Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Ian Leslie - Born Liars: Why We Can’t Live Without Deceit

Julian Baggini reviews a new book from Ian Leslie, Born Liars: Why We Can’t Live Without Deceit. Leslie looks at the thorny issues of truth and lies and the moral decision making process. The book is not yet released, and it seems to only be available in England. Too bad.

The whole truth

20th April 2011 — Issue 182 Free entry

A new book argues that human beings are born to lie: that we cannot live without deceit. Is this true—and does it matter?

It is ironic that the same rules on unparliamentary language which ban MPs from calling each other liars also forbid them from describing another member as “drunk.” Members are banned from accusing others of not telling the truth on some occasions—and then forced to conceal the truth themselves on others.

There is nothing more common than inconsistency and confusion over the imperative not to tell a lie. While “liar” is universally a term of opprobrium, almost everyone accepts that the social world would cease turning without a good scattering of white lies, half-truths and evasions.

In his new book Born Liars: Why We Can’t Live Without Deceit (Quercus), Ian Leslie is the latest writer to try to work out some of what might follow from the simple realisation that lying is not always wrong. As I see it, the key is to recognise that lying is a problem because of what it is not: telling the truth. And if lying is a complex matter that is because truth is too. So once we get to the truth about lying, we’re already in a dizzying tangle of ideas. To give one example, I could promise right now to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The problem is that sometimes telling the truth is not the point, telling the whole truth is impossible, and there may be things other than the truth that matter too. So even if I went on without a single further lie, the promise itself would have been one.

The problem with telling “the truth” starts with the definite article, because there is always more than one way to give a true account or description. If you and I were to each describe the view of Lake Buttermere, for example, our accounts might be different but both contain nothing but true statements. You might coldly describe the topography and list the vegetation while I might paint more of a verbal picture. That is not to say there is more than one truth in some hand-washing, relativistic sense. If you were to start talking about the cluster of high-rise apartment blocks on the southern shore, you wouldn’t be describing “what’s true for you,” you’d be lying or hallucinating.

So while it is not possible to give “the truth” about Lake Buttermere, it is possible to offer any number of accounts that only contain true statements. To do that, however, is not enough to achieve what people want from truth. It is rather a prescription for what we might call “estate agent truth.” The art of describing a home for sale or let is only to say true things, while leaving out the crucial additional information that would put the truth in its ugly context. In other words, no “false statement made with the intention to deceive”—St Augustine’s still unbeatable definition of a lie—but plenty of economy with the truth.

This is also the truth of many lawyers, who always instruct their clients to say only true things, but to leave out anything that might incriminate them. This exposes the difference between a truly moral way of thinking and a kind of legalistic surrogate. Legalistic thinking asks only “what am I permitted to do?” whereas truly moral thinking asks “what would be the right thing to do?” As I have argued in my book Complaint: From Minor Moans to Principled Protest, moral ways of thinking are increasingly being replaced with legalistic ones. We think more of our entitlements, rights and strict legal obligations and less of what is required to be a good person.

Moral codes that stress the avoidance of telling lies are more legalistic than moral because they ultimately focus on the technical issue of whether a claim is true or false, not on the moral issue of whether one is being appropriately truthful. Not telling lies becomes a virtue in itself when, as the philosopher Bernard Williams argued in Truth and Truthfulness, there are two positive virtues of truth, and each is somewhat complex. The first of these he calls accuracy, the second sincerity. People who claim we should never lie not only neglect the second, they also have an impoverished understanding of the first. To say that the truth requires accuracy does not mean simply that everything you say must be 100 per cent correct, but that it must include all the relevant truths. So, for instance, the estate agent may technically be accurate when she describes a property as being 307 metres from the local shop, but it would even more accurate, in Williams’s sense, to point out that the direct route is blocked and so it’s about half an hour’s walk away. Accuracy requires us to say enough to gain an accurate picture; not telling lies only requires us to make sure what we do say is not false.

The second virtue of truth, sincerity, is not required at all by lie-avoiders.
Read the whole review.

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