It’s bad to lie so why are we all such liars?
Philosopher Kant argues that we have a moral duty to always tell the truth
“The lies we all tell might seem harmless but they add up”
Lying is one of the greyest black-and-white areas in life. It’s bad to lie. We all know this. The immorality of lying is so universally agreed upon that we are taught about it before we can colour inside the lines. Even when we are still small enough to think that practices such as tasting the dog’s food out of curiosity or carefully flushing Lego down the toilet are entirely logical, we know that lying is wrong. Which is precisely why children will swear angelically that they certainly have no knowledge, nor have they ever possessed any knowledge of who flushed all the Lego edge-pieces down the toilet.
So why is it that we are all such damn liars? You possess in your mind a very foggy, sloppy hierarchy of when lying is acceptable and when it isn’t. We all do. For a lot of us, lying is really only unacceptable when we are on the receiving end. For more, we have ideas about lying in order to spare the feelings of those we love – “No, you certainly don’t look like a refuse sack full of footballs in that leather skirt” – and so on. That might be considered on the nobler end of the ignoble liar’s scale. Mostly, we lie to avoid telling the truth. It’s considered rude to say “No, actually, I would rather repeatedly take a flat palm to my own face all afternoon than listen to you give an incredibly pedantic account of the fight you had with your husband at Ikea.”
Instead, we just say, “I wish I could, but I actually have a meeting at that time”. It seems pretty harmless, but lies like these add up, and after a while, you might respect yourself a little less and resent the fact that you’ve accumulated a collection of acquaintances you can’t stand because you weren’t courageous enough to firmly but politely turn down their coffee offers, or express disinterest in their rants.
Murderer at the door
When I was studying philosophy, I was fascinated by Kant’s example of the murderer at the door. According to Kant, lying is always wrong. Unless we could make lying a universal maxim – which would mean roughly that it would always be acceptable to lie in every situation – then we can never lie at all. Kant is the first philosopher most students encounter who starkly values principles over consequences in this respect – you cannot lie, no matter the consequences. He takes this so far as to create one of the most extraordinary and interesting scenarios in philosophy. Imagine that you live in a rather isolated house in the woods. You hear a thunderous knocking one night when you’re alone, and you open the door. A panicked man stumbles in, screaming that he is being chased by a murderer who is trying to kill him. “Hide me!” he implores. So you do. You believe that he is telling the truth, so you hide him in the basement and go back upstairs.
There’s another banging on the door. This time, when you open it, the murderer stands there with his weapon, angry and clearly intent on violence. He describes in detail the poor fellow you’ve just hidden in the basement. “Do you know where that man is?” he asks. According to Kant, we have a moral duty to say “Yeah, he’s down in the basement”.
By usual standards, this seems insane. But Kant would argue that our duty is to tell the truth. The murderer has a duty not to murder, and we are not responsible for what he does with the honest answer we give him. For Kant, lying really is black and white.
Still, we would all like to be more honest. Perhaps it would be easier to live in a world of Kantian truthfulness if honesty were something we generally appreciated, but it isn’t. When someone gives a truly honest answer, which is rare, we consider it rude. As I was pondering this on the train, my phone pinged with a text from someone who I can’t seem to shake off – an acquaintance with a penchant for gossip, which doesn’t really interest me. “Coffee tomorrow at three?” the text read. Before realising it, I’d responded “I’m sorry but I have a meeting”. I didn’t. Ah feck.