Deception is an inalienable element of human society. We, as a species, deceive both others and ourselves, as a natural instinct in order to provide ourselves an advantage, be it material or psychological. From the supermarket cashier that says that his day has been wonderful despite his life being in shambles to the man running for governor that promises that he cares for each voter’s struggles when in fact he sees nothing but money and power, all humans lie to some degree. The problem, however, is not that we lie. Rather, it’s the fact that we as a society proclaim in the public forum that deceit is morally abhorrent but then go on to perform the very acts we condemn.
From the white, seemingly harmless lies told in passing to the grand pyramid schemes orchestrated by criminal masterminds, all lies are told to provide the liar with some form of advantage over the competition. That competition may manifest itself as another human, an opposing organization, or one’s conscious mind. The double agent lies his way into a position of power, at which point he has the advantage of access to restricted information that he then uses as he sees fit.
The boyfriend tells his girlfriend that her dress doesn’t make her look fat in some attempt to “keep the peace” and avoid the backlash caused by being honest with her. The habitual gambler that tells himself that his recent losses have simply been a bad streak and that he’ll win it all back in the next game lies to himself in an attempt to cope with the fact that he has a problem. Each of these acts of deception has a clear and present advantage associated with it.
The acts of rationalizing one’s problems away or denying the potentially harsh truth of a matter are undeniably acts of deception. These tricks of the mind are subconscious and almost entirely reflexive in nature, a knee-jerk reaction of the brain performed to shield itself from some psychologically damaging realization. Again, imagine the gambling addict.
His addiction has cost him thousands of dollars, and yet he continues to drive to the casino every night and gamble his wages away while continuously telling himself that his losses have been nothing more than a bit of bad luck. The truth is evident, and yet he has not accepted it because of the damage and pain associated with the recognition of his failures.
Small lies are practically inescapable they are so prevalent in interpersonal contact, and yet we do not condemn the telling of them. In fact, we tacitly condone them. Imagine a typical exchange of small talk between a businessman and a store clerk, each with their own set of problems to deal with. You may hear “I’m doing very well, thanks for asking!” as a response to “How’s it going?” Now, despite the fact that the clerk that answers is having a terrible day, he lies and states that he’s well. He has no desire to explain the nature of his problems to someone else, and the businessman has no real interest in how the clerk is faring. Both sides are aware that the other is not being entirely truthful. Each person performs the same song and dance, telling the same lies and feigning the same sort of interest throughout the rest of the day.
Human society is hypocritical in its moral evaluation of deceit. Every human lies, and yet almost no human is willing to admit that he or she is a liar,as if our society was nothing more than a schoolyard game of “never have I ever” with every child making their statements with fingers crossed behind their backs. If lying is such a universally despicable act, then what does that say of human society as a whole? Is it true that, given that we are all liars, we are universally despicable? Or is it true that deceit is simply a facet of humanity that is not necessarily immoral?