Lying: The Choices We Make

In her two books, Lying and Secrets, Sissela Bok discusses different forms of deception, and their various uses and justifications in modern life. She also gives many examples of deceptions: stated and unstated, blatant and subtle, “necessary” and unnecessary, omissions and exaggerations, some undertaken “for’ others, others for oneself, some undertaken in order to uncover even deeper deceptions, or to reveal an even deeper truth.

Many of us tolerate what we call “white” lies because we think that they are harmless, or undertaken to avoid disharmony or for a good purpose. Mrs. Bok, however, asserts that lies are always taken more seriously by those who have been lied to than by those who have lied. She believes that one must be careful to avoid them, no matter how “innocent” they may appear, because of what they can do to an atmosphere of trust.

Listed below are examples of such more “innocent” deceptions:

  • A teacher exaggerates the abilities of her student in a college recommendation letter
  • A person says he has a headache in order to avoid a party he doesn’t want to attend
  • A police car is unmarked
  • A doctor lets his patient go on holiday without telling him that he is dying of cancer
  • A mother tells her daughter that she looks nice when she really doesn’t.

Mrs. Bok also cites examples of deceptions or purposeful concealments that cannot be called “innocent,” even in quotation marks, either because they are far more blatant or are more self-serving. Yet these are practices that are widespread –and increasing –in modern life:

  • A researcher claims to be measuring one reaction when he is really measuring another
  • A lawyer creates an alibi in order to keep her innocent client out of jail
  • The prince dresses up as a shepherd to find out what is really happening in his kingdom
  • Parents tell their child that there are monsters in a deep pond
  • A scientist is so convinced of the essential truth of his discovery that he falsifies his data slightly so that he can publish his findings quickly.

Questions to ask:

  • Why is each of the above deceptions defensible?
  • In what sense is it nevertheless a lie?
  • Do you think that all lying is inherently dangerous?
  • Are there ever valid excuses for lying?
  • Is there a difference between social proprieties (e.g., saying “thank you” for a gift you don’t like) and lying?
  • Do you agree with the criteria named above (self-serving, blatant, and so forth) or do you have different criteria for making such distinctions?
  • When one “lies” for another, can that be understood and tolerated?
  • Are lies (in which language is used) more serious than deceptions (allowing others to believe something that is not true)?

Reprinted with the author’s permission from MAKING DECISIONS, by Nancy Faust Sizer (White Plains, NY: Longman Publishing Group, 1984).