by Jonathan Wallace

This is for Shlomo Elfassy

I hate being lied to. Short of violence, it is the worst thing you can do to me. Not because of God, or the Ten Commandments, or any universal moral precepts. The reason that I hate lies is because, like you, I wish to navigate carefully through life, and to do so I must be able to calculate my true position. When you lie to me, you know your position but you have given me false data which obscures mine.

Lying is theft. When you tell me something which I take to be true and as a result I invest my time, or my money, or even my care, you have stolen these things from me because you obtained them with false information.

Lying creates inequality. Since you also do not like being lied to--I have never known anyone who wanted to be deceived-- you have acted as if there were two classes of humans: you, with the right to lie, and everyone else, who must be truthful to you so that you too will not lose your way.

Lying treats people as means to the end you wish to accomplish, and not as ends in themselves.

Lying is one of those rare areas in which the moral rulebook and the legal one overlap each other quite neatly. Fraud is defined as an intentional falsehood on which another relies to his detriment. A fraud is a lie writ large, often in a financial context, where the damage to me is quantifiable in money. Even those lies which the law does not define as fraud tend to fit the same definition: a knowing false utterance which the mark is intended to rely on to his harm, and does. The only differences are of degree, for example, when we cannot assess the loss in money.

The basic tenet that lying is wrong seems to be universal to all cultures, probably because humans are social animals. To live together in a society we must tell the truth to each other about such basic matters as sources of food or of danger. Sissela Bok writes in Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life:

A society, then, whose members were unable to distinguish truthful messages from deceptive ones, would collapse. But even before such a general collapse, individual choice and survival would be imperilled. The search for food and shelter could depend on no expectations from others. A warning that a well was poisoned or a plea for help in an accident would come to be ignored unless independent confirmation could be found.

Since even liars agree that lying is wrong, to the extent that they do not wish to be lied to and to lose their way, there are some remarkable special cases in our society: we justify some lies and are resigned to others. Why does indignation fail in certain cases?

Public and private spheres. Before looking at specific cases, I would like to dispose of the idea that, where lying is concerned, there is an important distinction to be made between public and private life. Some people believe lying is more justified in one area than the other. This can cut either way: we tolerate a politician who lies because he adores, and is rigorously faithful to, his wife of forty years. Or we excuse a friend's marital infidelity because we believe him to be of complete integrity in business relationships.

Ross Perot pointed out, correctly in my view, that where lying is concerned you cannot separate the spheres. He did not want adulterers working for him because "any man who will lie to his wife will lie to me." You can test this assertion by asking yourself: why wouldn't he? Because his wife is a thing to him but I am a person? There is no answer to the question likely to inspire continuing confidence in the individual. Once we know that another violated a relationship of trust and reliance, there is no moral distinction to be drawn based on the "sphere" in which the deed occurred.

Infidelity. Sexual infidelity has become so common in our society that it is increasingly treated as if it were a sociological phenomenon rather than a moral issue: men are more likely to have multiple mates and families during life, women are more likely to have one. As Richard Dawkins teaches us in The Selfish Gene, both approaches can be "evolutionarily successful strategies": investing maximum time in a few offspring gives them a better chance of survival; having as many offspring as possible with multiple mates makes it likely that at least some will survive, though you have invested no time in them. Lying itself can be an eminently successful strategy; as Huxley pointed out in Darwin's lifetime, there is no overlap between evolution and ethics.

Infidelity is of interest for our purposes here because it is involves lying (if we choose to have an open relationship, there is no infidelity, so the phrase itself requires that a lie have occurred). In being unfaithful, I create a situation in which my wife has a false view of reality: she loses her way. She reposes all her trust and love in me based on an understanding that we are exclusive, that all my concern is invested in her, and this understanding is completely false. She is in effect living in a house which may appear solid but has no foundation. I can't imagine a greater fraud than to steal years of someone's life this way. The opportunity costs are tremendous: your spouse had the opportunity to find someone else who was truthful and build a life with him and you robbed her of that.

