Lance Armstrong, Bernard Maydoff, and Clark Rockefeller (real name: Christian Gerhartsreiter), prominent athlete, fraudulent financier, and global conman respectively, are all known for their repeated lies and denials. President Bill Clinton and numerous global political leaders have also been caught lying to the public. And all, or most all, of us must admit to some kind of lying and deceit—either for self-centered or altruistic reasons.
What is a lie? Why do we lie? Is lying ever justified? On what moral grounds is lying (along with cheating) to be condemned? These are questions important for the integrity of our own lives, for teaching children and youth, and for the proper functioning of society.
Dictionaries define lies as statements (could be actions or stances) that are not true, statements made to deceive or give false impressions. Falsehoods or deceptions are closely synonymous, and cheating is closely related. (Lie and Lying can be both verbs and nouns; lying a present participle of lie.)
Moral philosophers and ethicists have studied lying. Sissela Bok, professor at Brandeis and then Harvard School of Public Health, has written Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (1978). From “fibs” or “little white lies” to serious, public and immoral lies, the book analyzes the increasingly complex levels of lying from childhood to adulthood. Withholding judgment of the Lance Armstrong case until she know more details, Bok stated that in general:
Step by step, lies can build to what seems like the point of no return…. From a liar’s perspective, you’re very optimistic about not getting caught. Also you think you have good reasons to lie, or good intentions. But the people being deceived—investors, public citizens, whoever—don’t necessarily feel that way.
Bok distinguishes between liars with some sense of conscience and those without any sense of remorse. For both a day of reckoning can come. Referring to those teammates who claim that Armstrong’s lies have ruined their lives, Bok says, “That should bother someone, but it may not.”
Like the rest of us who lie, and most of us do in our daily lives, (Armstrong’s apparent deception) is easy to push aside cognitively. For most people, it won’t eat away at them on a daily basis. We humans are good at compartmentalizing.
The Boston Globe (from which some of the above on Bok and Friedman has been used) ran an article: “Lying as just another part of life: Armstrong case reflects larger lesson about human life.” It cites a 2012 Gallup poll “finding that 43% of Americans rate the country’s state of moral values as “poor,” and 73% indicate it’s getting worse. Dishonesty, deception, and integrity (or lack of it) are part of the problem, respondents said, along with loss of religious faith and a breakdown of family structure.” (17Jan2013, A1, 20)
… the underlying causes of (this generation’s) difficulties (are) rampant consumer capitalism, ongoing failures in education, hyper-individualism, and postmodernist moral relativism (among other features of contemporary American culture. (Book Cover-leaf)
How some of this generation have copied previous generations and current realities of American life is captured in one (typical of many) interview. A young man justifies lying as necessary in the dog-eat-dog world, a world which actually requires lying:
I don’t think lying is wrong necessarily. It’s life. People lie. That’s my view on the whole thing. Everyone’s done it. It’s not going to go away. People are brought up not to cheat. I think from a moral standpoint, yeah, it’s wrong. But, I don’t know, people cheat. That’s how a lot of people have gotten ahead in life, especially in this country. It’s like a cutthroat world out there. Do or die. Get it done, or move over…. There’s no room for weak people, almost in a sense.
(Asked how he personally responds to such a world): I don’t agree with it, but I live in it. I will do what I can to get ahead in this world while I am here. It’s just what it is. (Lost in Transition, pp. 47-48)
This book and many young adults we talk to, beg for mentors and instructors who will relate personally with this emerging generation, bring experience and wisdom into discussions exploring moral foundations and the cost and alternatives to lying. They are looking for partners without extremism or dogmatism with whom they can explore values, morality, and the good life. The dignity and integrity all seek, underneath it all, is a life of honesty and trustworthiness.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
1. Does outright lying bother you? Why so? Have you ever been lied to or deceived that has stuck with you?
2. What lie of a business, political, professional, or religious leader do you remember as striking you with some shock or consternation?
3. Does this article point to an important issue in our private and public lives? How well, in your opinion, does it introduce the matter? What suggestions do have to improve this article?
4. Can you give a situation in which you think a lie would be proper or acceptable? In what kind of cases are lies not to be tolerated? What different levels of social and personal sanctions are called for in response to different kinds of lies?
5. On what basis of morality do you judge lies and other matters to be judged? What makes something right or wrong?
6. Are matters of lying and cheating, right and wrong, important matters to be discussed? In families? In schools and university classrooms? In businesses? Among friends?
1. Where there is no trust there can be no efficient business transactions, no healthy society. Trust is necessary for marital and family cohesion. Lying and cheating erode trust.
2. There is strong encouragement for morality and honesty in religious traditions. Consider how your faith, or life without faith, establishes moral honesty.
3. Christians and those of other faiths need to understand the commonalities of their moral bases. Atheists and those without specific faith are realizing the importance of the moral life upon their basic principles of life. It is important to collaborate in reinforcing the moral life of our pluralistic societies.