The earliest lie I remember telling to my parents potentially throws into question my love for animals: I polished off a plate of food prepared for a party and then blamed our dog.
The poor dog looked guilty as sin when I pointed at him. Case closed.
(Fun fact for dog lovers: dogs are without a moral sense of right and wrong, so they don’t feel guilt. That doleful look they offer is a reaction to your tone, body language and energy.)
In justifying the lie to myself, I figured that the dog doesn’t know what’s going on, nor was my mother all that bothered about a plate of food. Anyway, it was just a little white lie: no one suffered. There’s no harm in that, right? People lie all the time, and for much worse reasons.
Recently, I finished reading Lying by Sam Harris, in which he explores the concept of lying, its impact, and whether there can ever be any justification for it. Lying is an intriguing subject, not least of all because most of us would, I presume, suggest it is, at best, an unhelpful behaviour – and yet it’s something we’ve all done.
The act of lying is something we tend to find shameful, and to be called a liar can invoke intense feelings of anger. To suggest that someone is a liar is so distasteful to the point that, in Britain’s House of Commons, it’s against the rules for parliamentarians to directly call someone a liar. Those who do so are usually called on by the Speaker of the House to retract their remarks. One famous example came from veteran Labour MP Dennis Skinner, who once remarked to the House, “Half the Tory members opposite are crooks.” After the Speaker requested he retract his comments, he replied, “OK, half the Tory members aren’t crooks.”
Is there a case to be made for lying? Scriptures from the main religions suggest not. To refrain from lying appears in the Ten Commandments, and features in the five basic moral precepts of Buddhist practice. In all the great religious traditions, lying appears in the same group as sexual misconduct, stealing and murder. In this light, it’s difficult to suggest an argument for its deliberate and direct use.
In his book, Harris is unequivocal in his argument against lying, writing, “Lying is the royal road to chaos”.
But surely there are some justifications for lying? What about if a friend asks us whether we think they’re overweight when showing off a new outfit for the first time? Is it not kinder to say, “Of course not”, thus sparing their feelings?
According to Harris, we do them a disservice by offering up this sort of white lie. “When we presume to lie for the benefit of others, we have decided that we are the best judges of how much they should understand about their own lives – about how they appear, their reputations, or their prospects in the world.”
He has a point, and rightly describes honest people as “a refuge”. In making an effort to tell the truth, we not only show others that we respect their value and sense of dignity, but we also avoid tainting otherwise healthy relationships with distrust and suspicion: integrity and credibility can take years to establish and yet be destroyed so quickly, as politicians and advertisers and even elements of the media have discovered to their cost.
Harris presents a strong case for honesty, describing it as “a gift we can give to others”.
“It is also a source of power and an engine of simplicity. Knowing that we will attempt to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances, leaves us with little to prepare for. We can simply be ourselves.”
It appears to be best for all involved that honesty is seen – and adopted – as the best policy. After all, we frequently hear much talk of making the world a better place: surely achieving that goal can only begin and end with embracing the truth?
Sandy Clarke has been a keen practitioner of meditation and contemplation for the past 16 years, and believes that the better we understand ourselves and our emotions, the more likely we are to cultivate a positive outlook and sense of contentment.