Truth, Lying, and Bullsh-t

Written by: N.S. Palmer | Posted on: | Category:

"I am lying," said Epimenides the Cretan. So if he was lying, then he was telling the truth. And if he was telling the truth, he was lying.

Epimenides also made the Statue of Liberty disappear. Sorry. That was a lie.

Lying is wrong. But how wrong? And is it always wrong? Is it sometimes right?

Damon Ashworth ponders those questions in his latest blog post, which I recommend. He covers most of the answers, both moral and psychological. The short version is that it's better to tell the truth unless you have a morally legitimate reason to lie.

The rub is that "morally legitimate" can mean different things. Most people's moral sense is attuned to the norms of their society or group. Social life would be impossible unless most people told the truth (to other group members) most of the time. Ironically, social life would also be difficult unless most people lied occasionally -- usually to prevent hurt feelings or to smooth over social situations.

Lying and social norms

Ricky Gervais's 2009 movie "The Invention of Lying" gives a little-noticed demonstration of how social norms influence our perception of lying. The story takes place on a planet just like earth except that people have no concept of lying. They always tell the exact factual "truth."1 But for them, it's what's been proven to be true. If something is unproven, they don't say it. Gervais's character discovers lying and uses it to his advantage.

I'll confess to one of my own lies: I'm not really allergic to mushrooms. I just dislike them. When I pick them out of my food, my lie helps me avoid offending whoever cooked dinner because I don't have to express dissatisfaction with the food.

Unfortunately, a minority of people are indifferent to morality. They are not necessarily evil in the sense of getting pleasure by hurting others. But they simply don't care. They'll lie, tell the truth, or bullsh-t as needed to get what they want.

Lying and bullsh-t

Bullsh-t, by the way, really is a separate thing. Lying and truth-telling both acknowledge the truth, though in opposite ways. Bullsh-t simply doesn't care about truth at all. Politicians and cable news pundits are often world-class bullsh-tters.

Whether you love him or hate him, Bill Clinton is a world-class bullsh-tter. Come to think of it, so are Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton lacks the personality for it. George W. Bush seems too direct to be any good at it.

But back to Bill. When he was president, he ended up having to testify under oath about one of his extramarital affairs. Yes, it was a cynical attack by his political adversaries, just like the current establishment's frenzied hunt for something -- anything -- of which to accuse President Trump. When President Clinton's accusers asked him about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, he replied:

"I did not have sexual relations with that woman."

As soon as I heard the words come out of his mouth, I knew exactly what he was doing. He was using the phrase "sexual relations" in a very specific sense, to mean sexual intercourse and only sexual intercourse. He was under oath, so in order to avoid perjury, he said something that was misleading but technically true. He was bullsh-tting.

If nobody will believe you

There's one other odd thing about telling the truth. I got my first hint of it during my senior year in high school. For the school yearbook, all of the graduating seniors listed their school activities. But the yearbook editor deleted about half of my list because he didn't believe I could really have done everything I claimed. He thought I was lying. I wasn't.

A few years later, another event made the lesson crystal clear. During President Reagan's second term, he denied knowing anything about a scandal in his administration. He was telling the truth (as far as I can determine), but everyone thought he was lying.

From that, I drew a simple lesson:

If you tell the truth and nobody believes you, they'll think you're lying.

So unless there's a good reason to tell the truth and be considered a liar, it's prudent to think twice about doing it.

Footnote

  1. Because they have no concept of lying, they have no explicit concept of truth. But "factually proven" is pretty close.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an "impressively nuanced analysis."