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
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
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
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