Honesty, Intellectual Honesty, Late Night Thoughts, Liars Lies and Lying, Science, Truth, Values

A Late Night Thought on Telling the Truth

One of the more interesting things about getting older is you begin to realize how often you have been lied to — all your life — and frequently by the very people who most claim to tell the truth.

When you are younger, you might think lies are the exception.  But then, around 50 or so, you look back and — perhaps astonished — see truth is the exception.  At that point, you may feel like you are at a party where everyone has gotten the joke of the moment and is laughing except you.

I think Mark Twain must have felt that way as he got older because — if you notice — he writes quite a bit about lies in his old age — and even tries to be cynical about it — yet there is always this sense that he’s a bit shocked people lie as much as they do.

I myself often — not always, but I sometimes suspect more often than not — try to tell the truth.  And it’s hard.  I sometimes think it’s harder than lying.  You’ve got to think through everything you say at least twice or three times.  “Is this really true?”  “Am I lying to myself and thus lying to others?”  “Do I have an agenda that I either know or don’t know about?”  “Are my words misleading?”  And so forth.  Time and again I catch myself saying what I want to believe is true, rather than saying what, on reflection, I know or at least suspect is true.

At best, our species struggles to tell the truth.

Half the reason the scientific method is so powerful at getting at truths is simply because it quite significantly reduces the number of blatant lies scientists can get away with telling each other (the other half is humans are prone to errors even under the best circumstances).  And I think that says a lot about human nature that we would actually need to rely on a special method — and a rigorous one at that — to guarantee some reasonable chance we are telling the truth.

I suspect that many of my readers are inclined to higher than average standards for telling the truth.  I get that sense from the comments on this blog.  But have any of you guys considered that you might be in a minority?

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I love our species of chimpanzee even when I haven’t been drinking tasty microbrewed beers (which is what I’ve been drinking tonight).  But no matter how much I love our species of chimpanzee, I must admit at my age that we tell a lot more whoppers than truths.  Maybe — just maybe — our “default option” is not truth but falsehood.

Does anything I’ve said here have the ring of truth to it, or should I drink another beer and try again?

16 thoughts on “A Late Night Thought on Telling the Truth”

  1. You’re onto something, but I suspect things might have been different before the propaganda boom in the 50s. Before that, if you saw an ad for a product, it pretty much told you what it was supposed to do and where to get it. In the 50s, the ruling classes in America decided Americans should be “consumers” rather than informed democratic participants. It became standard practice for leaders and opinion-makers to tell people what they wanted to hear in order to keep them complacent and – most importantly – shopping.

    They’re quite obvious about it. First they do extensive surveys to find out what the people want to hear, then they say it. It’s no wonder it seems like truth is dead. How can we be genuinely truthful with others, or even with ourselves when the entire framework of our society is a Matrix-esque intentional deception designed to keep us asleep so our pure bioenergy can be harvested by our hungry rulers?


  2. Lies surround us, assault us, and take a variety of forms.

    I cannot read anything “factual” any more without wondering what ax the writer had to grind, who the writer works for, how the writer makes money, etc.

    It is sad.


  3. For me the challenge is, how do we react when we suspect, or know, that someone is lying to us. It’s such a harsh thing to accuse someone of lying that it’s so much easier to avoid confrontation. And yet that effectively encourages people to keep going!


  4. I agree with you. I think the beef you have with lies to others is that most can be avoided if we identify where we are lying to ourselves.

    I believe you are hinting toward being aware of ourselves. The reason why scientific method extracts truth is because it is objective. When it becomes subjective, when we put “ourselves” into it, we start modifying that truth. We’re contaminating something that’s controlled and sterile. In order to get back to the truth, we need to practice disinterestedness.

    Furthermore, you can modify/filter the truth with positive thoughts as well as negative motives. Does my theory make sense?


  5. Meself thinks you got the facts correct in wrong order.

    Saying the truth is not *sometimes* hard. It is very hard always. If you get a really very high standard for what is “Truth” than saying the Truth is something only the Budhas do.

    I don’t think the majority of people are liars, they are just not very well equipped language-wise.

    In fact, language theories have lots of interesting ideas about this issue. Umberto Eco, for example, states that language is the possibility of the lie.


  6. stephen: “I think that the majority of lies are in a way true.”

    Exactly. All of the real whoppers have a grain of truth just off-center. That’s what makes them plausible.

    – M. \”/


  7. My experience is that truth is more often about perception rather than deception.

    We’re all guilty of self-deception. Personally I think this is the worst kind of lie because it’s enabling. These are the type of lies that lead to the ones that cause the most damage. They are the lies that allow us to cheat each other out of honest relationships. Because of them we have insincere relationships with our bank accounts. Being honest about financial limitations would inhibit us from gratifying ourselves with material possessions. We lie about whether or not we can afford things because we have twisted ideas on material property. We convince ourselves that Prada will make us happy; not because Prada markets itself so well, but because we won’t be honest about what WILL make us happy.

    The inability to ask tough questions and give equally tough answers means we’re left with only superficial relationships with our friends, co-workers and families. And when that eventually goes bust we have no one to blame but our own self-deceit…which, ironically, would mean that we’d have to have a moment of honest clarity. Too often we don’t like those moments because the lighting is harsh. We perpetuate the problem by consoling ourselves with even more lies. I think the people who are able to live closest to the truth about themselves tend to be more honest in other aspects of their lives.


  8. I think that everything is a negotiation.

    Some want to be lied to and some what to lie.

    As long as the liars are lying to those that want to be lied to then there is a certain truth to their mutual deceit.

    e.g. A guy stole something from us. It was sitting on the porch(up a flight of steps) but he was seen by his uncle.

    The uncle told me and I phoned the thief’s mother.

    The mother HATES me for telling her that her son is a thief.

    She doesnt’ care THAT her son is a thief, she just doesn’t want it EVER thrown in her face that he IS a thief.


  9. The newly outed “octuplet” mommy is a prime example of self deception.You can sit there and whath her lie to herself right in front of you.Its actually fascinating.You can point out facts..undisputed..and she says ..”well in my mind” yata yata.She is in a “denial” kind of lying.She “believes” the lies she tells herself.

    Im not pickign on her..I think (or know) Iv’e done that.

    As far as beign lied “to”..I have been broken down by lies told to me.(in close relationships).To the point I blamed myself I was being lied to repeatedly.

    But I dont give up.I try to tell the truth..and believe people as best I can.Even though I have been trained through experience to be somewhat cynical.




  10. Thanks for this post and for generating such an interesting discussion on the issue – this is something I have been thinking about for a while now.
    In fact I have been going through a bit of struggle on whether I should be true to myself and tell someone the truth about them and make myself unpopular with this person or just tell them what they want to hear and keep the relationship going smoothly.
    I find it easier to be truthful about myself but it isn’t so easy with the people in your life. Most people don’t seem to want to hear the truth.


  11. @ Usha: That is such a dilemma! I have a person or two in my life that I don’t feel it’s useful to tell them the truth because it would do no good — they would not listen. Good luck with your predicament!


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