(also called prevarication
), is a type of deception
in the form of an untruthful statement, especially with the intention to deceive others, often with the further intention to maintain a secret or reputation, protect someone's feelings or to avoid a punishment
. To lie
is to state something that one knows to be false
or that one has not reasonably ascertained to be true with the intention that it be taken for the truth
by oneself or someone else. A liar
is a person who is lying, who has previously lied, or who tends by nature to lie repeatedly.
Lying is typically used to refer to deceptions in oral or written communication. Other forms of deception, such as disguises or forgeries, are generally not considered lies, though the underlying intent may be the same. However, even a true statement can be considered a lie if the person making that statement is doing so to deceive. In this situation, it is the intent of being untruthful rather than the truthfulness of the statement itself that is considered.
Types of lies
The various types of lies include the following:Fabrication
- A fabrication is a lie told when someone submits a statement as truth, without knowing for certain whether or not it actually is true. Although the statement may be possible or plausible, it is not based on fact. Rather, it is something made up, or it is a misrepresentation of the truth.
Note: it is entirely possible (and common) for one to fabricate a lie and believe it.
Examples of fabrication: "The dog ate my homework", or "I did unplug the iron".Bold-faced lie
- A bold-faced (or barefaced, or boldfaced) lie is one which is told when it is obvious to all concerned that it is a lie. For example, a child who has chocolate all around his mouth and denies that he has eaten any chocolate is a bold-faced liar.Lying by omission
- One lies by omission by omitting an important fact, deliberately leaving another person with a misconception. Lying by omission includes failures to correct pre-existing misconceptions. A husband may tell his wife he was out at a store, which is true, but lie by omitting the fact that he also visited his mistress, although it is disputable whether or not this is actually a lie. In most cases, the person has not directly denied a truth, but merely omitted some part of what transpired.Lie-to-children
- A lie-to-children is a lie, often a platitude which may use euphemism(s), which is told to make an adult subject acceptable to children. A common example is "The stork brought you" (in reference to childbirth).White lie
- A white lie would cause no discord if it were uncovered, and offers some benefit to the liar, the hearer, or both. White lies are often used to avoid offense, such as telling someone that you think that their new outfit looks good, when you actually think that it is a horrible excuse for an outfit. In this case, the lie is told to avoid the harmful realistic implications of the truth. As a concept, it is largely defined by local custom and cannot be clearly separated from other lies with any authority. As such, the term may have differing meanings in different cultures. Lies which are harmless (but told for no reason) are generally called white lies. Noble lie
- A noble lie is one which would normally cause discord if it were uncovered, but which offers some benefit to the liar and assists in an orderly society, therefore potentially beneficial to others. It is often told to maintain law, order and safety. A noble lie usually has the effect of helping an elite maintain power.Emergency lie
- An emergency lie is a strategic lie told when the truth may not be told because, for example, harm to a third party would result. For example, a neighbour might lie to an enraged husband about the whereabouts of his unfaithful wife, because said husband might reasonably be expected to inflict physical injury should he encounter his wife in person. Alternatively, an emergency lie could denote a (temporary) lie told to a second person because of the presence of a third.
- Perjury is the act of lying or making verifiably false statements on a material matter under oath or affirmation in a court of law, or in any of various sworn statements in writing. Perjury is a crime, because the witness has sworn to tell the truth and, for the credibility of the court to remain intact, witness testimony must be relied on as truthful.Bluffing
- Pretending to have a capability or intention which one does not actually possess. Bluffing is an act of deception which is rarely seen as immoral, because it takes place in the context of a game where this kind of deception is consented to in advance by the players. For instance, a gambler who deceives other players into thinking he has different cards to those which he really holds, or an athlete who indicates he will move left and then actually dodges right, is not considered to be lying. In these situations, deception is accepted and indeed expected as a tactic.Misleading
- A misleading statement is one where there is no outright lie, but there still remains the purpose of making someone believe in an untruth.Dissembling
- "Dissembling" is a polite term for lying, though some might consider it a reference to merely misleading. It is usually considered to be a euphemism for lying.Exaggeration
- An exaggeration occurs when the most fundamental aspect(s) of a statement is true, but only to a certain degree. An example of this sort of lie is when someone says they are so hungry they could eat a horse.Jocose lies
- Jocose lies are those which are meant in jest, and are usually understood as such by all present parties. Teasing and sarcasm are examples. A more elaborate instance is seen in storytelling traditions which are present in some places, where the humour comes from the storyteller's insistence that he or she is telling the absolute truth, despite all evidence being to the contrary (i.e. tall tale). There is debate about whether these are "real" lies, and different philosophers hold different views (see below).Promotion lies
- Advertisements often contain statements which are incredible, such as "We are always happy to give a refund", or exaggerated predictions such as "You will love our new product".Belief systems
- It is alleged that some belief systems may find lying to be justified. Leo Tolstoy is cited as describing religious institutions as "the product of deception [and] lies for a good purpose".
