Valentine's Day is not a bad day to think about our human propensity to lie. I have received cards this week full of statements of undying, flowery love from friends and with verses created by Hallmark and other card makers full of romantic exaggerations that many of us either like to hear or smile at. I can't help recall Jon Stewart's crack during the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal: Isn't lying basic to sex? he asked.
A recent article by Clancy Martin takes issue with a new book on lying by Sam Harris, who argues that all lies are wrong, even white lies, which can lead to greater deceptions. Harris is in line with Aristotle, Dante, and Thomas Aquinas, who say that the essential trust necessary for communication is broken by deception. didn't Merlin tell Arthur that truth is the greatest virtue for a knight? It is no wonder that Dante places the deceivers in the 8th circle of Hell, near the bottom: they have undermined the truth and the trust that society depends on.
They have also, as Martin does not mention, hurt others. My social lies are mostly harmless. Invited to an event I do not like or wish to attend, I say politely, "I'm sorry, but I have another commitment." If I told the truth--"I don't want to waste my time in the miserable company of people like you"--I would hurt my would-be host.
Calling in sick to work, a daily event, is more serious, it would seem than a social white lie; it might well impact other employees in addition to misleading the employer. So, as Augustine recognized, there are many types and shadings of lies, so Harris's blanket condemnation comes as a surprise.
Martin mentions in passing an important point that he does not develop: that deceit is basic in the animal world. He refers to self-preservation, presumably, and says that deception, trust, and communication are all interwoven so much so that "truthfulness, rather than being the rule, starts to look like the exception." Is that why we so value the truth?
Maybe, he says, in a short piece full of such qualifications, we prize the truth because it is rare. People in sales and politics, among areas other than romance, lie to us all the time, yet we continue to trust them, says Martin. Do we? In matters involving flirtation, he goes on, we often hope that the other person will lie to us, and we often lie to ourselves (that's something of a mystery to me).
Perhaps, says Martin, we insist that lying is wrong because "lying only works if we flatter ourselves that...we are telling the truth." I would like to see more discussion here before I am ready to accept this thesis. Is moral truth, a topic discussed some years ago by Sissela Bok, among other contemporary philosophers, essentially a matter of protecting our own pride? What about the harm deception does to others?
If deception harms no one, as in a Valentine, it is not a moral issue; if lying does harm, it is wrong.