- We are familiar with the classical ethical and philosophical discussions of the constructive uses of falsehood. For example, telling a lie to save lives; telling a child what exactly is happening in a terminal illness; or, the wide array of discussions about subjective perception, understanding, or the artful representations in communication every day.
- The essay bypasses these, not because of a lack of recognition, but focuses on the basic issue of willfully telling a lie.
- Statements about the law, politics, or advertising are not meant to be construed as unsympathetic to the many moral uses of these fields made by millions every day. The remarks are directed at those who knowingly use and abuse the truth for their own reasons within these disciplines or fields of activity.
- We started not to include the pungent, condemning biblical text from Jeremiah, but thought it important to show the strength of repudiation for lying the passage shows–not to threaten readers.
- Since we seek to educate and raise awareness, we have done ethically the best we could in a short space, and welcome any critical comments on our Contact Page, to which we will respond.
Biblical Ethics Guidelines
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” [Exodus 20:13d]
“A truthful witness gives honest testimony, but a false witness tells lies… A truthful witness saves lives, but a false witness is deceitful…. A false witness will not go unpunished, and who pours out lies will perish…. A false witness will perish, and whoever listens to him will be destroyed forever…. Do not testify against your neighbor without cause, or use your lips to deceive.” [Proverbs 12:17; 14:5; 14:25; 19:9; 21:28; 24:28]
“One man cheats the other, they will not speak truth; they have trained their tongues to speak falsely; they wear themselves out working iniquity. You dwell in the midst of deceit. In their deceit, they refuse to heed Me, declared the Lord. Assuredly, thus said the Lord of Hosts: Lo, I shall smelt and assay them–for what else can I do because of My poor people? Their tongue is a sharpened arrow, they use their mouths to deceive. One speaks to his fellow in friendship, but lays an ambush for him in his heart. Shall I not punish them for such deeds?–says the Lord–shall I not bring retribution on such a nation as this?” [Jeremiah 9:4-8]
“You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” [Gospel of John 8:32]
Leading Ethical Themes
The Hebrew Bible’s famous Ten Commandments include one that forbids lying. Though not quoted here, the Hebrew Bible is loaded with commandments against false weights and measures, taking bribes (which leads to actions on false pretenses), and more. There are some examples of believers who lied and suffered the consequences. Yet throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, God speaks truth, commands truth, and promises punishment for liars.
The passages above are just a few examples of the Bible’s position that truth-telling is commanded by God, that truth-twisting or truth-denying are against the nature and will of God for human beings. No more illustrations or commentary is needed than these summary statements which are representative of the biblical position.
General Reflections on Lying
Most people have a commonsense understanding of what it means to lie. The legal definition of “lie” interestingly is almost exactly what we think. Black’s Law Dictionary (4th Ed, 1951, p. 1071B) defines “lie” as: “An untruth deliberately told; the utterance or acting of that which is false for the purpose of deceiving; intentional misstatement.”
To make the decision to lie is a moral issue when a person intentionally chooses to misrepresent the truth known or perceived. The person believes he or she knows the truth, and the choice is made to hide or distort it. Of course, the truth perceived may not be completely accurate. The liar may not have all the facts; may not accurately interpret the facts known; or, may be emotionally driven or less rational in evaluating the facts. Nevertheless, the liar has chosen to alter what is believed to be the truth.
Core Motivation: Control
Motivations for lying are generated as attempts to control persons, conditions, or events. The person deciding to lie has decided that the truth must be hidden or distorted, or else the consequences are believed (sometimes rightly, for example, if laws have been broken, and if charges are brought) to be avoided.
The lie seeks to control outcomes through (a) preventing them; (b) creating them; (c) modifying them; or (d) intervening them. There are many assumptions, which are presumptuous to the extreme, but these are reserved for the subsection following the next one treating the specific drivers of the motivation to control through lying.