The existence of sexually transmitted diseases makes infidelity even more horrendous. Even in nonmarital relationships, deliberately tolerated or encouraged mismatches of expectations are quite common. If one member of a couple has communicated a wish to be exclusive, in my rulebook the other has a reciprocal responsibility to be truthful about whether or not this is agreeable. The consequences of lying are not just emotional but because of disease, may bring severe physical harm. There are many people who contracted AIDS from a companion they thought was faithful, but even if the ailment is merely an itch curable by penicillin you had no right to make me run a risk I never chose to undertake, any more than you have the right to steal an hour of my time with a lie.

Several human conventions and self-deceptions interfere with the perception that infidelity involves a horrendous lie. Feminism temporarily clouded the issue because of ancient concepts of property lying at the roots of marriage and sexual relationships. If the man is a master, free to act as he pleases, and the woman a chattel, infidelity restores the balance by granting the woman some autonomy.

Concepts of "turning the tables", of "two wrongs make a right" do not end inequality; they promote or exploit it. Once relationships are reconceived as a partnership of equals, having nothing to do with "mastery" or "property", the obligation of truthfulness comes to the fore, as it does in any kind of partnership.

Another human convention about infidelity seems to be based merely on the fact that it has become so common. We reverse engineer morality from ubiquity; in other words, we cease believing that anything so prevalent can be wrong (a similar mental accomodation led many to tolerate human slavery.) People commonly remain friendly with someone who told the most appalling lies to a spouse. A related kind of tolerance is engendered sometimes from the lack of legal consequences; we sometimes confuse the legal plane with the moral, so as to say that if the behavior does not result in a judgment for damages, it is not "wrong" in a fundamental sense. Ironically, the reconception of marriage as a partnership of equals in this case has had the unintended consequence of diminishing our sense of shock at adultery. Two career marriages are common, and alimony almost unknown today; therefore there is increasingly a conception that someone who did not end up in a mess (struggling to take care of two families) could not have done something wrong. (Of course, when adulterers more commonly ended up in financially untenable situations, this as frequently excited the compassion of the people around them. My wife remembers bitterly the "friends" who said, "But he's a student!" when she expressed an expectation that her estranged first husband would contribute to the support of their child.) But it is incorrect to work backwards from a lack of consequences to the morality of an action; human life is inherently ragged and uneven and an action violating a moral rule does not inevitably lead to any punishment.

Another set of excuses arise from a loss of respect for the institution of marriage. Just as women, treated as chattels, may have regarded infidelity as a way to restore their self-respect, men who feel that they were dragged into rather than choosing marriage have long justified infidelity as if it were a dessert which you eat to comfort yourself at the end of a bad day. There is an entire literary genre of the 1960's, which I find to be infantile and unreadable: the self-pitying novel of adultery, by a male author, presumably autobiographical, where marriage is portrayed as an absurd collection of social expectations which the protagonist undertakes because he has no choice and because society expects it. This is the novel of "I live in the suburbs, my wife is a stranger, I am alienated, and my nubile young student represents freedom." Such excuses are pathetic because they justify lies by denying that the liar is a moral actor: he is just a chip in a billow, carried into marriage. By blaming society, his or her parents, the spouse, everyone but himself, he obscures what is essentially a simple situation: as a moral actor, he has a responsibility either to make it work, as earlier generations did, or not to be there. But the "not to be there" must also be seen through a lens of moral responsibility, because where there has been very substantial reliance, "make it work" may be the only moral choice. Otherwise its too facile. "She invested thirty years of her life in me, but she's not who I thought, so I'm going to abandon her and start over," should not be an easy or common choice.

I love being married. Marriage in my book is about equality, partnership and truth. The ideal is a relationship of complete trust and corresponding simplicity, the most uncomplicated and invigorating atmosphere on earth.

Lying in business. Commerce is an ancient and respectable human activity that predates written language. If I have extra wheat and you have extra apples, lets work out a trade. While to many people today, lying and business are as inextricably entangled as deceit and war, there is nothing about the fundamental nature of commerce which dictates that lying form an essential part.

