Truth is questionable, and so is honesty

Day 2 of HowTheLightGetsIn festival

White lies and deception

On the second day of HowTheLightGetsIn festival at Hay, one of the panel debates turned to the question of whether lying is necessary, and even justified, for the smooth running of society. Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, philosopher of swearing Rebecca Roache, and post-realist philosopher Hilary Lawson, argued over whether lying has anything to do with the truth and whether honesty is a crucial virtue, only to be violated in extreme circumstances, or whether honesty is in fact inappropriate more often than we think.


Lies Panel

 Hilary Lawson, Simon Baron-Cohen, and Rebecca Roache debate the virtue of honesty. Samira Shackle hosts.

Nobody likes people lying to them. But don’t we all think it’s sometimes acceptable to do so? Even the morally right thing to do? Should we really all be as pedantic as Kant would like us to be and never lie, no matter what? Would society even function if everyone was 100% honest all the time? It’s hard to imagine. Yet, where do we draw the line? Are politicians allowed to lie a bit, just like the rest of us? And how can we tell whether someone is lying or not in an age that many have come to accept that an absolute, universal truth might be a fiction. These were some of the questions that the Simon Baron-Cohen, Rebecca Roach and Hilary Lawson grappled with on a panel during the second day of HowTheLightGetsIn. 

Rebecca Roache, a philosopher of language and swearing, reminded us of Aristotle’s view that there is no one single virtue, and we need to exercise them all in moderation in order to lead a good and fruitful life. So even though honesty is indeed a virtue, it can sometimes clash with other equally important ones, like kindness. In those cases, the right thing to do, morally speaking, might be to be dishonest. It’s all a balancing act.

The psychologist and neuroscientist, Simon Baron-Cohen, most famous for his work on autism, agreed. What’s more, there seems to be some neuroscientific evidence that lying can be guided by a concern for the other person. As it happens, our ability to deceive successfully and flexibly, in many different contexts, unlike other animals who can only do so for one specific purpose (think of the insect pretending to be a stick, or the fish pretending to a rock) is because of our empathy circuit: our ability to think of other people’s thoughts and feelings. And since lying is, according to Cohen, our ability to make people believe something is true when in fact it’s false, having the skill to imagine what other people are thinking is necessary.

Hilary Lawson, a post-realist philosopher who has argued in his book Closure that thought and language are incapable of describing the external world, took a different approach. Truth, for Lawson, is not something we can ever get to. But if that’s the case, does it mean that lying loses its meaning altogether? Not so, argued Lawson. Lying has nothing to do with truth or falsity, with what’s going on “out there” in the world. Instead, lying is about whether one’s being honest about one’s own perception of the world. Lying is saying something you don’t in fact believe. So it’s not possible to determine whether George W. Bush and Tony Blair were lying to us when they claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction simply by pointing out that it turned out that Iraq had no such weapons. It would also have had to be the case that they did not in fact believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Although, strangely, that seems to leave open the possibility of someone lying to you, i.e. not telling you what they believe, but actually telling you something that’s the case, even if accidentally.

So if we accept that premise, that lying doesn’t have to do with concealing the truth, since we can’t get to that anyway, but with concealing our own beliefs, how important is it to be honest about them? Perhaps surprisingly for someone who doesn’t believe there is any one correct version of reality, Lawson argued that honesty could not be more vital a virtue. It’s too easy to morally justify lying to others by arguing to ourselves that we did it for their own good, but that’s a slippery slope to self-delusion. What is more, honesty is crucial for protecting the meaning of language. If we don’t mean what we say, communication will eventually break down – everyone second guessing what the other is really thinking. Though arguably, in areas of life like diplomacy, or even for those initiated into the English culture of politeness as adults, double-speak and second guessing what the interlocutor actually means is part of the territory, and language still retains its meaning.

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Rebecca Roache disagreed. Not only is being honest overrated, but we actively believe it to be inappropriate in many contexts. Take the job interview, for example. We don’t expect honesty from the interviewee. We expect them to present the best version of themselves, to play the game and follows the social conventions that surround the job interview. That involves, to a certain degree, hiding some aspects of ourselves, ones that we might be comfortable sharing with our friends, but not a future boss.

Simon Baron-Cohen agreed, and wondered whether we are in fact deceiving each other all the time in our everyday lives. We’re constantly filtering our thoughts, choosing what to expose to others, depending on the context. We present different versions of ourselves depending on who we are talking to. The war in Ukraine might be playing on our mind, but those might not be the appropriate thoughts to share with our young children, for example. We withhold information, and that seems the right thing to do. The question is, where’s the limit? When does the empathetic and socially appropriate withholding of information tip over into misinformation and propaganda? Perhaps Vladimir Putin thinks telling Russians there isn’t really a war going on in Ukraine as the socially right thing to do. But surely, Cohen claimed, that’s gone too far the other side on the spectrum that starts with socially appropriate white lies and stretches all the way to deliberate misinformation and propaganda.

We need to be careful here, Lawson interjected. It’s all too easy to slip into seeing the lies of our opponents as morally reprehensible, but our own as morally exemplary. We always need to keep in mind that there is no one way the world is, there are only perspectives on it, and before we rush to calling our enemies liars, we should try to make sense of how they see the world, try to occupy their perspective. Russian media might not be a paragon of honesty and transparency, but then again how sure can we be that our own media are bias-free?

The fact that there is active government repression of media free speech in Russia is one reason to suspect that their perspective is not as good a guide to the world as Western media. Lawson after all concedes that just because everyone’s view of the world is perspectival doesn’t mean that all perspectives have equal value. That saves us from a kind of extreme relativism.

At the same time, we need to remember that all we have is perspectives, never direct access to something like “the facts”. That, Lawson continued, means that determining whether someone’s lying is always going to be a matter of judgement, of interpretation. What about CCTV footage, retorted Cohen. Surely that counts as direct evidence that can determine whether someone’s lying about, say, stealing from a shop. Even then, Lawson claimed, there is always a level of judgement involved in interpreting what we’re seeing.

I used an audio recording of this debate to recount it. And though I aimed to present the speakers’ views accurately, inevitably I had to leave out a number of issues discussed, withhold some information from the reader. To my mind it’s an honest account of it. But that might just be a matter of judgement.

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