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AtA: Are Lies Always Bad?

October 20th, 2009 · Posted by Hugo · 33 Comments

Back in August, we discussed the question Are Cats Evil?

The discussion touched on:

  • Can something in the universe be considered inherently “evil”, or is evil rather a human construct, just our way of seeing things?
  • If cats aren’t considered evil, can humans be considered evil?
  • The differences between being evil and doing evil
  • Is it evil to wonder if someone is evil? Maybe it is better to just talk about what people do, rather than about their “identity”.
  • The role of knowledge of the consequences of one’s actions. Does it make a difference if the cat is unaware of the pain and suffering it is causing, versus having full knowledge?

Summarising it all proved beyond me, feel free to read the discussions on the original post and Facebook updates if you can see those. It seems quite clear to me that the question of “evil?” is more relevant once it comes to human behaviour. So, let’s move on to the next question:

There are many kinds of lies. Which kinds can you think of? When are lies evil… or bad? Are lies sometimes good, and if so, when?

Feel free to talk about “bad” and “good” instead, to avoid semantic discussions about what constitutes “evil”.

Just like last time, there is not supposed to be a right and wrong answer, this is an opinion question. I consider all answers to be correct, and differences of opinion particularly interesting.

Categories: Worldviews
Tags: ·

33 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Hugo // Oct 21, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    To give some more direction to the discussion, some suggestions:

    – Give some examples of times when it is good to lie to your government.
    – How about examples when there is something someone doesn’t need to know or doesn’t want to know, where you believe you’re lying for their sake?

  • 2 Randal // Oct 28, 2009 at 10:07 am

    I think all lies are good – from the liar’s perspective, because otherwise he would not have lied. Even if the intent is to harm the receiver of the lie, the liar did it on purpose. Politicians lie, pastors lie, CEO’s of multi national companies lie – everybody lie. And that lie serves a purpose. Lies are genetically programmed into us and it is taught to us from day one on earth in the form of parents trying to protect us from harm, deception games, abdicating responsibility, and the cycle continue… Examples here are probably not going to clarify the issue here because there are too many and each situation will have too little info. I suggest we look at the inherent lack of honesty instead – where honesty is defined as good and dishonesty defined as bad. The victim that received the lie could have a good experience, no difference to his current experience or actually a bad experience. When it is followed by a bad experience, then it is only half bad, because the liar still gets rewarded and hence it is half good.

  • 3 Hugo // Oct 28, 2009 at 3:08 pm


    Some societies (and religions) are very strongly “honesty only!” – I’m sure you appreciate the sentiments that suggest society is better when everyone just tells the truth / can motivate that this would be some sort of “ideal”. And then you could give examples of how people fall short of being ideal people, resulting in some benefit to relationships between people when they aren’t completely honest and open. (E.g. not telling a colleague at work how you really feel about them, because it would harm your work relationship and serve no positive purpose?)

    Can you come up with some example wherein everyone, including the most devout, would agree that lying is the best, “good”, course of action? (I’ve got something specific in mind… 😉 )

  • 4 Kenneth Oberlander // Oct 28, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    Lies are genetically programmed into us


  • 5 Michael // Oct 29, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    Interesting stuff.

    “I think all lies are good – from the liar’s perspective, because otherwise he would not have lied.”


    What if he didn’t want to be good? What if he decided to be bad?

    I think we shouldn’t lie to the government, even to protect people, or to prevent them from doing wrong. This has nothing to do with ‘a lie is always a lie’. It’s because when we lie to the authority over us we give them the high ground we give them an excuse. It’s like violence. Many years ago, my father could have told a lie to get out of military service (during the apartheid years). He didn’t lie. He went to the border wars and did guard duty… without a gun. People might laugh at that kind of stand, but he was true to himself. That said, I’ve never been in a situation where a life was at stake (I’m thinking, for instance, of the secret resistance in Germany during WWII, hiding Jews), so maybe my ethics are naive.

    Also, I’d never tell my wife her bum looks big, no matter what stage of bloated pregnancy she might arrive at… so maybe I’m a bit of a hypocrite.

