ago is still relevant for our modern day. He said, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).

Listen to an extended interview with Dr Simon Longstaff of the St James Ethics Centre.

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