The Philosophy of Deceit

“Honest” Abe Lincoln, George Washington’s cherry tree, The Boy Who Cried Wolf. There is a huge amount of emphasis on being honest in our society, and lying is generally considered to be a negative aspect of human psychology, despite its prevalence in pretty much everybody’s daily interactions. In Po Bronson’s essay “Learning to Lie,” he provides research to back up the idea that children learn to lie by following their parents’ example. To me, that concept makes a lot of sense to describe how children develop their lying skills. However, my question is whether that’s an issue or not.

First, I’d like to state that the kinds of lies that Bronson referred to are not sinister in nature. To be honest,(no pun intended,) Bronson’s example of parents being disingenuous aren’t necessarily of that nature. He was describing “white lies,” those innocent statements that appease a child’s otherwise insatiable curiosity. I view lies of that nature from the point of view of Francis Church, in his classic editorial, “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.” Church’s assertion was basically that even though Santa Claus isn’t real, it’s not disingenuous to say that he’s real, because the emotions and traditions that he represents are very real.

To this day, my parents still label most of my gifts as being from Santa, but I’m not calling them out for being disingenuous. That kind of novelty is heavily nostalgic and reminds me of the happy days of being a child on Christmas morning, regardless of whether it was all built upon a falsehood or not.

Bronson also mentions that an early ability to lie is also linked with early intelligence. And so, yes kids who are smarter will realize that lying can be used to their advantage in a variety of situations. However, even if it is an issue, is there really anything that can be done about it? Earlier on, I acknowledged the logic behind Bronson’s argument that children’s lying skills develop in part through mimicking their parents. However, can’t a certain amount of any trait, be it lying or not, be attributed to genes and not how they were raised? If there truly is a correlation between early intelligence and early lying, then is it still caused by the parents, or is it just a byproduct of otherwise successful parenting?

At the end of the day, distorting the truth is about as hardwired in our brains as telling the truth. In a world devoid of lies, such as Ricky Gervais’ “The Invention of Lying,” one can immediately sense something wrong. Complete honesty is uncomfortable, frankly.

And yes, it’s painful to consider one’s child being a compulsive liar, but to just ignore it creates a disconnect. There was even an example of this in Bronson’s article, mentioning that one father was shocked to learn that his son lied without remorse. As I see it, it makes no sense to take an interpersonal relationship that vital and just let it become dysfunctional.

Just as Mark Twain once said, “Everybody lies… every day, every hour, awake, asleep, in his dreams, in his joy, in his mourning. If he keeps his tongue still his hands, his feet, his eyes, his attitude will convey deception.”