Thursday, October 01, 2009

Culture Shock 10.01.09: If lying didn't exist, we'd have to invent it

Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

As my favorite TV doctor is fond of saying, everybody lies. But what if everybody didn't lie?

Take that a step further. What if nobody ever lied? That's the premise of a film opening this weekend.

"The Invention of Lying" is set in a world that's exactly like ours — except that everyone always tells the truth. No one even knows what a lie is. But that changes when Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais, creator and star of the British version of "The Office") invents lying.

Mark quickly realizes the advantage his discovery gives him. If nobody ever suspects that you're telling them something less than the unblemished truth, you can get away with anything.

But our world doesn't work that way. Here, despite injunctions religious and otherwise, everybody lies some of the time. And if there's one problem I see with "The Invention of Lying," it's that a world without lying almost certainly wouldn't look anything like ours. It might look like Vulcan, but even Mr. Spock has been known to exaggerate from time to time.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant claimed that people should never lie. He was all about sticking to rules that could apply to everyone at all times — categorical imperatives, he called them. Lying all the time wouldn't work because for a lie to be effective, people must usually tell the truth. (This is why no one trusts used-car salesmen and politicians.) Therefore, Kant said, we should tell the truth all the time.

Some subsequent philosophers have tried to finesse this so Kant doesn't appear to be saying, for example, that it's wrong to lie even to protect someone from a murderer. Then again, other people might simply conclude that Kant was a rule-obsessed sociopath.

Anyway, Kant's bizarre fetish for sticking to rules regardless of consequences — "even if the heavens fall," he said — is why he is best known today, outside of academic philosophy, as Friedrich Nietzsche's favorite whipping boy.

Without lying, our ancestors never would have made it past the Stone Age. Lying is the axle grease that makes civilization run smoothly. Think of all the "white lies" we tell to avoid hurting people's feelings or getting punched in the face: "Your baby is so adorable." "No, those jeans don't make you look fat." "That was the best sex ever."

Sometimes, people just can't handle the truth.

A world without lies is unthinkable. Fortunately, lying is a skill we pick up early. By age 5, a child understands the difference between what he believes to be true and what others believe to be true. And that's when children start blaming siblings, or the family cat, for things like broken vases and flooded bathrooms.

But parents are hardly blameless. When telling their children how to behave, parents act like dear old Kant. But in practice, parents are no more truthful than their offspring. A study published in the September issue of the Journal of Moral Education found that parents lie to their children all the time, particularly when it comes to the existence of magical creatures like the Tooth Fairy and a certain "jolly old elf."

All magic is lying. Magicians Penn and Teller admit as much; it's part of their act. That's why they have little patience for flimflam artists who try to pass off magic tricks as something supernatural. In such cases, I'm with Penn and Teller. I'm all for the truth coming out.

But lying has its place, too, and we couldn't get by without it. That's the honest truth.

Would I lie to you?

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