Bad lies. Good lies.

Published Mar. 15, 1998|Updated Sep. 12, 2005

No matter what you think of his politics or his personality, it is hard not to sympathize with President Clinton. The economy is booming, America has recently faced the specter of war, yet the press is rabid about sex in the White House. Of course, even in this "Puritan" culture, there are few who would insist that the president should be impeached because of his by now well-known sexual proclivities.

Rather, the question is: Did he lie (or tell someone else to)?

The importance of this question was summarized by one congressman, who pointed out that if the president would lie about one thing, he would lie about another.

For a philosopher, that argument raises all sorts of interesting questions. Is it ever right to lie? Is a lie told to embellish an otherwise tedious narrative just as wrong as a lie told to cover up a misdeed and avoid punishment? Is a lie told in desperation any less wrong than a calculated, merely convenient lie? Is a lie told out of self-deception more or less wrong than a clear-headed, tactical lie? (Is the former even a lie?) Are all lies wrong? Or does deception serve such important functions as protecting us from harm, especially emotional harm?

Let's start with the basics: Is it ever right to lie? Common sense surely says "Yes, sometimes." But legions of philosophers and other moralists have answered "No," and then tried to make sense of this indefensible position. Insisting that lying is always wrong _ as Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant did, for example _ appeals to our desire for absolutes. But then, of course, what about the example from freshman philosophy: The Nazis come to your door asking if you are hiding a Jewish family. You are. Should you say "No"? Or, on a mundane level, your spouse or lover walks in with an utterly silly new hairdo and asks, "Do you like it?" Does morality dictate that you ruin the evening? Or can you, in both cases, finesse the answer, not lying but not telling the truth, either, perhaps by avoiding an answer to the question?

If a person would lie about one thing, does it follow that he or she would lie about another? That depends. The demand for honesty is contextual. It depends on what the truth concerns. The Bible tells us not to bear false witness against our neighbor. Perjury, we can agree, is wrong: The consequences can be awful. In a trial, a jury's assumption that a person who lies about one thing will lie about another is perfectly justified.

But it seems to me absolutely crucial to distinguish here between public and private life. Perjury, by its very nature, is public, as is politics. Sex, with a few obvious exceptions, is part of our private life. And just about everyone is less than forthright about sex. Lying about sex, while it may have grave significance for people in an intimate relationship, has nothing to do with one's public credibility. Indeed, when publicly asked a rudely inappropriate question about one's private (adult, consensual) sex life, it seems to me not only natural but even obligatory to lie, finesse, or refuse to answer.

Nietzsche once asked, "Why must we have truth at any cost, anyway?" It was an odd question, coming from the philosopher who prided himself, above all, on his brutal honesty, and it is an obscene question, in any case, for a profession that sees itself as seeking solely the truth. Even philosophers who challenge the very idea of truth _ not just Nietzsche and the Buddhist Nagarajuna, but also Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty _ are unforgiving when it comes to deception, misrepresentation, and "creative misreadings," at least of their own work. Philosophers in general insist on the truth even if they do not believe in "the Truth." They despise deception and ridicule self-deception.

The Australian philosopher Tony Coady probably speaks for most philosophers when he writes, "Dishonesty has always been perceived in our culture, and in all cultures but the most bizarre, as a central human vice." But, he adds, "we should note that this perception is consistent with a certain hesitancy about what constitutes a lie and with the more than sneaking suspicion that there might be a number of contexts in which lying is actually justified." Plato defended "the noble lie," and the English ethicist Henry Sidgwick suggested that a "high-minded lie" in the direction of humility might do us all a great deal of good.

Not all untruths are malicious. Telling the truth can complicate or destroy social relationships. It can undermine precious collective myths. Honesty can be cruel. Sometimes, deception is not a vice but a social virtue, and systematic deception is an essential part of the order of the (social) world. In many countries _ Japan and Western Samoa, for example _ social harmony is valued far more than truthfulness as such. To tell another person what he or she wants to hear, rather than what one might actually feel or believe, is not only permitted but expected.

