In my morning’s lazy read of my morning paper, The Wall Street Journal *, I note that today’s most popular read of that newspaper is Why We Lie. Since Saturday, 4,100 people have shared this article, which is by Dan Ariely, explaining his book “The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to EveryoneEspecially Ourselves.” I watch for the Most Popular reads and shares because the popularity of an article is commensurate with the commonality of human interest in its subject. This time, I am surprised that more people have not shared the article; after all, we all lie.
We could look at this in connection with the recent and enduring conversation about Elizabeth Warren, our favorite Native American. However, if we do, we have to forgive her because,
Everybody has the capacity to be dishonest, and almost everybody cheatsjust by a little. Except for a few outliers at the top and bottom, the behavior of almost everyone is driven by two opposing motivations. On the one hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money and glory as possible; on the other hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people.
She did; she does. We all know that honesty is a virtue and society depends on it. We also know that humans lie. We lie because we can or we lie because we must. Ariely describes our small scale lying, or lying’s handmaiden, cheating, as corrosive to society. We all know it and depend on other to be honest in their dealings with us. We absolutely hate it when people lie to us. Yet, we are not above our own prevarications and can excuse those as necessary. As Mark Twain observed in his essay, “On the Decay of the Art of Lying,”
Observe, I do not mean to suggest that the custom of lying has suffered any decay or interruption,—no, for the Lie, as a Virtue, a Principle, is eternal; the Lie, as a recreation, a solace, a refuge in time of need, the fourth Grace, the tenth Muse, man’s best and surest friend, is immortal, and cannot perish from the earth . . . .
Ariely and colleagues have studied cheating and have a “matrix task” to detect it and measure it. He notes that what boosts cheating is the awareness that others are cheating. “Cheating, it seems, is infectious.” If someone gets away with it, cheating flourishes. Hence, as a society, we must observe and punish the cheat, as well as correct lies and expose liars. Biblicaly speaking, we reprove the scoffers so the foolish become wise.
Twain insisted on wholesome lying. He considered lying the lubricant that greased society’s skids. Ariely mentions that, too, but seems to note that if we grease societal skids too much we slide right off them. Twain was regretting the decay of society in the way it lied. His more positive observation about it was that,
Lying is universal—we all do it; we all must do it. Therefore, the wise thing is for us diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully, judiciously; to lie with a good object, and not an evil one; to lie for others’ advantage, and not our own; to lie healingly, charitably, humanely, not cruelly, hurtfully, maliciously; to lie gracefully and graciously, not awkwardly and clumsily; to lie firmly, frankly, squarely, with head erect, not haltingly, tortuously, with pusillanimous mien, as being ashamed of our high calling. Then shall we be rid of the rank and pestilent truth that is rotting the land; then shall we be great and good and beautiful, and worthy dwellers in a world where even benign Nature habitually lies, except when she promises execrable weather.
Of course, Ariely has not written about that kind of lie. He is referring to, “the next Bernie Madoff, the next Enron, the next steroid-enhanced all-star, the next serial plagiarist, the next self-dealing political miscreant.” Some of those lies are criminal, some merely unethical, all should be appalling, but parts of our society will wink at some of those when they have sympathy. These days, claiming virtue as verity seems to invite endless argument, yet truth is something we all claim to hunger for. As I ask my students who tell me everything is relative, if that is true, then how will we ever know what is true?
*Charles Murray tells me this is news reading paper of choice for the conservative elite, of which I am a wannabe.