Is Lying Always Wrong? Part 1

I’m a liar.  Not in the pathological, can’t-help-myself sort of way, but there have been plenty of moments as a kid and even as an adult where I’ve lied to avoid something or try to prevent something from happening, ranging from faking sick from work to take a day off to where I’d been the night before when asked by someone who doesn’t need to know where I was the night before.  That said, the lying has certainly gotten out of my system and when I look back at many times I lied, there were plenty of times, especially as I got older, where I was comfortable with the lie because that person didn’t need to know the truth, for whatever reason.  There were other times, however, when the lying felt terrible for some reason.  Maybe because I’m not supposed to lie to that person because that person trusts me not to lie when we talk, for example.  Lying is a bad thing and I admit that I’m a liar.  That’s cool, because you’re a liar too.

Don’t frumple your face up, thinking to yourself, “Of course not, I don’t lie!”  You know good and well you lie, and that you don’t think twice about it.  Here’s a quick test to see if you’re a liar or not:

You pull into the gas station and walk in the store to pay for your gas and possibly splurge on a big gulp or a snack for the ride home.  As you stroll in, you notice a disheveled man, clothes covered in dirt and appearing to be homeless.  He’s just standing around, loitering in the parking lot.  Paying him no mind, you go in, pay for your gas and come out, heading back to pump and hit the road.  “Excuse me, I don’t mean any harm,” you hear from behind you.  The disheveled, homeless man, you think.  For someone not wanting any harm, coming up from you behind in a gas station isn’t off to a great start.  “My name is Cleo Jones, and I’ve been homeless for 3 years.  I recently found out I have HIV and I don’t know where I’m going to go.  I’m trying to get 6.75 for bus fare.  Would you happen to have anything?”

In this situation, you’ll do 1 of 3 things:

a) Because nobody carries cash on them anymore (and giving a damn dollar in a recession is a stretch to begin with), you tell the guy the truth and say, “I don’t have anything on me, sorry,” while thinking, “Get your homeless  ass away from me, with a quickness!”

b) You’ll have some change in your car, but because either a) you think “$6.75? That’s a lot to ask for, buddy,” or b) “Can’t keep getting these parking tickets,” you lie (with no remorse), “I don’t have anything on me,” while thinking, “That’s MY change, I worked for mine, you’re going to have to work for yours.”

c) You happen to feel awfully beneficent and donate some random amount, depending on the amount of silver you keep in your car, and get a warm and fuzzy feeling…until you get that parking ticket because you gave some guy 75 cents knowing you’ll have to park at a meter later on.

Be honest.  How many times do you get asked by a homeless man for money and you lie to him and say that you DON’T have any money or you CAN’T spare him this change?  Not to go on a crusade for the homeless, but come on – he saw you pay cash and get physical change back, and he saw you pay with a card and knows there’s an ATM inside.  He spotted you counting the change and making sure not to give him too much, like you won’t get more change tomorrow.  But we tell them time and again, “Sorry, can’t help you/don’t have it/don’t have anything on me.”

For those of you who answered honestly C), that has to be wishful thinking but you likely give often.  You might be the kind of person who doesn’t keep cash on their person so that when approached by a homeless person, you can look him in the eye and tell him honestly, at least, “I don’t have any change on me.”  Still, there has to have been one instance where a homeless person asked you for money and you told him you don’t have any because you just didn’t want to do it and you felt justified in that conviction.  If there’s a person who has, every single time, given to the homeless when approached, then that is a great, great philanthropist.  It just strikes me as implausible that, even the most generous of people, wouldn’t feel like just getting in their car and going home just one time.  But the vast majority of us choose to lie to the homeless person and telling him, “I don’t have anything,” when we really mean, “I don’t want to give you anything.”  More importantly, we feel justified in this lie – we feel no remorse, no guilt.  It’s a “normal lie,” one you don’t feel bad about telling because the situation that precipitated the lie is one in which lying is done so commonly that it’s socially acceptable to do so, i.e. nobody would accuse you of being a terrible person for lying to the homeless man, even if they knew you were obviously lying to the homeless man (waving a bunch of dollar bills as you are on your way to the strip club or the casino, for example).  So there are situations where it’s OK to lie, it appears.  We’ve at least rationalized the lie to the point that even if it’s not OK to lie, it’s OK to lie in this particular instance X and that particular instance Y.  That said, if lying is now thrown into the moral middle, so to speak, the question is where do we draw the lines and how do we draw the lines for acceptable lying?

Normal lies, as I’ve described them, are given their normalcy through its adaptation as a social norm, an acceptable behavior.  It’s a wrong action, but permissible in this instance.  While we wouldn’t say that lying to the homeless man is wrong, we would say that lying to your spouse about cheating is wrong.  Infidelity is a line that many of us would agree shouldn’t be crossed, but for those cheaters, it’s a normal lie – the behavior has some normative weight because that sort of lie is acceptable for that behavior – if you’re cheating, lying is permissible.  That infidelity itself can create a normal lie for cheating is a strange thing to consider, but it shows that we can’t border impermissible lies at even such an obvious point of contact.

The next thing I’ll talk about in Part 2 is the assumption of lying being wrong.  Clearly, lying isn’t always wrong, so is it right to lie?  And if so, what makes it right to lie as opposed to wrong?  Comments on this are definitely welcome, what do you think about lying and if it’s right or not?