Truth to Tell? a Philosopher Argues for the Benefits of Little Lies

By Carlin Romano Knight-Ridder Newspapers | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), October 24, 1993 | Go to article overview
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Truth to Tell? a Philosopher Argues for the Benefits of Little Lies


Carlin Romano Knight-Ridder Newspapers, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Do you bluntly tell your Aunt Edna when her Eggs Benedict taste like Eggs Broccoli? Have you ever called in sick because you wound up the night before in the wrong bed - or state? Do you think you owe it to your significant other to point out every physical blemish, exasperating habit or mental failing?

Feel guilty about any of that?

Well, one down, nine commandments to go. According to philosopher David Nyberg, Lies 'R Us, we should feel lucky that that's the way it is.

You see, we're also pretty skilled at understating, bluffing, kidding, hiding, fibbing, imitating, mimicking, distorting, negotiating and self-deceiving - all activities that help a generally moral person get through a brutal day.

As Nyberg puts it, we're "enormously inventive at misleading others through concealment, conventions of emphasis, foreshortening, timing, calculated mumbling, shrewd misunderstanding, precise miswording, nonchalant nodding, meaningfully expressionless expressions, and so on."

Without such talents, he says, we'd be unable to live a civil life.

In "The Varnished Truth," Nyberg argues that most of us walk around with a fundamental notion - that lying and deception are wrong and harmful to social life - that is itself wrong. In his wry and accessible study, Nyberg offers a model of what good philosophy should be: smart, funny and persuasive, an antidote to simple-minded thinking.

The author, who teaches philosophy of education at the State University of New York/Buffalo, begins with "one fundamental truth of everyday life. ... Almost all of us are willing to deceive others or deceive ourselves, with untormented conscience."

"The way I see it," Nyberg offers, "deception appears to be normal rather than abnormal, a workaday attribute of practical intelligence." All of us, he says, have at times "felt the choice to deceive was morally appropriate."

While we sometimes deceive for poor reasons, we also do it "to tolerate stress, to gain a sense of control over the uncertain aspects of our lives and the future, to enhance our own well-being, to gain and protect privacy, to help others anonymously."

So Nyberg rejects the idea that deception is always bad and typically fueled by unhealthy fear or anxiety. Rather, he maintains, "some deception and self-deception are necessary both to social stability and to individual moral health."

He goes still further. Sometimes, he insists, "it is unhealthy and immoral not to deceive" (as when the assassin comes looking for his target). Contrary to scientist Lewis Thomas, who once suggested that lie-detector technology indicated lying was "an unnatural act," Nyberg sees deception as an evolutionary asset, like the self-camouflaging activity of a spider crab. In his view, it's as silly to oppose all deception as it would be "to loathe and distrust all bacteria," including those "responsible for wine and cheese and the normal digestive functions."

Nyberg recognizes that some hypocrisy about lying makes utilitarian sense: "Both the public condemnation of deception and its private practice are indispensable to the smooth running of our social lives."

But the result is that truth telling has been "morally overrated" and deception "underrated." Like a charming attorney with a dubious client, Nyberg wisely gives his defendant a makeover.

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