And So We Spin But Why?

Posted by M ws On Thursday, September 6, 2012 0 comments
I came across the following post from BBC and am reposting this specially for my A-level students as this topic has been tested before in the Advanced level GP examination. It is certainly a definitive post on lying. Take care and have a nice day!


A liar should have a good memory
O what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.
Sir Walter Scott, Marmion
Lying is probably one of the most common wrong acts that we carry out (one researcher has said 'lying is an unavoidable part of human nature'), so it's worth spending time thinking about it.

Most people would say that lying is always wrong, except when there's a good reason for it - which means that it's not always wrong!

But even people who think lying is always wrong have a problem... Consider the case where telling a lie would mean that 10 other lies would not be told. If 10 lies are worse than 1 lie then it would seem to be a good thing to tell the first lie, but if lying is always wrong then it's wrong to tell the first lie...


Nobody who writes about lying nowadays can do so without acknowledging an enormous debt to this groundbreaking book: Lying: Moral choice in public and private life, by Sisela Bok, 1978.

What is a lie?

Lying is a form of deception, but not all forms of deception are lies.

Lying is giving some information while believing it to be untrue, intending to deceive by doing so.

A lie has three essential features:

A lie communicates some information
The liar intends to deceive or mislead
The liar believes that what they are 'saying' is not true
There are some features that people think are part of lying but aren't actually necessary:

A lie does not have to give false information
A lies does not have to be told with a bad (malicious) intention - white lies are an example of lies told with a good intention
This definition says that what makes a lie a lie is that the liar intends to deceive (or at least to mislead) the person they are lying to. It says nothing about whether the information given is true or false.

This definition covers ordinary cases of lying and these two odd cases as well:

the case where someone inadvertently gives true information while believing that they're telling a lie
I want the last helping of pie for myself, so I lie to you that there is a worm in it. When I later eat that piece of pie I discover that there really is a worm in it
the case where nobody is deceived by me because they know that I always tell lies
Lying and statements

Some philosophers believe that lying requires a statement of some sort; they say that the liar must actually speak or write or gesture.

Sisella Bok, author of a major philosophical book on the subject of lying, defines a lie as:

an intentionally deceptive message in the form of a statement
Others stretch the definition to include doing nothing in response to a question, knowing that this will deceive the questioner.

Others include 'living a lie'; those cases where someone behaves in a way that misleads the rest of us as to their true nature.

Why is lying wrong?

There are many reasons why people think lying is wrong; which ones resonate best with you will depend on the way you think about ethics.

Lying is bad because a generally truthful world is a good thing: lying diminishes trust between human beings:
if people generally didn't tell the truth, life would become very difficult, as nobody could be trusted and nothing you heard or read could be trusted - you would have to find everything out for yourself
an untrusting world is also bad for liars - lying isn't much use if everyone is doing it
Lying is bad because it treats those who are lied to as a means to achieve the liar's purpose, rather than as a valuable end in themselves
Many people think that it is wrong to treat people as means not ends
Lying is bad because it makes it difficult for the person being lied to make a free and informed decision about the matter concerned
Lies lead people to base their decisions on false information
Lying is bad because it cannot sensibly be made into a universal principle
Many people think that something should only be accepted as an ethical rule if it can be applied in every case
Lying is bad because it's a basic moral wrong
Some things are fundamentally bad - lying is one of them
Lying is bad because it's something that Good People don't do
Good behaviour displays the virtues found in Good People
Lying is bad because it corrupts the liar
Telling lies may become a habit and if a person regularly indulges in one form of wrong-doing they may well become more comfortable with wrong-doing in general
Some religious people argue Lying is bad because it misuses the God-given gift of human communication
God gave humanity speech so that they could accurately share their thoughts - lying does the opposite
Some philosophers say lying is bad because language is essential to human societies and carries the obligation to use it truthfully
When people use language they effectively 'make a contract' to use it in a particular way - one of the clauses of this contract is not to use language deceitfully
What harm do lies do?

Lies obviously hurt the person who is lied to (most of the time), but they can also hurt the liar, and society in general.

The person who is lied to suffers if they don't find out because:

They are deprived of some control over their future because
They can no longer make an informed choice about the issue concerned
They are not fully informed about their possible courses of action
They may make a decision that they would not otherwise have made
They may suffer damage as a result of the lie
The person who is lied to suffers if they do find out because:

They feel badly treated - deceived and manipulated, and regarded as a person who doesn't deserve the truth
They see the damage they have suffered
They doubt their own ability to assess truth and make decisions
They become untrusting and uncertain and this too damages their ability to make free and informed choices
They may seek revenge
The liar is hurt because:

He has to remember the lies he's told
He must act in conformity with the lies
He may have to tell more lies to avoid being found out
He has to be wary of those he's lied to
His long-term credibility is at risk
He will probably suffer harm if he's found out
If he's found out, people are more likely to lie to him
If he's found out he's less likely to be believed in future
His own view of his integrity is damaged
He may find it easier to lie again or to do other wrongs
Those who tell 'good lies' don't generally suffer these consequences - although they may do so on some occasions.

Society is hurt because:

The general level of truthfulness falls - other people may be encouraged to lie
Lying may become a generally accepted practice in some quarters
It becomes harder for people to trust each other or the institutions of society
Social cohesion is weakened
Eventually no-one is able to believe anyone else and society collapses
When is it OK to lie?


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