The Truth is a commodity in short supply. The world around is objectively real and packed with immutable facts, but it is also a never-ending conveyor belt of spin, fake news, advertising, self-promotion and bullshit. It can often seem hard to distinguish between the two. In a world where so much of our information is second – or third – hand, how can we work out what’s true and what’s not?
We can start by not telling deliberate untruths.
But even this is fraught with difficulty. Some things are straightforward: it’s obviously wrong to smear the reputation of others and commit fraud, but is also wrong to make yourself look a bit better than you are by varnishing the unflattering truth? Surely it can’t be wrong to spare the feelings of those who would feel devastated if they knew what we really thought? And wouldn’t it be social suicide – an act of self harm – not to conceal our deepest, darkest secrets?
Lying is knowingly giving false information with the intention to deceive or mislead. In Lying: Moral choice in public and private life, Sissela Bok defines a lie as “an intentionally deceptive message in the form of a statement”. We can all think of occasions where we’ve knowingly mislead or deceived others for our own advantage and , generally, most of us are happy to concede that this kind of lying is wrong. Of his own journey to embrace honesty, Peterson says this:
…I began paying attention to what I was doing – and saying. The experience was disconcerting, to say the least. I soon divided myself into two parts: one that spoke, and one, more detached, that paid attention and judged. I soon came to realize that almost everything I said was untrue. I had motives for saying these things: I wanted to win arguments and gain status and impress people and get what I wanted. I was using language to bend and twist the world into delivering what I thought was necessary. But I was a fake. Realizing this, I started to practise telling the truth – or, at least, not lying. I soon learned that such a skill came in very handy when I didn’t know what to do. What should you do when you don’t know what to do? Tell the truth. (p. 205)
Bok explores why all kinds of lying might be considered wrong. First, lying diminishes trust. If people don’t generally tell the truth then no one could be trusted. The irony here is that for lying to be effective we have to trust that most people tell the truth most of the time. Even liars suffer if there is no trust. This is an instance of the prisoner’s dilemma – everyone is best off if we all tell the truth. Additionally, the act of lying displays a disregard for other people. The liar treats those who are lied to as a means to achieve her purpose, rather than as a valuable end in themselves. Our lies lead others to base their decisions on false information, and thereby curtail their freedoms and choices. We might decide it’s another’s best interest for the truth to be withheld, but who are we to make such a decision? Finally, there is idea that as language is essential to cooperation and survival we have an obligation to use it truthfully. Whenever we use language we effectively ‘make a contract’ to use it in a particular way – one of the clauses of this contract is not to use language deceitfully.
While those we lie to no doubt suffer because of the lies we tell, perhaps most importantly, lying corrupts the liar. When we practice to deceive we force ourselves into weaving an increasingly tangled web. We have to remember all our revisions of reality and this makes us wary of those we have lied to. We put our credibility at risk, and, no matter how powerful our lies can make us feel, no one wants to end up as the boy who cried wolf. Consequently, our sense of our own integrity is damaged. Telling lies becomes a habit; if we regularly tell small lies to impress others we’re more likely to be inured against the consequences of telling bigger, more malicious lies to gain advantage over others.
But what of the white lie? What of those occasions where our intentions are good? And what of the kinds of lie that might protect us from harm? These are obviously more complex. Bok proposes what she calls, the test of publicity: “which lies, if any, would survive the appeal for justification to reasonable persons”? Applying this test as a thought experiment would require us to bring together everyone affected by a particular lie – the liar, those lied to and anyone else who might be affected – and then ask this jury to judge our arguments to determine if the lie was justified. In practice, of course, this is impossible, and so Bok proposes that we first inspect our conscience, then ask friends, and then finally reputable and respected independent persons. This is still an impossibly high bar in most situations and the best most of us can accomplish is to consult our conscience. There problem here is that we are invariably biased in our own favour and will go to great lengths to convince ourselves that our actions are righteous and justified.
What consolations are offered the liar by philosophy? Well, a utilitarian would assess a lie on its consequences; if telling a lie did more good than telling the truth than the lie was not only justified, it was right. But, as Bok’s thought experiment makes clear, reasonably assessing the consequences of lie is fiendishly hard. St Augustine thought lying was always wrong, but that some lies were more forgivable than others . Thomas Aquinas agreed and divided lies as being malicious (those intended to harm), jocose (those told for the LOLs), and officious (those intended to be helpful). Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, decided lies are always wrong and that the end never justifies the means.
Before embarking on a lie, Bok suggests we should first ask whether there are truthful alternatives to dealing with the particular problem? Then we should consider what moral justifications there for might be, and what counter-arguments can be raised against those justifications. Finally we can imagine what a public jury of reasonable persons say about our lie. Sounds like an awful lot of trouble doesn’t it? Much simpler to go with Peterson’s advice: “What should you do when you don’t know what to do? Tell the truth.”
The big problem with all the moral justifications for lying is that they depend on two beliefs: that what we currently know is enough to predict the future – that what we know is all that needs to be known; and that reality could not be borne without trying to manipulate it into the shape we arrogantly believe it should be. Peterson makes this prediction:
If you betray yourself, if you say untrue things, if you act out a lie, you weaken your character. If you have a weak character, then adversity will mow you down when it appears, as it inevitably will. You will hide, but there will be no place left to hide. And then you will find yourself doing terrible things. (p. 212)
Kierkegaard saw the need to lie as leading us into a state where it is increasingly easy to ignore error and pretend that the negative consequences we experience don’t exist or aren’t our fault. This way of living is inauthentic. If we are inauthentic we continue to act in ways that our own experience has demonstrated to be false. By making excuses for those around us, by tolerating things we find irritating, by wishing for a quiet life, by allowing ourselves to live a lie, we erode the possibility of happiness.
And what of the truth?
To tell the truth is bring the most habitable reality into Being. Truth builds edifices that can stand a thousand years. Truth feeds and clothes the poor, and makes nations wealthy and safe. Truth reduces the terrible complexity of a man to the simplicity of his word, so he can become a partner, rather than an enemy. Truth makes the past truly past, and makes the best use of the future’s possibilities. Truth is the ultimate, inexhaustible natural resource. It’s the light in the darkness. (p. 230)
If we accept all this it might make running a school and a classroom much easier. If school leaders were to tell the truth, they would stop doing things that they have heard “Ofsted want” or that might help them to game results so that they looked better. If teachers told the truth they would make it clear when a policy drained the joy and vitality from their job and refuse to let it pass unchallenged. They would stop finding ways to justify their results and admit fault where it lay and commit to doing better in the future. If teachers told the truth to their students, then their students would respect them for it. And if students told the truth their teachers would respect them in turn. If the truth was common currency in schools, where would bullying hide? What would happen to the quite, determined and hardworking? With truth would come trust. And if students trust their teachers, then justice becomes possible. If teachers trust their leaders then we might actually get the growth mindset so many say they want to instil in their schools and classrooms.
This probably feels like a risk. It is, but what’s the alternative? Who wants to work in a system run on lies?
Here’s Peterson again: “Truth will not come in the guise of opinions shared by others, as the truth is neither a collection of slogans nor an ideology. It will instead be personal.” You might not always be able to recognise the truth, especially if you’re out of practice at speaking it, but we all damn sure know a lie when we tell one. The first step is stop being dishonest, then who knows what might be possible.