Friday, May 21, 2010

When is a lie a lie?

One of my readers who tries to keep me on the straight and narrow, though not always with success, is Robert Becker, an excellent writer himself. Robert called me on yesterday’s post when I argued that four moral absolutes are necessary for a decent society: do not kill; do not steal; do not lie; do not exploit.

Robert jumped on lying when he wrote:

By the way, “lying,” in its nearly infinite dimensions is quite different from killing, stealing, and exploiting (thought that’s not a simple one either). Art, for example is a kind of lying, and something one must deceive to get to a higher truth. Now, giving false testimony, in a court where facts and life matter, that’s rather different than sweeping away all “lying.” We satirists lie all the time, and sometimes, to play the devil’s advocate, we must take on some of his attributes.

He makes a good point. Lying is a tough nut to crack. Not only are there times when it is necessary, but on the flip side brutal honesty can often be wielded as a weapon that is used to hurt and demean.

One possible solution would be to condemn lying when it is a vehicle for exploitation. This can be done on a personal level as in, “Of course I’ll still respect you if you sleep with me, baby,” to “Sadddam Hussein has stockpiled weapons of mass destruction.”

Such lies are born of a desire to wield power over another, and this is the source of the lie’s indecency. Otherwise, if there’s a boring party you’d rather duck, a slight touch of diplomatic flu is not a ticket to Hell.

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