Driving Forces to Lie for Control
Most people focus on causes or reasons often used to justify lying. However, morally this is entirely wrong. No person, event, or condition “forces” anyone to lie. What persons do, events that happen, or compounded and complex conditions creating fear, are outside us. Not one of them can force us to flee from, hide, or distort the truth.
So we must look at ourselves, since we are the liars, to gain understanding for the driving forces which–if allowed to run riot with our morality–will draw us to lie.
- Emotions – Emotions are powerful forces pushing us to lie. The ancient philosophers and religious teachers warned against the powers of emotions because they are (a) temporary, (b) unreliable, (c) sub-rational [and what we know now are biochemical and hormonal, complex activities in the brain], and (d) supra-rational in their tendencies [stronger than rational processes]. Here are some emotions: fear, anger, love, hate, disgust, and jealousy, among others. Question: How many times have you lied based on any emotion?
- Cognitive Processes – Emotions may require the mind to create a lie, but the mind can create lies without emotion. If a person sets a goal, any goal, the follows “the ends justify the means,” if a lie serves toward the end, it serves well enough. Someone with a goal of genocide may create lies to achieve that goal. A US military or intelligence agent questioning a prisoner may tell a lie to get information. A CEO may create a lie for more profits, or gain a business advantage. Question: Have you ever created a “cold” lie to achieve a goal?
- Behaviors – Betraying your spouse with a marital infidelity, stealing money from your company, are examples of behaviors that likely generate lies to prevent consequences. “Going along with the crowd” while they do something unethical or immoral is an act one may lie to hide. Question: Have you ever done something then lie to hide it?”
Lies are constructed as control devices. The lie or lies may be intended for control responses that are short-term or long-term. The lie may be simple, singular in itself, or one part of a plan that itself is a string of lies. The lie or plan of lies usually is a mixture of emotions and thoughts producing the lying behaviors and acts.
There are at least two kinds of liars: (1) incidental and (2) habitual. In the former case, the lie is constructed for a particular case of sufficient cause, to control it. In the latter case, lies are constructed–in varying forms and extents–regularly to control all manner of persons, events, and conditions.
The basic, essential definition of a pathological liar is one who does not know, or recognize, he or she is hiding, distorting, or otherwise abusing the truth. There can be neurological causes for pathological lying, such as thalmic dysfunction. No one should discount how external events, or perceived events, when prolonged also generate deep, long-term changes in biochemical productions in the brain. We will not discuss this process.
Pathological lying commonly is linkable to some mental disorders: Antisocial Personality Disorder [ASPD], Conduct Disorder [CD], Dissociative Disorders [DD]. Here are some selected elements of the features psychiatrists use to identify these disorders, taken from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders:
- “deceit and manipulation are central features” [ASPD]
- “lack empathy and tend to be callous, cynical, and contemptuous of the feelings, rights, and sufferings of others” [ASPD]
- “have an inflated and arrogant self-appraisal” [ASPD]
- “may display a glib, superficial charm … and verbally facile” [ASPD]
- “common among first-degree biological relatives of those with the disorder”
- “repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others, or major age-appropriate societal norms or rules are violated” [CD]
- “aggressive conduct that causes or threatens physical harm to other people” [CD]
- “non-aggressive conduct that causes property loss or damage” [CD]
- “deceitfulness or theft” [CD]
- “serious violations of rules” [CD]
- “disruption in usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception” [DD]
- “dissociative states are a common and accepted expression of cultural activities or religious experience in many societies” [DD]
Leaders reading the above list may be bored or failing to make appropriate connections with the subject of pathological lying for leaders in any organization. We make a few direct and clear correlations.
- Law – Leaders are well familiar with the law. Many hold law degrees. This is nearly universally true in Congress, as well as corporations. Suspension of full truth-telling is a regular feature of the law. Manipulation of existing facts to construct offensive or defensive legal goals is intrinsic. Victory in legal actions is considered justification by our most official structures for social regulation, our courts.
