Sociologist Georg Simmel on truthfulness and lying (1908)

“Truthfulness and lie are of the most far-reaching significance for relations among men.  Sociological structures differ profoundly according to the measure of lying which operates in them. … [I]n very simple circumstances the lie is often more harmless in regard to the maintenance of the group than under more complex conditions.  Primitive man who lives in a small group, who satisfies his needs through his own production or through direct cooperation, who limits his intellectual interests to his own experiences or to unilinear tradition, surveys and controls the material of his life more easily and completely than does the man of higher cultures.  To be sure, the innumerable errors and superstitions in the life of primitive man are harmful enough to him, but far less so than are corresponding ones in advanced epochs, because the practice of his life is guided in the main by those few facts and circumstances of which his narrow angle of vision permits him to gain directly a correct view.  In a richer and larger cultural life, however, existence rests on a thousand premises which the single individual cannot trace and verify to their roots at all, but must take on faith.  Our modern life is based to a much larger extent than is usually realized upon the faith in the honesty of the other.  Examples are our economy, which becomes more and more a credit economy, or our science, in which most scholars must use innumerable results of other scientists which they cannot examine.  We base our gravest decisions on a complex system of conceptions, most of which presuppose the confidence that we will not be betrayed.  Under modern conditions, the lie, therefore, becomes something much more devastating than it was earlier, something which questions the very foundations of our life.  If among ourselves today, the lie were as negligible a sin as it was among the Greek gods, the Jewish patriarchs, or the South Seas islanders; and if we were not deterred from it by the utmost severity of the moral law; then the organization of modern life would be simply impossible; for, modern life is a “credit economy” in a much broader than a strictly economic sense.”  [From The Sociology of Georg Simmel, translated and edited by Kurt H. Wolff (Free Press, 1950), pp. 312-313; the emphases are mine.]