Dogs pee on trees, humans tell lies

There is no inherent wrong lying. Lying, misrepresentation, deception, are simply tools in the language kit-bag we all carry, in order to communicate comfortably with others who may or may not share our perspectives. I have known quite a number of people rigidly committed to ‘absolute honesty’ (including myself, at one point in my life). I have never known anyone who has not told lies, who does not regularly or periodically, even routinely tell lies. Especially to themselves (how could one believe one’s self ‘absolutely honest’ otherwise?). Asking the human animal not to tell lies is as effective as asking canine animals not to spritz their scent on trees. It is a part of their being.

So: Two quotes, as comment:

“I assure you that (politicians do not lie). They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind! After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence.” – Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”

“(T)he wise thing is for us diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully, judiciously; to lie with a good object, and not an evil one; to lie for others’ advantage, and not our own; to lie healingly, charitably, humanely, not cruelly, hurtfully, maliciously; to lie gracefully and graciously, not awkwardly and clumsily; to lie firmly, frankly, squarely, with head erect, not haltingly, tortuously, with pusillanimous mien, as being ashamed of our high calling.” – Mark Twain, “On the Decay of the Art of Lying”

The question is not whether we will lie – the only question is whether we lie viciously, or appropriately and kindly.

(Of course, being the King of New York, I find it useful not to lie about anything but my age – I’m really 16 – and the fact that I’ve been to the moon twice disguised as two different astronauts.)

In any event: As comparison (with a Kantian flavor as spiced by Schopenhauer), we would find it difficult to imagine a world in which everyone was trying to murder everyone else, at least some point in their life (although certain role-play computer games come awfully close). But it is not difficult to imagine a world in which everybody lies at some point to someone, because that is the is the world in which we live.

Take a specific example. Often we find the debates concerning what might be called ‘ethical lying,’ circling around the ‘white lie,’ a falsehood which benefits another. I want to consider a social imperative that effectively moots the ethic altogether.

Most of us in the working class are expected to lie at work. At the very least, we are expected to reply to an executive’s inquiry concerning our morale, that we are content with our jobs, and loyal to our employers. Not doing so can result in punitive repercussions, even expulsion from employment. ‘Not happy with your job? Well, don’t worry, you’re not working here anymore.’

This kind of lie-inducing situation has recurred with variation for many centuries; it’s a fundamental feature of any class structured society. In some previous cultures the punitive measures could include torture or death.

But contemporary employees are also expected to lie on behalf of their employers (as part of their presumed loyalty), the most obvious case being retail employees who must sell to clients for maximum profits, regardless of actual value to purchasing consumers.

Now before we condemn the dishonesty generated by such situations tout court, we should be aware that there are important gradations among differing power relations and the persons involved. My favored car mechanic appears to be pretty upfront – ‘these are our services, and this is what we charge,’ with no (apparent) add-ons. But the work is good enough so that if there are add-ons, I’m willing to ignore them.

There are also ranges within which such dishonesty reaches limits and actually becomes open to rebuttal and punishment. It is such moments of open transgression that are socially noticeable and raise issues of honesty and dishonesty in public discussion.

Now, to return then the more general problem: One reason we have no difficulty in condemning certain acts, like murder, as inherently wrong or immoral (whether categorically or prima facie) is because so few people actually perform such acts (when murders are committed en masse, of course, we call this “war” and criticize it using other criteria). But how can we hold as inherently wrong or immoral behavior that everybody engages in at some point or other?

This BTW has been the dilemma facing the moralists of major religions for generations, and has generates reams of religious apologetics, qualifications and hair-splitting, as well as practices of repentance and redemption, temperance and forgiveness. Eg., sexual intercourse without intent to reproduce is technically considered wrong even among major Christian churches, but there is a kind of wink or dispensation when it occurs between married partners – as long as it is not done ‘lustfully.’ ie., enjoying one’s own sex through the body of another. (But how is this even meaningful?)

Do we simply condemn the whole species as ‘evil’ (as some churches do)? Or do we admit that human behaviors are complex and indefinitely variable, and that ethics rather trails after many of them, as a means of understanding, rather than prescription. (And, yes, we can have an ethic that treats different behaviors in different ways – utilitarian sometimes, de-ontologically otherwise, virtue ethics for ourselves, Confucians regarding our parents, Aristotelian regarding our friends, etc., etc.

So what I suggest here is that we conceive of an ethic that treats behaviors universally engaged in, along a spectrum of social acceptability, in a different way from behaviors that are infrequent and/or openly transgressive.

Lying is simply a form of communication, and a behavioral tactic of social survival. The presumed transgressive character of the behavior, which is useful to teach in order to prescribe the limits of acceptability, is something of a pretense – again, useful; but not entirely honest.

But what human behavior could ever be?

“I thought I would be honest –
what a dream!”
– Browning

Developed out of a comment made at:


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