Augustine's taxonomy of lies
Augustine of Hippo
wrote his book De Mendacio
"Of Lying" as part of his work: "Retractions" in 395 AD. He had previously written two other books on the subject: a "Book on Lying" and "Against Lying". In "Of Lying" he writes that he is reconciling his two previous works, and addressing the great question of lying, which he felt was an urgent need of his time. He began: "Magna quæstio est de Mendacio".
From his text, it can be derived that St Augustine divided lies into eight categories, listed in order of descending severity:
- Lies in religious teaching.
- Lies that harm others and help no one.
- Lies that harm others and help someone.
- Lies told for the pleasure of lying.
- Lies told to "please others in smooth discourse."
- Lies that harm no one and that help someone.
- Lies that harm no one and that save someone's life.
- Lies that harm no one and that save someone's "purity."
Augustine believed that "jocose lies" are not, in fact, lies.
Love and war
The cliché "All is fair in love and war finds justification for lies used to gain advantage in these situations. Sun Tzu
declared that "All warfare is based on deception." Machiavelli
advised the Prince
"never to attempt to win by force what can be won by fraud," and Thomas Hobbes
wrote in Leviathan
: "In war, force and fraud are the two cardinal virtues." Here is a review of the history of deception in war.
Psychology of lying
The capacity to lie is noted early and nearly universally in human development
. Social psychology
and developmental psychology
are concerned with the theory of mind
, which people employ to simulate another's reaction to their story and determine if a lie will be believable. The most commonly cited milestone, what is known as Machiavellian intelligence
, is at the age of about four and a half years, when children begin to be able to lie convincingly. Before this, they seem simply unable to comprehend that anyone doesn't see the same view of events that they do — and seem to assume that there is only one point of view
, which is their own.
Young children learn from experience that stating an untruth can avoid punishment for misdeeds, before they develop the theory of mind necessary to understand why it works. In this stage of development, children will sometimes tell outrageous and unbelievable lies, because they lack the conceptual framework to judge whether a statement is believable, or even to understand the concept of believability.
When children first learn how lying works, they lack the moral understanding of when to refrain from doing it. It takes years of watching people tell lies, and the results of these lies, to develop a proper understanding. Propensity to lie varies greatly between children, some doing so habitually and others being habitually honest. Habits in this regard are likely to change in early adulthood.
Pseudologia fantastica is a term applied by psychiatrists to the behaviour of habitual or compulsive lying.
Mythomania is the condition where there is an excessive or abnormal propensity for lying and exaggerating.
Morality of lying
The philosophers Saint Augustine
, as well as Thomas Aquinas
and Immanuel Kant
, condemned all lying. However, Thomas Aquinas also had an argument for lying. According to all three, there are no circumstances in which one may lie. One must be murdered, suffer torture, or endure any other hardship, rather than lie, even if the only
way to protect oneself is to lie. Each of these philosophers gave several arguments against lying, all compatible with each other. Among the more important arguments are:
- Lying is a perversion of the natural faculty of speech, the natural end of which is to communicate the thoughts of the speaker.
- When one lies, one undermines trust in society.
Lying in the Bible
The Old Testament
and New Testament
of the Bible
both contain statements that God cannot lie (Num 23:19, Ps 89:35, Hab. 2:3, Heb 6:13–18).
