Andrew Fiala

When powerful people get away with lying, everything falls under suspicion

The parade of Pinocchios is underway. Michael Cohen appeared in Congress to say that the president is a con man who encouraged him to lie to Congress. The president called Cohen a liar. An Arizona congressman, Paul Gosar, came to the Cohen hearing with a poster that said, “liar, liar, pants on fire.” Cohen said absurdly, “I have lied but I am not a liar.”

What an embarrassment. Washington is awash in lies and lies about lying. The Washington Post fact-checkers tell us that the current president has uttered over 9,000 false or misleading things since his inauguration. The president dismisses this as fake news.

But let’s leave politics aside and consider lying as a philosophical problem. Lying is the subtlest of sins. Murderers leave a dead body. Thieves possess stolen property. But lying exists in the ether between thought and word.

A liar deliberately says something false with the malicious intent to deceive. Ignorant people who say false things are not liars. Nor are smart people who say things they sincerely believe, which turn out to be false. To be a liar, you must know that what you say is false.

Some people say false things as jokes. Novelists write false things and deceive us. But their stories are not malicious.

Since lying depends upon knowledge and intent, it is difficult to prove. The internal stuff of lying leaves no trace. And lying is easy to lie about.

When clever liars are caught, they say they were joking or ignorant, or that they didn’t mean to deceive. Good liars also change the subject, deflect questions and play with words. Or they go on the attack and accuse their accusers of lying.

To detect a lie, we need a shared background of facts and truths. But clever liars manipulate disputes about truth for their own advantage. When caught in a lie, the liar can say that he truly believed that what he said was true. He can cite disputes about truth as a defensive maneuver.

A further problem lurks in the heart of the liar. The best liars often come to believe that what they say is true. This verges upon paradox. If the liar convinces himself that his lies are true, is he really lying anymore?

Lying slowly corrupts the values that allow us to share a good life together. In the land of liars, Pinocchio is king. And his long nose is contagious. Pinocchio gains power by undermining our ability to distinguish between truth and a lie. He gains power by cultivating general cynicism and skepticism about truth.

When powerful people get away with lying, everything falls under suspicion. When lying is normalized, serious and sane public discourse is undermined. Dialogue becomes impossible. Facts seem fake. Counterfeit virtue is praised. And nobody knows who to trust.

This happens in families, in businesses and in political life. Tangled webs of secrets and lies corrupt every social relation.

Mark Twain once said that only children and fools speak the truth. Polite adult society includes lots of insincere civility. Public life often rests upon a bed of lies. Families, businesses, and nations hide secrets. Silent complicity walks hand in hand with outright hypocrisy. Only a fool dares to disrupt the fabric of fibs. Only a child dares to tell the truth about the emperor’s new clothes.

Part of the solution is to adopt the fresh eyes of childhood and common sense. Stop listening to and empowering the liars. But we also need to look in the mirror. How many lies have you told or allowed to be told on your behalf?

A further solution is to recommit ourselves to reason and to virtue. Lessons in critical thinking are crucial. But we also need training in virtue. Honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness are key values for a happy life.

And in the end, we need faith in the persistence of truth. A web of lies is not easily untangled. But at some point, the whole thing collapses under its own absurd weight. Lies don’t live forever. But the truth persists, grounded in the structure of reality that is uncovered by history, science, reason, and common sense.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala