The Lies We Tell (Including the President)

No matter your political affiliation, I recommend you watch CNN’s Chris Cuomo practically beg Presidential Adviser Kellyanne Conway to admit that President Trump lied about not knowing when Michael Cohen was paying Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels to keep secret the affairs between Trump and the two women.  “The truth matters,” Cuomo implores.  President Trump’s lying about this issue, despite the fact that his former attorney Michael Cohen has an audio tape proving that the President is lying, erodes public trust in the integrity of our democracy and in the nature of truth itself.  Instead, Conway reiterates that the President said he is not lying, as if we should simply defer to the President’s word even when it is demonstrably false.  This “because the President said so” logic further undermines the strength of our democracy.  Perhaps worse, this logic undermines the elevation of truth as, in my view, the most important ideal of a functioning democracy and society.

Conway’s evasion and outright duplicity reminded me of others who unabashedly and directly lie, like Lance Armstrong, who repeatedly told the public that he did not take banned performance enhancing drugs but later confessed.  Romantic partners can lie, about everything from whether they took out the garbage to whether or not they are intimate with other people.  In order to allow for a clearer vision about how to talk about lying, below is a graph and a typology of the kinds of lies we tell, followed by an explanation of why I have categorized the lies as I have.

[Latest version of the graph]


In this graphical representation of deception, the importance of the lie (or harm from the lie) is graphed on the X axis.  The selfishness of the lie is graphed on the Y axis.  You may disagree, but I believe basically all [edit, let’s say most] lies come from a place of selfishness.  Even white lies are intended to avoid awkwardness, the unpleasant feeling of hurting another’s feelings, and the fear of repercussions of doing so.  The only lies that are possibly altruistic are lies to children, who cannot handle or understand the truth in the same way as adults, and thus do not have the same moral claim to deserving the truth. [Edit:  some children may be able to “handle the truth” better than adults.  However, I am simply drawing a bright-line rule here based on the moral and legal distinction we make between children and adults in all aspects of life (and law).  For example, consider age of consent laws. Some 15 year olds may be able to handle physical intimacy than some 40 year olds, but we draw a bright line as a proxy because the line works at the extremes and we do not want an amorphous standard (a 10 year old never can). Lying to children is not always altruistic, or always acceptable, but adults have earned the right not to be lied to, whereas children do not have the same moral rights and responsibilities as adults.]

At the extreme end of selfishness are lies told for pure sociopathy, or manipulation of others, but I believe these sorts of lies are rare (except for you horrors who cheat at board games).  Instead, I think the most often told lies, and most harmful lies, are the self serving but self righteous lies.

Although I think basically all lies are harmful and wrong, lies justified by a sense of self righteousness may be the worst, most destructive form of dishonesty.  The magnitude of the harm may be different when cyclist Lance Armstrong repeatedly lies to the public about not using banned performance enhancing substances, when a spouse lies about not having an extramarital affair, or when the President lies about not knowing about Michael Cohen’s payments to Stormy Daniels until after the payments were made.  But the motivations are often the same.

Lying here comes from a place of deep selfishness yet also self righteousness.  The person doing the deceiving somehow convinces herself that it is fair and just to lie because the deceived does not deserve to know the information.  Kellyanne Conway refuses to admit that Donald Trump knew about his lawyer’s payments to Stormy Daniels, perhaps because she thinks that the President is treated unfairly by the media even when he does virtuous things.  Lance Armstrong thinks it’s okay to both use and lie about banned performance enhancing substances because everyone does it, so he is no worse than anyone else.  The sport is then just getting away with taking the banned substances.  A romantic partner justifies lying and cheating because he or she needed the affair, or it would hurt his or her partner to know the truth.  Ultimately, these are all serious betrayals, but because of a combination of the liar’s desire not to face the consequences of his actions and a false sense of justification, the lies are told.

Of course, other elements could have motivated these lies, like pure sociopathy or greed,  or even a desire for people not to know about one’s bad character traits.  A desire for people not to appreciate who we really are or why we are engaging in a particular behavior motivates social lies.  People lie to get out of plans because they don’t want their friends to know they would rather watch Netflix than see them at this paricular juncture.  Instead, we should face the consequences of our true natures; this will constrain us from bad behavior, and, even if it doesn’t, it will allow others to properly assess situations and make decisions with autonomy.

White lies are unfortunate because they compromise our ability to discern the truth.  If someone always tells you something nice, it will be hard to ever believe positive affirmations from that person.  For this reason, I prefer honest people to kind people.  At least with honest people, you can believe their praise (and everything else they say).  The two qualities, honesty and kindness, are of course not mutually exclusive, and we don’t have to share everything that swirls around in our heads — especially in professional situations.  Indeed, sometimes it is better and kinder not to share, unless you have a duty of disclosure or a duty of loyalty to a particular person.  But before you affirmatively utter words that are false, think about the effect this has on our prioritization of truth.  Respect for others, and for ourselves, require that we operate from a place of believing that it is wrong to falsely manipulate other’s reality to serve our own ends.  The best decisions are made when we have a correct understanding of the facts and an appreciation for our true natures and desires.  Information wants to be free, and the truth will save us all.

