Saturday, November 07, 2015

Can liars be trusted?

1. This post is not about the morality of lying. Rather, it's about the relationship between truthfulness and trustworthiness. This is an issue that crops up in many walks of life. Dating, voting, parenting, marriage, friendship, business partnerships. For instance, it's sometimes said that because all politicians lie, the fact that a particular candidate is a pathological liar is no reason not to vote for him (or her). 

2. Some folks never lie. Some folks are chronic liars. And most folks lie some of the time. 

For people who lie some of the time, lying tends to be compartmentalized. It depends on the situation or the relationship. Offhand, I'd say people lie for the following reasons:

i) To hurt others

ii) To gain unfair advantage

Someone who lies for (i) or (ii) is untrustworthy. 

iii) To protect themselves. 

They lie to get out of trouble or avoid getting into trouble. 

a) They may lie because they are guilty of wrongdoing

b) They may lie because they are innocent of wrongdoing 

Apropos (b), person can be unjustly punished for doing the right thing. There's a significant difference in these two motivations. I'd say a person who lies because he did something wrong is less trustworthy than someone who lies because he is innocent (to evade unjust punishment). 

iv) To protect others. 

As with (i), a person might cover for someone who's guilty of wrongdoing, or cover for someone who's innocent of wrongdoing, but liable to unjust punishment. I'd say a person who covers for someone's wrongdoing is less trustworthy than a person who covers for the innocent. 

Even if you think lying is intrinsically wrong, you can distinguish between good motives and bad motives for lying. If, for instance, you put someone on the spot, that may place him in a dilemma. If it's unfair to put him in that situation, and if he lies to extricate himself, that's an extenuating circumstance. 

Likewise, lying to save Jews from Nazis is well-intentioned in a way that lying to cheat a working-class student out of a football scholarship is not, even if you think lying is unjustifiable in both cases. 

v) Some people lie to themselves, to bolster self-esteem. Convince themselves that they are better, more deserving, or more talented than is the case. 

3. Humans tend to be loyal to an inner circle of friends and family. Some people will lie for the in-group, but not lie to the in-group. They will lie to members of the out-group, but not to members of the in-group. But this may also depend on the situation. 

4. On a related note, some partisans or ideologues will lie for the cause. This creates a bit of a paradox. On the one hand, you can't believe anything they say on that topic. On the other hand, they can be trusted to defend and promote their cause, whatever it takes. In that sense, they are reliable liars. You always know what to expect from them–at least when it comes to their agenda. 

These people are chronic liars in a specialized sense. Unlike habitual liars, they don't reflexively lie. Rather, they always lie in the service of their cause, whenever the agenda requires it. To the extent, however, that the cause dominates their life, they will lie most of the time.

5. The upshot is that lying tends to be compartmentalized. Most folks are apt to lie in certain situations; conversely, most folks are apt to be truthful with significant others. To the degree that lying is predictable, people who lie some of the time can still be trustworthy most of the time. But unless you're prepared to be disappointed, it's prudent not to test their limits. 

So the fact that most folks lie some of the time doesn't make them generally untrustworthy. The social fabric would quickly unravel in that were the case. 

6. There's a complex relationship between friendship and deceit. 

i) On the one hand, a friend will act in the best interests of another friend. That's a defining feature of friendship. And that typically includes the unspoken expectation that friends cover for each other. That makes them dependable. He has my back. 

ii) Mind you, that goes to the distinction between lying for the innocent and lying for the guilty. Suppose my friend and I go to a store, but I catch him shoplifting. That creates a dilemma. On the one hand, I wish to act in my friend's best interests. But that's in tension with the best interests of the proprietor. So I have conflicting duties. Moreover, my friend is in the wrong.

Suppose I wait until we leave the store, then I talk to my friend about what he did. He should treat others the way he wants others to treat him. If he'd resent someone stealing his stuff, then he shouldn't steal their stuff. Moreover, shoplifting makes products more expensive, which isn't fair to consumers. 

Finally, he put me in a compromising situation. By shoplifting in my presence, he put me on the spot. If I catch him doing that again, I will either turn him in orbreak off the friendship, because I don't wish to be put in a situation where I have to make that decision. 

A similar example might be if I catch a student athlete juicing up on steroids. I could report him. But that's not my preferred option. Rather, I'd talk to him about cheating, as well as the health hazards. Why is a completive advantage that important to him?

Keep in mind that in both cases, I have less responsibility for the conduct of others than for my own conduct. Letting them get away with something isn't the same thing as my doing it. 

iii) Those are situations where my friend (or acquaintance) was in the wrong. Let's take a different situation:

Suppose our high school has a politically correct speech code. A student will get into trouble for violating the speech code, even though it's the speech code that's wrong, and not infractions thereof. 

Suppose I have a straight arrow classmate. He doesn't believe in the code, but if someone reported me for violating the code, and this student was questioned, as a witness to the incident, he'd confirm that I was in violation. He's not malicious. To the contrary, he's a well-meaning guy. 

But I can't afford to have him as a friend. I can't afford to be around him. Paradoxically, the fact that he's so honest makes him simultaneous trustworthy and untrustworthy. I can't count on him to cover for me, even if I'm innocent of wrongdoing. His honesty makes him an undependable if I'm caught in a situation like that. He doesn't have what it takes to be a friend. 

iv) Let's consider another example: my roommate comes home late at night with alcohol on his breath. Next morning, on the local news, there's a report of a deadly hit-and-run in the vicinity. And I notice blood on the fender of his car. 

Do I cover for him? Obviously not. Unlike (ii), he's in far too deep. Not only would I refuse to lie for him in that situation, but I'd turn him into the authorities. 

To vary the example, suppose my roommate has a drinking problem, which I've warned him about. I've put him on notice that I won't cover for him in a situation like that. There's a sense in which that makes me a dependable friend. One duty of a friend is to deter another friend from destructive or self-destructive behavior. To act on his behalf even when–or especially when–he can't be trusted to act in his own best interests. It's good for him to know that I have limits. 

v) Take a final case. Wanda Holloway was an ambitious mother who tried to advance the career of her daughter (a junior high school cheerleader) by hiring a contract killer to murder the mother of her daughter's rival. Now, in one sense, that's a very dependable mother. She can be relied on to do anything and everything to protect and promote her daughter. 

But ironically, that makes her a bad mother. She's amorally trustworthy. 


  1. No deceit was found in the mouth of Jesus. He can be fully trusted.

    1. True, but irrelevant to the argument of the post. As I illustrate, the relationship between truthfulness and trustworthiness isn't always straightforward.

  2. Steve, ISTM the issue at hand is who is entitled to the truth and when, which is very situational. Your examples suggest determining criteria to include sin (eg covering for your drunken roommate or klepto buddy) and flipping-off Mickey Mouse bureaucratic tyranny (eg speech code). Would you provide what you would consider to be general principles in deciding between truth and lie?

    1. Good question, hard to answer:

  3. In his own defense regarding West Point, it's my recollection that Ben Carson asked whether we should believe the media or whether he's a pathological liar. How about neither?

  4. "No deceit was found in the mouth of Jesus. He can be fully trusted."


    "If truthful, then trustworthy" doesn't establish the necessity of truthfulness for trustworthiness.

    1. The one doesn't mitigate against the other, either. Anyway, the referent was Christ, and I hope we can agree about His truthfulness and trustworthiness.