Why society’s tolerance of lying is not rational

(The following constitutes the entirety of Chapter 1 of Part I of my “Against the Lie” essay.)

I strongly believe that all of the problems facing human society can be traced to people’s collective choice to embrace the Lie, with the Lie being viewed as a metaphysical force in the world.  That, however, is not how most other people see things.  They might agree that—as a general proposition—lying is the source of many problems in the world.  But even though they will claim not to like lying, they continue to tolerate the people and institutions that do the lying so long as none of the specific lies they tell happens to greatly disadvantage or displease them personally; and, needless to say, they also tend to be quite tolerant of their own lies.  In other words, they often have a very easy-going attitude regarding lies they consider “harmless”—but what they really mean by “harmless” is harmless to them and their narrow range of goals and concerns.

People’s overall tolerance of lying is thus a product of their readiness to make a mental distinction between “big lies” and “little lies.”  (What I am calling “little lies” are not necessarily the same as what people ordinarily consider to be “white lies”—although “white lies” would be included within the class of what people would consider to be “little lies.”)  A “big lie” is any lie that is considered to be especially egregious from their own perspective.  For that reason, lies of this type will often be ones that they have heard told by persons holding positions of power and influence, since such lies will be more likely to entail widespread negative repercussions for society; but a “big lie” can also include any lie otherwise perceived by a person as having a significant negative impact on his emotional life.  A lie regarded by a particular person as a “big lie” is not easily forgiven.  But that same person will often readily make excuses for what he perceives to be “little lies”—that is, the type of lies whose harmful impact are not apparent to him, usually because they do not have a significant impact on him personally (or, more likely, because he does not understand how they impact him personally, and does not see the connection between a particular lie and his own suffering).  One way of thinking about it is that a “big lie” is the kind of lie that a person cannot ordinarily imagine himself telling or having the opportunity to tell, while a “little lie” is the kind of lie that a person both tells and would like to keep telling—or hearing, in the case of the mass media, politicians, book authors, and everyday gossips.  As an example of this second type of situation, involving a willingness to listen to lies, those who are passionate about party politics will be quick to rationalize or diminish the seriousness of lies told by a member of the political party they support, but will be merciless toward any member of the opposing political party caught telling a lie of any kind.

Some of the theoretical and practical problems with the attempt to divide lying into degrees of importance or magnitude of harm should be obvious.  One problem with it is that the social hierarchy is a continuum; and a person’s “little lies”—the ones he can imagine himself telling—will always tend to shade into more and more influential “big lies” if he moves up the hierarchy, as those remote “movers and shakers” become less remote from him, and he begins to find it easier to imagine himself telling the same type of lie to further his own self-interest.  A second problem is that every individual always has at least some influence on others, and this influence cannot be contained within neatly circumscribed limits.  If one person becomes accustomed to the idea that lying is acceptable, then that makes it more likely that others in his circle of direct influence will also become accustomed to the idea, and the ripple of influence will continue to spread out from there.  A third problem is that those at the top of a social hierarchy require the support of those below them in the hierarchy; social elites need the common people to at least believe that they more or less share the same values.  The less honest the common people are, the more lying the elites can get away with out in the open—which means that they are emboldened to try to get away with even more than that in secret, knowing that even if their secret does come out, it will not seem as shocking and unforgivable as it otherwise would, so that they will likely be able to recover from the disclosure.  In other words, it is the dishonest tendencies of ordinary people that make possible the dishonest tendencies of society’s governing and influential elites.

But all of these points also help to show why, even if one were to accept the theoretical possibility of making of some sort of objective distinction between “big lies” and “little lies” based on magnitude of harm, it is not a distinction that should ever be made in practice.  That is because, as a practical matter, it is impossible to clearly identify and then punish the liars in a society when everybody lies, even if only to a supposedly “small” extent.  But, by the same token, the dissemination of “big lies” would be impossible if people as a whole refused to keep laughing off the “little lies” that they regularly tell and encounter in their day-to-day lives, since in that case any lie would begin to appear far more conspicuous and remarkable when it occurred than it otherwise would; it is just that the so-called “big lies” would appear even more conspicuous and remarkable than other lies in the eyes of those persons who saw them as “big lies.”[1]

While people are generally able to agree on what constitutes honesty or dishonesty in a particular case, people as a whole will never agree on what constitutes a “big lie” or a “little lie”:  One person’s “little lie” will often be another person’s “big lie,” and vice versa, depending on their respective interests and temperaments.  The result of trying to make a distinction between “big lies” and “little lies” is that people as a whole keep lying and enabling other liars, all the while thinking quite highly of themselves as “pretty much moral.”  They will continue to condemn the lies told by others that do not happen to be to their liking, and this is what allows them to claim to hate lying and to love honesty just as much as anyone else—that is where the “moral” part comes in.  But at the same time, lies that are thought to be conducive to their own (relative) personal advantage will be given a free pass—that is where the “pretty much” part comes in.  This is an unworkable system.  Even though people as a whole will never agree with each other on what qualifies as a “big lie” or a “little lie” in a particular instance, if they make the attempt to think rationally, they should recognize that it is precisely because people will never reach agreement on these questions that everyone benefits in absolute terms if all people agree to stop all lying.

For example, people often complain about the many lies regularly told by mass media outlets.  But what if everyone had stubbornly refused to have anything more to do with any television network, newspaper, or website the very first time it had been discovered telling its first lie, regardless of whether that lie seemed to benefit “their” political party or the other one?  That media outlet would never have had an opportunity to tell a second lie; or, the price it would have paid to get back into people’s good graces would have been so high that it would never have even considered telling a second lie.  All lying can be stopped if the benefits expected to come from telling any single lie are always greatly exceeded by the anticipated costs of telling that lie.  But if only the occasional lone individual makes this decision to boycott a media outlet, it has no positive effect on society as a whole; it only succeeds in making it more difficult for that individual to communicate with other members of society, by making him ignorant of his society’s common terms of reference.  Individuals must associate and find support for their moral principles in communities of people sharing the same beliefs if there is to be any hope of moving society as a whole in the direction of greater honesty.

Historically, providing the institutional framework for such moral communities has been the function that Christian churches and other traditional religious organizations have claimed to serve.  However, it is a function that they are incapable of carrying out by their very nature, since they have embraced and they promote the practice of religious esotericism—which is itself a form of lying.  But esotericism in religion is not merely one form of lying:  I believe that esoteric religion—also sometimes known as “traditional religion,” or “revealed religion”—is the ultimate source of lying in human society.

 

Note

[1] For example, the organizing of any kind of secret conspiracy would be impossible in a more “hygienic” or “sanitary” social environment in which no “little lies” were permitted.  The organizing of a secret conspiracy of any size or significance requires the telling of lots and lots of publicly known “little lies,” each of which, taken individually, might appear insignificant.