Monday, September 19, 2005

Lying and Deception: Prologue

Truth and honesty are terribly overrated. More and more, experts are telling us that even the most righteous people lie and deceive with a vengeance. "Deceit is the Cinderella of human nature," says David Livingstone Smith, "essential to our humanity but disowned by its perpetrators at every turn"; lying "is normal, natural, and pervasive"; and human society is nothing less than "a network of lies and deceptions that would collapse under the weight of too much honesty." (Why We Lie, p 2).

The classical philosophers and theologians have differed on the subject. Some maintain that lying is wrong, period (Augustine, Wesley, Kant); some that it all depends (Montaigne, Voltaire, Bacon); others that lying can be as good as it is natural (Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Wilde). The above citation falls in line with the last group, and David Smith actually speaks of the "Machiavellian module" which has evolved in the human brain.

There are three approaches to lying which have recently come out of the natural/social science fields, all of which I believe merit close attention. Culture critic Ralph Keyes argues that we live in a post-truth era, in which society is abandoning honesty more than ever before. Cognitive scientist David Livingstone Smith (cited above) thinks this is the wrong tack, and that humanity has been a species of habitual liars right from the get-go, today as much as ever before. Biblical scholar John Pilch seems to think that lying and deception is consistent over time, though not across cultures: collectivist (honor-shame) societies have more socially acceptable forms of lying and deception than in the individualized west.

Over the next couple of weeks I'll look at the issue from each corner. We'll consider (1) the evolutionary-psychological perspective (Smith), which tells us that homo sapiens lie and deceive almost as soon as they open their mouths to speak (telling on average three lies for every ten minutes of conversation), (2) the cultural-anthropological approach (Pilch), which explains why lying and deception is all the more acceptable in honor-shame societies (the Bible will be a good illustration here), and (3) the cultural-critical idea (Keyes) that postmodernity has increasingly blurred distinctions between lies and truths. The three approaches, taken together, will vindicate the third group of philosophers (Machiavelli, Nietzche, Wilde) more than the others, and ask us to think twice about the way we view honesty as an achievable virtue.

The complete series:

Lying and Deception in Homo Sapiens
Lying and Deception in Honor-Shame Cultures
Lying and Deception in Authorship
Lying and Deception in the Postmodern Age


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