Could we not begin to see our own enlightened emphasis on "seeking the truth at all costs" (as Ernst Jones wrote admiringly of Sigmund Freud) as one more ethnocentric peculiarity, another curious product of our strong sense of individualism, and a dangerously unsociable conception?

Behind the blanket prohibition on lying, we can discern the outlines of a familiar but glorious philosophical metaphor: The truth is bright, simple, the Holy Grail of Rationality, while dishonesty is dark and devious, the path to irrationality and confusion. But philosophy, one begins to suspect, has overrated those metaphors of clarity and transparency. The obvious truth is that our simplest social relationships could not exist without the opaque medium of the lie. The best answer to the question "What are you thinking?" is often "Oh, nothing." Perhaps deception, not truth, is the cement of civilization _ a cement that does not so much hold us together as safely separate us and our thoughts. Some things are better left in the dark.

In contrast to Kant, for whom the rule against lying was a moral law, a "categorical imperative" never to be overridden, utilitarian philosophers insist that lying is wrong only because a lie does, in fact, cause more harm than good. There is no absolute prohibition here, rather perhaps a "rule of thumb," and there may well be many cases, such as the "white lies" described above, in which lying causes no harm and may even be commendable. The problem, as Nietzsche so wisely complains, is "not that you lied to me, but that I no longer believe you." It is not the breach of the principle against lying that is so troublesome, nor is it the consequences of the lie or the character of the liar: It is that lying compromises and corrupts our relationships.

In other words, the wrongness of lying does not have to do primarily with breaches of principle or miscalculations of harm and good, even if these weigh heavily in particular cases _ in a court of law or a congressional hearing, for example. Lying is wrong because it constitutes a breach of trust, which is not a principle but a very particular and personal relationship between people. And in sexual relations, while personal trust is of the utmost importance, it has nothing to do with, and no necessary correlation with, public trust.

What is wrong with lying, in other words, is not exactly what philosophers have often supposed. Lying undermines relationships by undermining trust. But trust may just as often be supported by mutual myths, by religious faith, by a clear understanding of what is private and personal and what is "the public's right to know." Trust is usually violated by lies, but trust can be more deeply damaged by a violation of personal boundaries, which in turn may invite lies and deception to protect what has been violated.

What further complicates questions about lying and deception is the familiar phenomenon of self-deception. It is always easiest, the old adage tells us, to tell the truth. But next-easiest is to believe your own lie, to become so submerged in its network of details and implications that the continuation of the lie _ as Aristotle argues _ becomes second nature.

Discussions of lying too often focus on the straightforwardly cynical, self-interested lie and ignore the more common species of lying that includes self-deception as well. But transparency to ourselves can be just as intolerable as transparency to others, and for just the same reason. The recognition of one's own motives and the significance of one's own thoughts can be devastating to one's self-image and sense of well-being. And so we disguise, hide, distract ourselves from those facets of the self that are less than flattering.

As Nietzsche puts it, " "I have done that,' says my memory. "I cannot have done that,' says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually, memory yields."

Deception and self-deception are part and parcel of our engagements in the world, including, not least, the development and maintenance of our sense of ourselves.

Lying can sometimes be a way of protecting our private lives, especially in the midst of a press-plagued public life. Within one's personal life, within the so-far unbreached walls of the Clintons' bedroom, for example, there is, no doubt, a continuing drama of Shakespearean proportions. But that is where this business about sex and lying about it should remain.

As for all of those inappropriate questions from otherwise distinguished journalists, special persecutors, and the curious public, they deserve no answer, or an evasion or even a lie for an answer. Clinton's sex life and what he says about it do not have anything to do with Clinton's credibility or ability to govern (which are other questions altogether). A lie or an invitation to lie that is provoked by a breach of sacred personal boundaries is in moral limbo, and no violation of a public trust.

Chronicle of Higher Education

Robert C. Solomon is a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin who has written more than 20 books and is co-author of A Short History of Philosophy. This commentary originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.