Some would say never.  ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’ is one of the ten commandments.  President Jimmy Carter declared in his inaugural address, ‘I will never lie to you’, and to be fair, he probably didn’t, but like all politicians, he was certainly economic with the truth, and he got others to lie for him.  He was also not a very effective president. 


So lying is bad but misleading is quite acceptable. It’s all part of being a human being.  Deception is an indication of astuteness, a badge of diplomacy, and prerequisite for negotiation.  As I previously indicated in my blog, ‘The importance of deception; theatre and make believe in everyday life’ (31st August 2008), society would not function without it.  If we were absolutely transparent all of the time, then we would render ourselves open to manipulation and exploitation. Secrecy is power.  To have control over our lives, we must be able to negotiate with others.  That requires a degree of deception. Without it, the powerful would have all the power and the weak would have nothing.  


So deception is part of the game we all play.  It’s allright to mislead, to be clever with words, to keep secrets, to pretend, as long as we don’t tell an absolute lie.  And the more intelligent you are and if you want something badly enough, the more clever you will be at playing the game. 


Our legal system is such an elaborate charade. Lawyers use every trick in the book to mislead, coerce, compromise and misrepresent, but if a witness tells a deliberate lie, then he is held in contempt of court and threatened with imprisonment.   


Politics, as it is practiced in most western countries, is also adversarial.  The opposition will try to box the minister into a corner and he in turn will use every kind of deception short of actually lying to get out of it. 


Journalists are paid to exaggerate, to inflame public opinion with half truths and implications.  They compromise the reputation of public figures while they, themselves adopt attitudes of righteous indignation.  But it is a truism that the more uncompromising a person pretends to me, the more they try to compromise others.


Businessmen, salesmen, advertisers use all kinds of manipulation and coercion to try to force their competitors to sign crucial deals or their customers to purchase commodities they do not want.  I note that MFI have just announced another grand closing down sale.  Everything must go.  The amusing possibility is that now it might be true, but nobody will take any notice.   


Deception is all part of the game and is perhaps acceptable if all parties understand  the rules and if the stakes are not too high, but those conditions are rarely met.  All too often, it’s a cynical exercise in exploiting the naïve and credulous.   A prime example is the way the government and the banks have conspired to create a crisis in confidence in the financial markets, which threatens to have devastating effects on many if not most of us.   


So is there really any difference between lying and other forms of deception?  This was the question posed by Jennifer Saul, Professor of Philosophy at Sheffield University at the last meeting of Chapel Allerton’s Café Philosophique. She asked us to consider two scenarios. 


In the first, Dave has had a wonderful night out with Charla.  She has invited him back for ‘coffee’ and they want to have sex. He knows that Charla has a bit of a reputation and asks if she has AIDs.  She doesn’t, but she is HIV positive.  She answers, No, I don’t have AIDs. 


In the second, Ian, a man prone to episodes of violence, bangs at the door and asks if his partner Sharon is hiding in your flat.  He is drunk and looks dangerous and you are sheltering Sharon.  Do you tell an absolute lie or do you find a form of words that avoids it. 


In the first scenario, Charla does not tell a lie but her deception could have the most appalling consequences.  In the second, surely you would be more likely to protect your friend if you told a brazen lie.


So does the means of deception matter?  I don’t think it does.  Lies, misleading statements, concealment are all deception.  They carry the same moral burden.  In fact, there is a cogent argument that a deliberate lie is a more ‘honest’ response than disingenuousness or dissembling – honest inasmuch as you are not trying to fool yourself.    


So, accepting that deception is pervasive, what are the moral implications?  When might lying be acceptable?


In both of Professor Saul’s examples, the main issue was the severity of the consequence.  Dave could have got AIDS; any kind of deception is dreadful.  Sharon would have got killed, so you have to act out the most convincing deception.      


So is the context in which the deception is committed the crucial consideration?  Does the intention warrant the deception?  Does the end justify the means?  It can be an act of compassion to shield a person from the truth.  As a doctor, I do not always tell somebody they are likely to die in the next few weeks. As a friend, I would not necessarily inform somebody that their wife is deceiving them.  I rarely tell my colleagues that their research is rubbish even though I might think it.  Perhaps I should at least find a form of words where I can hint at the truth. But whether I tell them or not depends on their ability and readiness to accept the truth. It could be devastating to them. The young doctor in Anton Chekhov’s play, Ivanov is despised for setting himself up in moral judgement  (see my blog on Ivanov, when idealism leads to despair, 17th September, 2008).