Various passages of the Bible feature exchanges that are conditionally critical of lying (Prov 6:16–19, Ps. 5:6), (Lev 19:11, Pr. 14:5, Pr. 30:6, Zep 3:13 ), (Isa 28:15, Da 11:27). Most famously, in the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not bear false witness" (Exodus , Deuteronomy ), a specific reference to perjury.
Other passages feature exchanges where lying is conditionally promoted. Old Testament accounts of lying include:
- The Hebrew midwives lied to the king of Egypt rather than carry out his order to kill all male Hebrew babies; the midwives did this because they “feared God” (Exodus 1:15–20).
- Rahab lied to the king of Jericho about hiding the Hebrew spies (Joshua 2:4–5) and was not killed with those who were disobedient because of her faith (Hebrews 11:31).
- Delilah repeatedly accused Samson of lying to her (Jg. 16:10, 13) as she interrogated him about the source of his strength.
- Abraham instructs his wife, Sarai, to lie to the Egyptians and say that she is his sister (Gen 12:10), which leads to the Lord punishing the Egyptians (Gen 12:17–19).
In the New Testament, Jesus refers to the Devil as the father of lies (John 8:44) and Paul commands the Apostles "Do not lie to one another" (Colossians 3:9, Cf.Leviticus 19:11).
Whereas most Christian theologians conclude that the Bible does not contain any intentional untruths, some scholars believe differently. Among those who conclude that the Bible contains lies and intentional untruths is Thomas Jefferson. He edited his own version of the Bible and omitted what he considered to be falsehoods. In describing the Bible, Jefferson wrote of "so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture", "roguery", "dupes and impostors", "corruptor" and "falsifications".
Consequences of lying
Once a lie has been told there can be two alternative consequences: it may be discovered or remain undiscovered.
Under some circumstances, discovery of a lie may discredit other statements by the same speaker and can lead to social or legal sanctions against the speaker, such as ostracizing or conviction for perjury. When a lie is discovered, the state of mind and behaviour of the lie teller is no longer predictable.
Deception and lies in other species
The capacity to lie has also been claimed to be possessed by non-humans in language studies with Great Apes
. One famous case was that of Koko
: confronted by her handlers after a tantrum in which she had torn a steel sink out of its moorings, she signed in American Sign Language
, "cat did it", pointing at her tiny kitten. It is unclear if this was a joke or a genuine attempt at blaming
her tiny pet. Deceptive body language, such as feints that mislead as to the intended direction of attack or flight, is observed in many species including wolves
. A mother bird deceives when it pretends to have a broken wing to divert the attention of a perceived predator — including unwitting humans — from the eggs in its nest to itself, most notably the killdeer
Paradoxes about lying
Within any scenario where dualistic (e.g., yes/no, black/white) answers are always given, a person who we know is consistently lying would paradoxically be a source of truth. There are many such paradoxes
, the most famous being known as the liar paradox
, commonly expressed as "This sentence is a lie", or "This sentence is false". The so-called Epimenides paradox
("All Cretans are liars", as stated by Epimenides the Cretan
) is a forerunner of this, though its status as a paradox is disputed. A class of related logic puzzles are known as knights and knaves
, in which the goal is to determine who of a group of people is lying and who is telling the truth.
Some people may be better "lie detectors" than others, better able to distinguish a lie by facial expression, cadence of speech, and other methods. According to David J. Lieberman PhD in Never Be Lied to Again: How to Get the Truth in Five Minutes or Less in Any Conversation or Situation
, these methods can be learned. Some methods of questioning may be more likely to elicit the truth, for instance: "When was the last time you smoked marijuana?" is more likely to get a truthful answer than "Do you smoke pot?". Asking the question most likely to get the information you want is a skill and can be learned. Avoiding vague questioning will help avoid lies of omission or vagueness.
The question of whether lies can reliably be detected through nonverbal means is a subject of some controversy.
- Polygraph "lie detector" machines measure the physiological stress a subject endures in a number of measures while he/she gives statements or answers questions. Spikes in stress are purported to indicate lying. The accuracy of this method is widely disputed, and in several well-known cases it was proven to have been deceived. Nonetheless, it remains in use in many areas, primarily as a method for eliciting confessions or employment screening. Polygraph results are not admissible as court evidence and are generally perceived to be pseudoscience.