A business organization is a form of human community dedicated to commerce. As such, it can be based on the same assumptions as any other type of community: that people are ends, not means, and that the community is formed for the benefit of all. While a few businesses are run so that the employees are all equal (co-ops and ESOP's), even those more hierarchically organized can be based on the premise that people treated with honesty and concern will respond with loyalty and hard work.

If this sounds impossibly idealistic, it is not. I am a businessman and have founded and run companies based on this premise. Companies, like any other community, are held together by a type of glue. In political communities, there are three types available, fear, greed or loyalty; businesses are usually based on either greed or loyalty, as fear does not apply when there is a large choice of other communities which can be easily joined by changing jobs.

People may work in a business based on lies without being disturbed by it if they are resigned to it and especially if the lies do not impact them personally (similar to the tolerance of adultery by friends mentioned above.) They may tolerate an environment in which they are routinely lied to if the financial opportunity is large enough and especially if they are of the type who can thrive in an environment of lies. However, I believe most people would prefer, if the opportunity exists, to work in a company whose goals they approve and which treats them as human beings and not as things. If I am correct about this, then it follows that they look to business leadership with the same standards as any other kind of leadership. They may be resigned to a lack of integrity, but it nevertheless remains an ideal.

Businesses can be tremendously successful without engaging in fraud. While we may be suckered into buying products that are highly hyped, we also have a special affection for, and often a lifelong relationship to, products that accomplish a job unpretentiously and about which no extraordinary claims are made. I value the car I drive, and will buy another of the same kind, because it hasn't broken down in six years, not because I believe that by owning it I am younger or better-looking than I actually am.

One of the companies in which I worked had a business model which was ninety percent sales and ten percent implementation. I am not implying any dishonesty built into the model; there are businesses where finding the opportunity is most of the work, and delivering the result is much easier. Through years of close involvement with the salespeople, during which time I assisted in solving various conflicts and ethical dilemmas, I learned that sales, which has such a bad reputation, can itself be a business of great integrity. At its most transparent, sales involves the matching of a problem and a solution, or a need and the thing which satisfies it. The salesperson, rather than lying to the purchaser and getting him to want something unsuitable, can simply work to eliminate the friction of the system by honestly addressing the purchaser's concerns.

There is an incentive to be honest in business, as in other kinds of activities, which works entirely on a practical and not a moral plane. Customers who discover that they have been lied to will not return; employees who have been lied to will leave, and it will become harder to recruit new ones. These practical incentives do not always work (economic necessity, the lack of choice, or simply the ease of obfuscation and difficulty of transmitting information, may be enough to counter them.) Nevertheless, they work enough of the time that the consequences of deception provide a practical brake on the system.

Leadership and Lying. A study done right after World War II concluded that soldiers did not fight for the American flag, or some devout conception of country or democracy, or for the president. They fought for the other members of their squad, the smallest unit of the huge community of which they were members.

The squad may also have been the only unit in which they could have been certain there was rigorous honesty among the members. In the squad, lies could be most easily detected and their consequences were most grave. Since our daily survival depends on our watching each other's backs, if you are not carrying the weight, if you are making excuses and taking more from me than you are giving, I will certainly know. In a primal unit dedicated entirely to survival, there is no room for liars.

It is interesting to compare the beauty and simplicity of the squad with the larger components of the community. Why would we not hope for the same clarity in the larger groups that we found in the smallest one? Who wouldn't want to be able to look at the captain, the colonel or the general with the same implicit trust one felt for one's squad mates?

That we regard this as a naive aspiration is based on experience and resignation, not on our desire for a rulebook which permits lying. These distinctions are built into our vocabulary: we talk about politicians lying, not leaders; not every politician is a leader, not even one in a position of ostensible leadership.

A leader is like a flag: we want to know what he stands for in order to salute him. We want him to take our side, solve our problems, treat us as people rather than chattel, and be responsive to our opinions. His honesty is the cornerstone of the structure; if we catch him lying to us it is impossible to be confident he is carrying out the rest of his mission.

While many people are resigned to being lied to by politicians, few will defend the premise that a leader should lie to us for our own good. Even liars want the people around them to be truthful, so that they do not lose their own way.