Telling the truth can be the cruellest thing that anybody ever does.  It can also be the most cowardly.  Telling your husband that you are tiring of, that you have had a flirtation with someone else may assuage the guilt by transferring the pain and the responsibility for the relationship onto him.  But is it ultimately kind to protect him from the truth or are you trying to shield yourself from the consequences of being found out?  Sometimes the time is not right to tell all, like when a situation is evolving and delicate and revelation could compromise a successful outcome. 


Paul Ekman,  Professor of Psychology at San Francisco University until 1994 and the world expect on facial expressions and deception, proposed the following Kantian rule of thumb.  Ask yourself whether you care about a future relationship with the person you are about to mislead and then ask how would that person feel if they discovered you were lying.  Would they say, “Oh, I’m so glad you were trying to be considerate of my feelings,” or would they feel you had exploited and taken control away from them?  In other words think of the consequences of your action.   


This depends on levels of trust.  If you are in a long term intimate relationship with  another person, then you carry the responsibility of trust.  You are held to a higher standard of morality than you would be if you were dealing with a salesman, a colleague, a competitor or the lady in the greengrocers.  In the same way, our political leaders, our doctors, our priests, our line managers carry an obligation of trust, and we are quite rightly angry and appalled if they deceive us.  So the degree of deception also depends on the expectation you have on the person, who deceives you.  Bill Clinton’s clumsy attempts at deception during his impeachment,  There is no sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky’  would not matter in France, where the peccadillos of presidents are tolerated, but American public regarded it as a dreadful moral failing.  If he could lie about that, what else could he lie about?       


But excessive credulity in the face of doubt might be considered a moral failure.  In the Dickens serial currently showing on BBC1, little Amy Dorrit seems such an innocent in comparison to the odd assortment of narcissists and villains that circle around her.  And I’m sure that in the current financial climate, most people would consider it an act of the most incredible naivity to accept unconditionally the opinion of an estate agent or financial adviser.   


The morality of lying also depends on how much you feel compromised, put into a position where you are forced to lie.  Compromise, blackmail, torture are on a continuum.  This is the world of James Bond, but we don’t condemn it.  Deception, torture even murder is a necessary part of national security.  Interrogation is the art of getting you to reveal what you don’t want to reveal.  ‘Ask me no questions and I will tell you no lies’.  


And on a personal level,  everybody is entitled to their privacy.   Philanderers and seductresses attempt to get the object of their desire into a position of compromise.  It’s all or nothing. ‘Give up everything for me or we don’t have a relationship.’  This can become a classic double bind.  If you do what is demanded, you are  disempowered, controlled.  If you lie, then it undermines your moral integrity and devalues the currency of the relationship.    


Deception starts early in life.  Children are encultured into the arts of deception.  It’s part of their education.  They soon become aware that Father Christmas and the tooth fairy are artifices and they know that when mummy says she has no money for sweets or that she and daddy are going to bed at half past seven too, she is telling porkies.  So when they are caught out and they say with all semblance of innocence that teddy ate the biscuits, they are regarded as cute.  They soon learn that deception is quite clever and can be rewarded.  Make believe is fun, but deliberate lying is bad and will be punished.  It’s easy to see how we have arrived at this double standard of deception.     


So is deception just make believe, the creation of a virtual existence that is only bad when it is done deliberately to damage or disadvantage someone else?  Can we conclude that the act itself is not reprehensible, but the intention and the consequences may well be?  If the motivation is bad, then lying can be like killing or injuring another person in effigy.  If it is done deliberately to defraud, exploit, deprive or undermine the other person, it should be condemned.  Or if the consequences of a lie are that somebody is hurt,  no matter how well intentioned the deception was, then the perpetrator has to bear the guilt and the responsibility.


In a perfect world, it is never right to tell a lie, but we don’t live in a perfect world.  Perhaps we never have.  As our society becomes ever more complex and self serving, it becomes ever more difficult to trust ourselves in the company of others.  It can seem that everybody is out to exploit and compromise us, to sell us things we don’t need, to persuade us to support a policy we may feel uneasy about, to encourage a course of action we may come to regret.  In a narcissistic society, where everybody is out for themselves, work, romance, friendship can become so easily become competitive and acquisitive, and deception is a trade off between social integrity and moral integrity.  The mode of deception is not important.  Is there really any moral distinction between lying, misleading, keeping secrets or dissembling?  I think not.  They are all lies.  The important issue is the intention and how much is invested in the belief.   So try not to lie, but if you have to lie, lie well!