Fact-checking has today become a moral requirement of citizenship.
Research on the topic of lying has yielded some rather amazing results. One study has concluded that on average people are told 200 lies per day. Negotiating modern life is difficult, this particular study reminds us, and lying—small little shadings of the truth—helps lubricate our social encounters. If lying helps us “to cope with reality,” it would seem logical to conclude that it is necessary for survival in modern life. A University of Massachusetts researcher reported that in any ten-minute conversation people can be expected to tell two or three lies. Men lie twice as often as women claimed another study, and yet another found that over three quarters of lies told are never detected.
Lying is a topic of moral and religious interest, and if it were not for lies, most soap operas and even a lot of quite enjoyable entertainment, whether in fiction or on the big screen, would never go anywhere in terms of plot. Interesting as lying can be, we share a widely held belief that lying is wrong, and some of us no doubt hold that any veering from the standard of “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” represents the worst kind of moral violation.
It is not clear to me how we would know if and when we have actually achieved access to “the whole truth,” and the moral purity required by the “whole truth and nothing but the truth” standard is beyond our capabilities, at least if we are being told 200 lies a day. I also think the “200 lies per day” quota is a bit far-fetched. I do think, however, that we do negotiate modern life in ways that try to reduce stress and spare others’ feelings. Sometimes it is easier and even kinder to respond to someone asking how we are by saying “I’m fine” when we know we are not; sometimes we avoid an unwanted and unnecessary dust up by refusing to acknowledge that someone close to us is, yes, putting on a little weight. Hard feelings can result from lots of little things, and not inflicting unnecessary hurt seems to be a “good” reason for sometimes shading a fully honest response to some of the incidental questions that comes our way.
These efforts to spare the feelings may indeed be “little lies,” but we need to distinguish honesty from truth. After all, what we honestly feel may not actually be true. Sometimes we hide our honest assessment of things, and the “truth” is that our assessment may be wrong. Movies like “The Invention of Lying” or “Liar Liar” show us through comedy how painful our world would be like if we were always honest about our feelings, but they do not show us what a world would be like if we always spoke the truth. We may be mistaken about the truth when we honestly express what we believe to be the truth, and our honesty may not be so much about the truth as about our opinions, and our opinions, while we honestly hold them, may or may not be true. All of us like to think our opinions are true, and how firmly we believe the truth of our opinions can often be gauged by how loud our voices become when expressing those opinions. The reality, however, is that the loudness of a voice has nothing to do with truth.
Honestly voicing an opinion, which may or may not be true, is one thing, but lying is another. Lying itself is not morally gray or ethically controversial. Lying is wrong. We have common agreements about the wrongness of lying across the divides of language, religion and culture. Someone who tells a lie is attempting to mislead another person’s belief usually for some advantage to the liar. This is wrong because telling a lie to someone is treating that person as if he or she was not worthy of being told the truth. Lying, therefore, is an act of profound disrespect toward another person.
Lying and the untrustworthiness of public speech has become a topic receiving front-page attention today. Self-serving public statements devoid of truth seem now to be the rule rather than the exception, and it is not clear which is most disturbing: that speakers seeking some advantage seek intentionally to mislead the beliefs of others—or whether speakers uttering their honest but false beliefs are indifferent to truth and correction of error. Fact-checking has today become a moral requirement of citizenship. Without factually-based truth-telling in our encounters with one another, we cannot trust our communications, and we cannot make decisions based on an understanding of facts and shared values grounded in good will.
People of good will must always be willing to demand truth-telling because no one should be treated as if they were not worthy of being told the truth. That we should have entered a time when we have to justify the goodness of truth telling and the wrongness of telling lies is sad commentary on our public life, and while this state of affairs does point to dangers in our public life, the dangers are perhaps easier to deal with than the sadness.
A previous version of this article-blog was published by The Morning Call, March 11, 2017 under the title: “The Moral Importance of Truth-Telling.” It is republished here in part with permission.