A leader who is tasked with acting as navigator for an entire community must seek to have people around him who will give him rigorously accurate information, so he does not crash the vessel on the rocks. If he is a liar, he has arrogated the right to himself to be the only one in the system, as he could not do his job if the others around him behaved as he did.

Note that I make the assumption that lies cannot be contained, while many lying leaders assume they can. We can all collaborate to lie to the public, as long as we are honest with one another: this was the ethic of the Nixon administration and of many other governments through-out history. Crisis situations tend to bring out this ethic; in crises, war being a prime example, conventional rulebooks are suspended and fraud (alongside force) is engaged to achieve our goals.

As Sissela Bok points out, apologists for lying have long maintained that there are people to whom we owe no obligation of truth. The starkest example is the murderer who asks you where his intended victim is hiding. This hypothetical, discussed by every philosopher who has analyzed the phenomenon of lying, divides the absolutists from the relativists. Kant, an absolutist, maintained we must not even lie to a murderer. Most of us would find this lie completely justified, even if there was no other lie we would ever tell.

At the other extreme, we may create structures in which we "owe no obligation of truth" to large groups of people, based on such factors as race, geographical origin, economic status, or the mere fact that they are our "followers." Here the exception winds up eating the rule: we may have no obligation of honesty to anyone except a select few--and we may even betray those when there is something else to be gained. We can call this the "organized crime" theory of leadership.

Human inertia leads to complacency sometimes. We tolerate the harm a friend did another because we do not want to give up a friend. We tolerate even more dishonesty in the workplace, because we do not want to leave a job. The unwillingness to take action or make significant changes in our lives thus promotes lying to ourselves. Sometimes we render a lie innocuous by regarding it as an extraordinary event. Someone told a lie to promote a particularly important goal, but now that things have returned to normal he will return to truth and I can count on him.

The problem is that this flies in the face of human nature. Just as bodies in motion tend to remain in motion, liars who have succeeded in obtaining something important through a falsehood should be expected to utter another one when there is something else to obtain. Lies become habitual and the goals may be of decreasing importance.

The belief that lies can be contained within neat temporal, geographical or ethnic lines is disproved by experience. "[F]ew lies," says Bok, "are solitary ones":

The first lie 'must be thatched with another or it will rain through.' More and more lies may come to be needed; the liar always has more mending to do. And the strains on him become greater each time...

After the first lies, moreover, others can come more easily. Psychological barriers wear down; lies seem more necessary, less reprehensible; the ability to make moral distinctions can coarsen...

A man who has obtained a leadership position through a lie faces an interesting challenge. If he cannot convince the people around him that there was no lie, then he must try to persuade them that it was the last one; in other words, that lies can be contained. Since his entire authority, the position itself, was obtained by that lie, it will be a very difficult task. It is on a moral plane with: "We had to commit one murder to achieve our goals, but there will never be another." In life, as in the movies, everyone usually has their knives out a remarkably short time after this statement is made.


In the graphic hypothetical of the killer seeking his victim, we face an extraordinary situation. The rules have broken down (or the authorities who could apply them cannot reach us in time) and we are in a state of nature where the individual we are facing is prepared to apply force.

However, even in this situation we have other choices. We could respond with force, or run away, or refuse to answer. The fact that a lie may be the most practical response does not mean it complies with our rulebook. Nor are we compelled to rewrite the rules to accomodate it.

Here we face the old confusion between the moral and practical. Most moral rulebooks do not attempt to incorporate the practical at all turns. (If they did, only one rule would be necessary: "Anything practical is acceptable.") It may be highly practical to throw some people from the lifeboat when the waves get high or food is short (it may be even more practical to kill and eat them.) But under most of our rulebooks, it would be a highly unethical choice.

Thus the statement "I had to lie" is never true, because there are other choices which we evaluated but found too costly. A common experience of my generation was the choice of whether to lie to avoid the draft during Vietnam. (I turned 18 the year the draft ended. I had already formulated the ideas I am expressing here,but I cannot say with certainty that I would have had the courage of my convictions.) On the one hand, most people who evaded the draft had a genuine belief that the war was immoral. On the other hand, many missed the fact that draft evasion was not a moral choice, nor was it in any way (because concealed) an act of protest. On a spectrum of moral statement, two other choices were more honest. The highest form of protest, involving the most personal risk, was to refuse to serve and accept the consequences. Few people had the courage to do this. Another choice was to withdraw from the community altogether and go live in another country, which more people did.