- Various truth drugs have been proposed and used anecdotally, though none are considered very reliable. The CIA attempted to find a universal "truth serum" in the MK-ULTRA project, but it was largely a fiasco.
Representations of lying
- Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio was a wooden puppet often led into trouble by his propensity to lie. His nose grew with every lie; hence, long noses have become a caricature of liars.
- In the film Liar Liar, the lawyer Fletcher Reed (Jim Carrey) cannot lie for 24 hours, due to a wish of his son which magically came true.
- In the 1985 Max Headroom, the title character comments that one can always tell when a politician lies because "their lips move". The joke has been widely repeated and rephrased.
- In the film Big Fat Liar, the story which producer Marty Wolf (a notorious and proud liar himself) steals from student Jason Shepard, tells of a character whose lies become out of control to the point where each lie he tells causes him to grow in size.
Covering up lies
Sir Walter Scott
couplet "Oh, what a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive!" describes the often difficult procedure of covering up a lie so that it is not detected in the future.
In Human, All Too Human, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that those who refrain from lying may do so only because of the difficulty involved in maintaining the lie. This is consistent with his general philosophy that divides (or ranks) people according to strength and ability; thus, some people tell the truth only out of weakness. A similar explanation is given by Paul Ekman in Why Don't We Catch Liars?
Lies in fiction
- Perhaps the two most famous fictional characters whose characteristics are related to lies are:
- There are also lots of films related to characters who lie: one of the most recent is Liar Liar, a comedy directed by Tom Shadyac and starring Jim Carrey; the plot of this movie is reminiscent of The Twilight Zone episode "The Whole Truth".
- Adler, J. E., “Lying, deceiving, or falsely implicating”, Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 94 (1997), 435–452.
- Aquinas, T., St., “Question 110: Lying”, in Summa Theologiae (II.II), Vol. 41, Virtues of Justice in the Human Community (London, 1972).
- Augustine, St., "On Lying" and "Against Lying", in R. J. Deferrari, ed., Treatises on Various Subjects (New York, 1952).
- Bok, S., Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, 2d ed. (New York, 1989).
- Carson, Thomas L. (2006). "The Definition of Lying". Nous 40:284–306.
- Chisholm, R. M., and T. D. Feehan, “The intent to deceive”, Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 74 (1977),143–159.
- Davids, P. H., Bruce, F.F., Brauch, M.T., & W.C. Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible (InterVarsity Press, 1996).
- Fallis, Don. (2008). "What is Lying?" Paper presented at the Pacific Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association.
- Flyvbjerg, B., "Design by Deception". Harvard Design Magazine, no. 22, Spring/Summer 2005, 50–59.
- Frankfurt, H. G., “The Faintest Passion”, in Necessity, Volition and Love (Cambridge, MA: CUP, 1999).
- Frankfurt, Harry, On Bullshit (Princeton University Press, 2005).
- Kant, I., Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, The Metaphysics of Morals and "On a supposed right to lie from philanthropy", in Immanuel Kant, Practical Philosophy, eds. Mary Gregor and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: CUP, 1986).
- Lakoff, George, Don't Think of an Elephant, (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004).
- Mahon, J. E., “Kant on Lies, Candour and Reticence”, Kantian Review, Vol. 7 (2003), 101–133.
- Mahon, J. E., “The Definition of Lying and Deception”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2008).
- Mahon, J. E., “Lying”, Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2nd ed., Vol. 5 (Farmington Hills, Mich.: Macmillan Reference, 2006), p. 618–19.
- Mahon, J. E., “Kant and the Perfect Duty to Others Not to Lie”, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, Vol. 14, No. 4 (2006), 653–685.
- Mahon, J. E., “Kant and Maria von Herbert: Reticence vs. Deception”, Philosophy, Vol. 81, No. 3 (2006), 417–44.
- Mannison, D. S., “Lying and Lies”, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 47 (1969), 132–v144.
- O'Neill, Barry. (2003). "A Formal System for Understanding Lies and Deceit." Revision of a talk for the Jerusalem Conference on Biblical Economics, June 2000.
- Siegler, F. A., “Lying”, American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 3 (1966), 128–136.
- Sorensen, Roy. (2007). "Bald-Faced Lies! Lying Without the Intent to Deceive." Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 88:251–64.