Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Lying Deja Vu

I was taking a break from writing this afternoon and sat out on the deck reading some more of The Sunday Philosophy Club.  I came to the passage in which the main character Isabel reflects a bit on lying (she is the editor of an ethics journal, so she tends to do that sort of thing).  I thought to myself, "I should paste this passage into the blog and write about it."  So I opened up the blog and had a sense that I had done this before.  I went down to the cloud of labels at the bottom of the page, and sure enough there was one on lying.  Clicking on it took me here, where back in June of 2007 I had pasted in the exact same passage.  I didn't say much about it though.  I will now, just enough to provoke and aggravate:

One of my favorite discussions in Intro to Philosophy classes is on lying.  Plato seems to defend in The Republic that it is necessary and OK for governments (or ruling authorities in general) to lie to its citizens for their own good.  Students don't usually like that.  For most students the issue of lying seems so clear-cut, black and white.  Then once we bring up examples like lying to the Nazis about hiding Anne Frank in your attic or lying to the customs agent about smuggling Bibles into China, it gets a little more complicated.  Add to that a definition of lying that includes non-verbal deception, and we have to start considering cases like leaving a light on when you're not home to deceive would-be burglars, or as one of my friends has done for the same purpose, putting a "Beware of the Dog" sign in the yard even though he has no dog.  Maybe even slowing down when we see a policeman counts as lying, because we're trying to make it appear that we were driving more slowly than we really were.

I laughed pretty hard at The Invention of Lying.  It is pretty irreverent and even sacrilegious, but it does a good job of showing how lying is embedded into the fabric of society.  Are all of these bad?  Certainly not all of them are "bearing false witness" in the legal sense intended by the ninth commandment.  Should we always tell the truth when someone asks how we are doing?  What about at birthdays and Christmas?  What if there is a greater evil that would occur if we didn't lie?  If I told you I had an easy answer to all of these questions, I'd be lying.  And I wouldn't do that.


Sallie said...

This is funny to me, because I don't remember that discussion. . . Probably a day I was sleeping in. :) If I didn't then, I could sure go around the block with you a few times on this one. I work with at-risk foster kids, and it's so challenging to address the complex issue of when it's not okay to lie to kids who've had to lie to survive. I've found that separating lies from "safe secrets" is the easiest way for their undeveloped gray matter to grasp it, but it's still not good enough. . . Did Jesus ever lie? Hmm. . . I'll need to look into that one.

Socrates43 said...

Whenever I teach Kantian ethics I try to confront the "Nazi at the door" case head on and explain Kant's reasons for holding to, in eyes of many, a rather counter-intuitive view. One of my students last semester had an interesting response to Kant in saying that by telling the truth and protecting your shining-like-a-diamond "good will" you are actually being, in here words, selfish. That is, she suggested, sometimes you have to put your own " personal standards" aside for the greater good (whatever that means: I don't think she meant aggregate utility or anything fancy like that). While one might be a bit concerned as to the legitimacy of that response, I thought the idea of being selfish in keeping to one's moral principles was at least an interesting idea and one that I think is behind of at least some our inclinations to tell lies (e.g. it might be "selfish" to tell my grandma that her hat looks stupid just because that is the truth).