- Politics – Leaders in all areas of US society are familiar with political values–winning objectives–and methods. From 1532, when Niccolo Machiavelli published his handbook on political strategy, Il Principe [The Prince], or as far back as we can go in history in all handbooks on military strategy [e.g., Sun Tzu or Antoine Henri Jomini, both whose books bear the same title, The Art of War], deception is basic for politics.
- Marketing – Leaders in all organizations–government, for-profit, nonprofit–naturally make use of marketing goods and services. Marketing intends to “make the sale” or persuade targeted groups to transfer funds, the power inhering in partnerships and alliances useful to the marketing entity, including non-tangibles such as volunteer time. Some organizations have such high commitments to truth, their marketing proceeds from the presupposition they must represent truthfully all they communicate to “make the sale.” These are in the minority. Government agencies and all other organizations generally have needs and targets leading them to walk whatever “tightrope” between pure truth and “what is necessary” to maintain their separate, private definitions of “integrity.” In many cases, integrity is defined as the highest profitability, in money or power. So the “tightrope” lies on the ground, loose and easily trodden like a snake, with little effort.
When we combine the psychiatric-pathological etiologies of several chronic mental disorders, with such broadly American, institutionalized areas as law, politics, and marketing, we come to a not simplistic conclusive observation.
Americans grow up and live amidst national institutions which naturally lend themselves to the perception, use, and adoption of structural values and methods rendering some characteristics of pathological lying a normal feature of life.
Presumptions of Liars
To make the decision to lie is presumptive. The liar presumes he or she knows the truth. The liar presumes the truth must be hidden or distorted. The liar presumes the lie constructed is better than the truth. The liar presumes much regarding the lie’s present and future “costs and benefits.”
- The presumption the lie has more benefits than truth.
- The presumption the lie will lead to predicted goals.
- The presumption that knowledge known about persons to whom the lie is told enables reliable predictions for their emotional, cognitive, and behavioral responses.
- The presumption the lie told to third parties will be (1) controllable; (2) harmless; or (3) irrelevant in consequences.
- The presumption current conditions and events will remain stable, upon which the lie was formulated.
- The presumption variable conditions, events, accurate transmission, etc, factored into the lie are predictable and controllable.
- The presumption the lie can be explained, adapted, multiplied, etc, still with more benefits than truth.
Anyone of us who ever lied can look back and see how presumptuous we were. In our emotions, thought processes, and behaviors, we imagined we could control people, events, and conditions we could not. In fact, one lie often led to another to “cover our tracks.” As wise persons always have said, “It is easier to tell the truth, which is simpler to remember, than to try to keep track of all the lies.”
Yes, the truth can be threatening. The truth often is complex. The truth can get us into trouble when surrounded by liars who betray and punish truth-tellers. This is why we must do all we can to steer clear of liars, or to get ourselves away from them when we learn their habits. Sometimes a new job, even a lower-paying job, even in our precarious economy may be the best thing to salvage your sleep at night, your mental and emotional health, and your integrity.
Effects of Lying on Character
- The first decision to lie produces guilt, remorse, and usually a line of reasoning intended to remove, lessen, or transform negative emotions and thoughts about the “real” nature or severity of the lie.
- Failure to see and accept the lie for what it is (1) enables powers for self-delusion and (2) dilutes the original strength of ethical and moral values and principles.
- The first lie unsuccessfully identified, resisted, and rejected, creates an experience-event on which you later will reflect that you did it, which serves as a reinforcement.
- New cases where the truth presents a real or perceived threat or adverse consequences become subject to the lie as a proven past control device.
- Repetitions of lying creates a stronger and stronger network of experiences where lying is a “normal” activity.
- Conscience becomes perforated, eroded, and weakened.
- Original values for what is truth and what is falsehood become distorted, based on experience.
- Original emotional responses against lying are deadened, and often removed through disuse, atrophy, and even rejection.
- Original behavioral ineptitude at lying becomes replaced with skills at lying, protecting lies told, etc.
- Undiagnosed Pathological Lying is the result of regular repetitions of lies in various forms: gross breaches of truth, “half-truths,” legalized misrepresentations, socialized reinforcements of “lying as normal.”