[Edit:  The graph does not represent my final views on this, but serves as a starting point to consider which axes matter.  I go back and forth on whether a one-off incident of stealing is worse than cheating in sports.  Cheating in sports undermines an entire value system based on the fairness of arbitrary obstacles, which is why it is placed as more harmful.  However, if fraud were common enough, we would not have confidence in monetary transactions, and that would obviously be more harmful.   Lying to those who are in some way as incapacitated as children — the intoxicated, the mentally ill – may be justifiable, but I am not yet willing to say that it comes from a place of altruism.  I did not intend to be conflating justifiable with altruistic, although I see why I have given that impression. I think most lies are not justifiable, no matter how altruistic — unless you know beforehand that the person would rather not know the truth. I think lies to children are more justifiable, even if selfish.  However, as a general rule, the less harm caused by a lie, and the more altruistic, the more justifiable it likely is.]



6 thoughts on “The Lies We Tell (Including the President)”

  1. Maybe it depends on what “basically” means, but it doesn’t seem that hard to think of lies that are at least not obviously motivated by selfishness. The Nazi at the door is a classic example, but think of all the lies told by intelligence operatives or undercover officers. Even short of that, I’m not sure that “white lies” told to spare someone’s feelings are primarily motivated by selfishness, particularly where knowing the truth wouldn’t help the person correct a problem.

    I’m also decreasingly sure that a highly veridical view of things is always an unalloyed good. Irrational self-confidence seems to facilitate risk-taking necessary for entrepreneurship, politics, etc. There’s also the interesting fact that depressed people tend to be less prone to egocentric bias than others–suggesting that some measure of self-inflation is necessary to mental health (or that, as Douglas Adams suggested in one of the Hitchhiker’s books, we would all be driven mad if we ever accurately perceived our cosmic insignificance).

    At the same time, I’m skeptical of your categorical exception of lies to children as not selfish. Seems to me that many of them are. Lying to children about supernatural entities like Santa Claus and the tooth fairy seem to me to be primarily motivated by adults’ selfish desire to enjoy children’s reactions to these things, and I think does some harm to children’s ability to understand the world (at least in the short term–I seem to have turned out ok, eventually). And all sorts of other lies to manipulate children into going along with the parents’ wishes without resistance–I don’t find those morally wrong, but they certainly are selfish or at least self-interested.


    1. Thank you for these excellent points. I realize I have seemingly conflated whether a lie is justifiable with whether it is altruistic, and I’m not sure that entirely works. The Nazi at the door is both altruistic and justifiable, true, and I think that is also because rather than causing harm, that lie spares a lot of harm (lying to protect a murderer in one’s home would be different). I added an edit in to deal with children, who I think are an entirely separate category. I am not advocating for large-scale lying to children, but even selfish lies to children seem okay (to get them to go to bed, perhaps?). I do think messing with their sense of reality using fictional characters is not great, but I never believed in those things as a kid myself. I know many adults who are likely glad they did have that magic in their lives.


  2. Interesting , and very important post , although very complicated issue generally speaking . It would be just worth to rather separate between private domain , and public domain in this context of lying . It seems that the post , rather emphasizes , private over public sphere in this regard .

    In accordance , in democracy , it is not really the truth . For , in a regime , where free speech reigns supreme , as well as freedom of association , the issue shifts rather to transparency , over lies Vs. truth . For , having so many opinions , and different perceptions , and various political stances , what is the truth ?? it is rather the Transparency we deal here with , that is to say , access to information , for feeling worthy as citizens , or having the right basis for adopting the subjective political stance .

    But the point is , that in the public sphere , many times , the issue would be , not truth v. lies , but rather , ambiguity , or ambiguous atmosphere . For if the public , would reveal or demand all a long the way , the truth , only the truth, the whole truth , well , really unbelievable outcome .

    Sometimes , replying in ” no comment ” has certain value .Secrecy has also certain value of course . The public , could be driven to madness , should he know always , the whole truth.Ambiguity and secrecy and confidentiality , are sometimes extremely important for exercising the right and correct discretion .

    We shall illustrate it :

    Typically , in many information acts or codes , the public authority or agency , is not obliged to reveal , drafts in process . Ideas in process of creation or not ripe yet . Why ? because we can only imagine , that if every rumor would become headline , and every Monday and maniac day so, the public would be driven day and night , to endless senseless speculations , while , it may affect , the public agents in their work .



  3. Just illustrating more concretely the principle mentioned ( concerning information held by public authority , not to be disclosed ) here :

    Section 35(1) (a) of the freedom of information act in england , states so :

    “Information held by a government department or by the Welsh
    Assembly Government is exempt information if it relates to—

    (a) the formulation or development of government policy”.

    In the link ahead , one may read about a case of one complainant that has requested information about a meeting in
    November 2015 between Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, and the then Home Secretary, Theresa May. The Home Office refused to disclose the information, citing the exemption cited . Here :

    Click to access fs50652467.pdf

    And here I quote , the Israeli law ( Freedom of Information Law 5758-1998 ) dictating so in article 9 :

    Information which must not or does not have to be delivered

    (a) A public authority shall not deliver information that is one of the following:

    (2) information about policy in the process of being formulated;

    (3) information about particulars of negotiations with a body or a
    person outside the authority;

    (4) information about internal discussions, records of internal consultations between employees of public authorities, their
    colleagues or advisers, or of things said in the course of an
    internal investigation, and also about an opinion, draft, advice or
    recommendation made for the purpose of making a decision,
    excluding consultations required by law;

    End of quotations :

    So , what is in process , should not be revealed , among others , for not creating senseless rumors , and not affecting so the work of public agents or agencies .



  4. Isn’t the nazi at the door lie a direct counter example to your claim that all lies except those we tell children come from a place of selfishness. Lying, rather than turning over the jewish family you know to be hiding nearby, both puts you at risk (opposite of selfish) while doing a great good.


Comments are closed.