My opinions

Truth and lies

I like to regard myself as a truthful person; indeed, one of my friends has told me that I am "honest to a fault". However, what does this mean? It is fine to say that I don't tell lies, but what is a lie?

Definition 1: A lie is when you say something that isn't true.

This is probably the definition that most people would start out with. However, I think that is also the easiest to dismiss. For example, everyone makes mistakes, and if you say something in error which you believe to be true, this doesn't count as a lie.

Definition 2: A lie is when you say something which you know isn't true.

This solves the problem in definition 1, but it still doesn't quite get there. Taking another example, how about sarcasm? In a case like this, you don't believe what you're saying, but you don't expect anyone else to either, and usually they would already know that it isn't true. Therefore, I think that we can dismiss this definition too.

Definition 3: A lie is when you say something which you know isn't true, and when you intend to make someone else believe that is true.

Whew! Okay, I think this is more like it. The important issue here is the intent to deceive - I believe that the legal term is mens rea.

While this is basically the definition that I go with, I recognise that there are still some variables. How about white lies? Or when you wind someone up by temporarily lying to them, fully intending to tell them the truth eventually? I think that these still count as lies - it is then a matter for the individual's conscience as to whether to tell them or not. I would also say that morally there is a difference between lying on your own behalf and lying on behalf of others. In an everyday scenario, this would mean a case where someone gets a phone call and says "Tell them I'm not here". In a more extreme case, this could mean lying to protect the lives of refugees hiding in your house, e.g. Jews during the second world war.

My own personal philosophy is similar to that of King Arthur in the novel Knight Life by Peter David. This is purely coincidental, but I think that the book explains it better than I do. Essentially, I won't tell lies on my own behalf, and I try not to tell them for others, although I sometimes slip on that. However, I have no moral problem with witholding information. Essentially, I will tell the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth. This doesn't mean that I always hide things, but I may do on occassion. So, if you want to know something, it is best to ask me directly.

This page was last updated on 2003-12-29 by John C. Kirk

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