Weakening Drivers to Lie
The preceding subsection ought to make clear that the ways in which our American society have developed over time combine to produce environmental, repetitive, shaping conditions for the broad-based acceptance of lying not as a formal ethical or moral value–which all impugn and reject, except the unethical and immoral–but as a deep, constitutive part of American life that is normal, based on years of conditioning.
This observation is more than sobering to us at Leadership Ethics Online, though the reader may discard it out of hand as reactionary. Nevertheless, here are a few positive actions the reader can take (1) to interrupt personal sympathy with the temptation to lie, (2) to intervene in occasional or regular uses of lying in personal and professional life, and (3) to foster adherence to the truth and antipathy against lying in the family.
Yourself – Take into consideration all the discussions above. Make a personal commitment to yourself to be truer to your self, your character, and those you affect at home, work, and society, or not.
Your Family – Discuss these issues with your spouse and children. Make a personal commitment to be honest with them at all times. Make a family pact that truth will bind you together in your intentions, statements, and actions, even when this requires trust that telling the truth may be uncomfortable, or others may be disappointed in hearing truths from you preferable for you to keep private. There are some truths, such as marital infidelity, children need not hear, among others.
There are forces within you that will help, or hinder, your personal and family commitment to truth. Your own vulnerability to lying may be related partly to early childhood experiences.
- If you were loved in healthy and safe ways, supported by healthy adults providing a safe environment, it is unlikely you had environmental pressures for control through lying. This does not mean your young friends did not offset these, leading you to lie for other reasons.
- if you were raised in unhealthy ways, betrayed or fearful because of an unhealthy and psychologically or physically unsafe, dangerous environment, you likely had many occasions to use lying for control purposes. Self-preservation, self-defense, avoidance, all made lying useful. This does not mean you lied outside this setting, but became adept at using lying when needed.
Recognize such factors when you (1) address yourself and (2) ethically understand the importance of what you demonstrate and teach your spouse and children.
This essay has been important, complex, and too long for the attention spans of some readers. The conclusions will be succinct, without undue defense, for the readers’ consideration.
- Religious Teachings – The opening religious texts teach against lying. The Bible uniformly teaches against this decision. The God of the Bible detests lies and liars, and calls people to seek and live in the truth or else be judged for following Satan, whom Jesus called once, The Father of Lies (Gospel of John 8:44). Readers will have to make their own decisions as to whether they believe in God, or whether they have had enough lies–in their own lives or the life of their nation–to see and accept ancient biblical testimony.
- Lying as Control – While we can see how lying has a use, but we also see from experience how commonly lies go out of control, short-term or later in a time frame that shocks us when the boomerang comes back around. Even when lies are not discovered, our consciences continue to sting us, and control our capacity to have joy, a perverse control we ignore when we create them.
- Lying and Pathology – Most people put lying merely in moral, legal, or political contexts, not mental disorders. It is hoped that readers will explore these subjects, and realize that lying is not always just a “white lie” but may have deeper drivers and implications.
- Lying and US Society – We are so accustomed to every day filled with political news, following and supporting political parties–whatever they do–it is hoped that the few statements here are a shot across the bow against the great frigate in our national waters, the USS Lie. Yet there is no illusion that our national delusion on lying will be supplanted, or be eroded, by this humble little piece.
- Reforming Oneself and Family – Fortunately, you yourself can decide not to lie; to leave the habit of lying; and, to love your family members enough to excise the cancer of falsehood from your inner circle. Whether you love yourself or your family enough for this, only you know.
Invitation to Action
As we bring this to a close, it occurs some readers may want to take organized action. Perhaps there are enough out there who would like to work with us to form a national educational event. We could bring together experts in various fields–psychiatry, law enforcement, social services–and learn together how to make America a more “truth-healthy” place. We prefer publications as fruits of such conferences.
This is just an idea. Use the Contact Form if this appeals enough you are willing to bring resources alongside to explore the concept. Regardless, thank you for reading all or part of this essay. John D. Willis, PhD, President
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