Draft evaders, by contrast, became "free riders" who continued to accept the benefits of American society without paying the price that society demanded in return. As such, they were on the same moral plane as welfare cheats and anyone else who obtains something on false pretenses.

In a Hobbesian state of nature, we may face stark choices. In wars, good men may face each other every day in circumstances which they did not choose and from which only one can emerge alive. Still, there is a choice made, to kill and live, where another path was available (to die rather than kill.) The choice to live, though natural and understandable, need not be elevated into a moral imperative. In fact, it is not under most rulebooks; think again about the lifeboat example, where we are not permitted to kill other inhabitants of the boat, even to ensure our own survival.

Lies and violence can be viewed similarly. Lies are never "necessary" and when applied to protect an important interest, like survival, never need to be elevated to the level of a morally acceptable choice. Our rulebooks, after all, are compilations of the ways we should behave. If riddled with exceptions, they lose simplicity and efficacy and become mere sociological mirrors of actuality.

Aren't there white lies? It is very hard to say what these are. Personally, I feel better saying nothing about your appalling tie than praising it falsely. Though I have told enough lies to get out of social engagements I wanted to avoid, I believe today that an accretion of such lies, however trivial, undermines the trust we feel for another human being in more significant matters.

It is hard to say that any lie is wholly beneficial or otherwise completely without consequences. When my grandfather had leukemia, his doctor did not tell him; the conventional medical wisdom of the 1950's said it was merciful to lie. In my opinion, he was robbed of the opportunity to navigate his life knowingly in the light of a major obstacle in the landscape. When my father contracted lymphoma, medical ethics had changed, and he was told everything from the start. When my own cancer arrives, I expect to be treated no differently.

A very common and trivial lie involves deceiving someone about which others possess certain information. Many, perhaps most, promises of confidentiality are deceptive because privately conditional: I have the mental reservation (which I do not communicate to you) that I will not tell anyone except my wife, or a friend whom I trust also to keep the secret.

I told a memorable lie of this type, which backfired. (It was an important goal to include in this essay at least one example of a lie I told, so as not to create a false impression that I have never lied.) Within a company, I was in an ambiguous situation of having two bosses: I was on loan from Boss 1 to Boss 2 (who did not want my help and regarded me as a spy for Boss 1.) Someone made a comment in internal email in Boss 2's group which I knew would anger Boss 1. I told Boss 1 about it in confidence. Boss 2 asked me if I had told anyone and I said no. I was uncomfortable with the question, which I certainly could have answered honestly, and I took the line of least resistance. Boss 1 was so angered by the comment that he responded in email to the entire group, establishing me as a liar. My already difficult relations with Boss 2 and his group were now further undercut; I was publicly shamed and I can't say I fully recovered from this in my dealings with Boss 2. Yet the lie, at the moment I told it, seemed a very trivial one. I thought it would never be detected, so there would be no consequences. Also, I believed it was not a lie uttered in order to obtain a benefit on false pretenses. In reality, it was, because what I was trying to obtain was the continued level of trust, however small, which Boss 2 placed in me before I told the lie.

Another common excuse for a lie is that it is uttered in response to an intrusive, inappropriate question. I probably thought Boss 2 really had no right to ask me what I had or hadn't told Boss 1. Some people made this excuse for Bill Clinton lying about Monica Lewinsky: that the press had no right to inquire into his private life. However, even if we claim a distinction (which I rejected above) between the moral implications of private and public behavior, this is a very weak excuse. The President could have told the truth or refused to answer. It would be refreshing to hear a public figure say, "That's none of your damn business" once in a while. By lying, he did himself immense public damage, of which the impeachment trial was the most visible and expensive consequence.

Truth stands as an absolute value, the glue which binds the rulebook. "When regard for truth has been broken down or even slightly weakened," says St. Augustine (quoted by Bok), "all things will remain doubtful."