Recent research in residential aged care by Anthony Tuckett from the University of Queensland has illustrated that, in some instances, lying is not only necessary, it’s actually virtuous. It is a complex ethical tangle, but it illustrates the fact that lies are not ipso facto bad.
For all the bad press it gets, lying is one of the most fundamental parts of our social life. Diary studies have illustrated that so called “white lies” form an important part of our social fabric. Similarly, the ethicist Sissela Bok argued that even well-placed serious lies can alleviate, or even prevent, suffering and harm.
So why is it that something we regard as innately destructive is such an embedded part of our lives?
Harvey Sacks, sociologist and founder of the field of “conversation analysis”, argued that “everybody has to lie”. In his 1975 paper of the same name he highlighted how greetings have a formal-ritual character to them, and because of this we all lie – on an almost daily basis.
Very simply, as a part of day to day introductory greetings Sacks found we have a “how are you” step. This phase of the greeting is an important indicator of our relationship with the other speaker. If the other party is a stranger or acquaintance, “fine” or something similar is the appropriate response.
It is as this step, if you are not “fine” that you’re supposed to lie. For instance, it’s awkward if you tell the supermarket cashier about your recent vasectomy. It’s even more awkward if you don’t tell your wife.
Sacks’ work illustrated that we have responsibilities to give certain categories of people the relevant information. We lie when we have to withhold information in order to manage the relationship.
This research on the role of lies in managing our relationships has been replicated across various cultures, including the Chinese, French and northern Thai cultures and even in members of South American culture Tzeltal. Speakers across these languages manage relationships with the ritual-formal aspects of their languages.
It has been argued that such white lies are universal. But, as claims to even basic universals such as emotions, or expressions are easily challenged it remains to be seen whether this feature of human sociality is a constant.
Nevertheless, these are the little white lies that glue our day-to-day relationships together. These are the sorts of untruths that often are not even regarded as lies.
It is of course the more serious lies that we care about. These are typically divided into two categories: lies of “commission” and lies of “omission”.
Lies of commission are when something is said that does not mirror reality. Lies of omission are those where somebody should have said something but failed to do so.
Lies of commission are all about manufacturing our own version of events. When we come across a discrepancy between someone else’s version of events and our own experience or understanding of those events we routinely rush to reconcile the two.
The late UCLA sociologist Melvin Pollner called this difference between other’s reports and our experiences a part of the “politics of experience”. One of the ways to reconcile such a difference is to conclude (and possibly assert) that the other person is lying. If the other (lying) party doesn’t back down then some sort of dispute will likely ensue.
Lies of commission are those in which you proactively manufacture a version of events that differs with what you know to be “true”. Mind you, any philosopher will tell you that “truth” is an altogether more complicated issue. In any case it is this sense of agency that marks the difference between commission and omission.
This agency aspect of lies is reflected in peoples’ reactions when they find out they’ve been lied to. Lies themselves are typically responsive moves in interaction (if, albeit, pre-planned responses). People lie when they answer a question, or are asked to make a statement. Research has yet to find instances where people simply volunteer that a statement is false (excepting pathological liars and those afflicted with Korsaoff’s syndrome).
My own research, for instance replicated earlier work which found that lies tend to occur in such “second positions” in conversation (answers, denials and so forth). I found no cases in which lies were used proactively.
But this was juxtaposed against the portrayals of liars when found out. Participants in my research painted liars as having actively lied, rather than having reactively done so.
What’s the difference? Well, Harold Garfinkel, influential sociologist and the founder of “ethnomethodology”, demonstrated that we “trust” that people are doing what they appear to be doing.
He showed that if people stop trusting another person’s actions to be what they appear to be, and instead incessantly question people’s motives, social interactions grind to a halt.
As Maarten Derksen from the University of Gronigen argues, lies violate this taken-for-granted nature of interaction. So what you are “doing” when you lie is subverting the normal assumptions of transparency between motives and action.
Lies by omission, as police will tell you, are exceedingly difficult to spot. This is because, in conversation, there are any number of possible things you could say. You don’t violate the principle of trust when you omit details.
This is precisely how politicians operate. The maxim “how do you know when a politician is lying? It’s when they are speaking” refers almost exclusively to lies by omission. Instead politicians operate on evasion and omission.
This lends defensibility to their position, because proving a lie by omission relies on making the person responsible for answering or responding with particular information and that you have failed to do so.
For instance, police often struggle with to obtain information from witnesses in witness interviews, but can force the witness to provide information under oath. In effect, the witness has lied by omission in the witness interview.
And if we bring it back to human societies, lies by omission can be seen as a breach of relationships. In our vasectomy example, it would be a lie by omission if you failed to tell your partner, but not a lie by omission if you failed to tell the friendly supermarket cashier.
The notion of “lies = bad” and “truth = good” oversimplifies the very functional use of lies in our everyday life.