    … a naive hypocrite. Maybe you should just ignore my comment…

  • 6 Hugo // Oct 30, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    Thanks Michael! Just the kind of comment I was looking for. Nazi Germany, hiding Jews, that’s one of the examples I was thinking of.

    Here’s another less life-and-death one I was pondering: someone gives you a present and you don’t like it. Or you already have one…?

    (And surprise birthday parties?)

    If Randal were still here (?) we would have to ask him what he means by “good”. I suspect he’s very “pragmatic” and cares only about personal benefit or personal harm, such that if you could benefit from something, he considers it “good”. Good as opposite to bad, rather than the kind of “good” that is opposite to “evil”, if you know what I mean.

    I now regret not using “evil” in the subject line, instead of “bad”.

  • 7 Michael // Oct 30, 2009 at 4:50 pm


    My older brother and I share a birthday. Which meant that when we were little my mom would take us on a special shopping expedition to choose a present for each other. We scooted up and down the isles not making eye contact and whispered our final choices to our mom. Then we would go outside and wait. One year after this expedition, we walked into the kitchen and started talking about what we had seen. Then I joked about how stupid a little train we had seen was… and my brother was heartbroken because I had picked out as stupid the one thing that he had chosen for me. Bummer. He took a long time to forgive me. I’m pretty sure that’s bad/evil, no matter what your definition is.

    Which brings us to another kind of dishonesty – what if you know (or are completely convinced of) some truth that might be hurtful to someone to hear. If you say nothing, is it lying, and is it bad?

    I have a situational system of ethics. I think most people do, even if they are so protective of the concept of objective truth that they can’t handle the idea. In practice, we are all situational. I think this discussion will prove that in the long run… unless this comment makes everyone too defensive to be honest! Doh!

  • 8 Randal // Oct 31, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    You are correct Hugo – the outcome to the lie for the liar is good. If you used “evil”, it would make no difference, because the lie still served its intention. Frankly, in my my opinion, lies are always and will always be used to further the intentions of the liar. Situational lies or ethics? What is that! lie to get you ass out of trouble or “protect” someone’s feeling? Whatever? It still served its purpose. In Christianity, you get your lies “deleted” when you pray for forgiveness etc. Which brings us to the wage of sin…

  • 9 Aletia // Oct 31, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    Michael, I think you misunderstood what Randal said about lies being good. What I can gather from his statement is that for liars, lying is beneficial ie good (for themselves).
    The purpose of a lie, primarily, is that no adversity comes the way of the liar. Whether you are lying to the nazi’s about hiding jews, whether you are lying to your wife about her fat ass, lying to your boss about why you did not meet deadline.
    Secondly, lies potentially have the power to protect someone: lying to your toddler about how dangerous the dog is “don’t go near the dog, he’ll bite you”
    I’m interested to hear about societies that are strongly honesty only. I find it hard to believe that a society could function well being so honest. The animal kingdom is full of examples where honesty is not always the pathway to reward or a long and prosperous life. In group situations one will always find animals that try to get away doing the least amount of work but try and benefit from being in a group.
    Augustine of Hippo classified lies into various of groups:
    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.”
    So, there might be some truth in that lies are programmed into us although I can not wholly agree with this statement. To me, it seems that lies serve, in some form or another, to always protect/benefit someone. So depending on what side of the fence you are some advantage is to be gained from a lie.

  • 10 Hugo // Nov 1, 2009 at 1:13 am

    Heh, godless people! (Correct me if I’m wrong: are any of the people here that are “defending” lying religious?)

    Let’s swing the other way for a bit: what reasons are there for being truthful? At all times? Completely honest…? (Now excluding tricky situations wherein lives are saved, etc.)

    Aletia, can you give some examples of deceit in the animal kingdom (excluding humans)? I’ve heard one anthropological theory (or hypothesis) for the origins of supernatural belief, allow me a moment to explain…

    Once humans developed language, they had developed the ability to actively and intentionally deceive, lie… something that undermines trust. That would be the biggest reason why lying is detrimental: for a gregarious species that is to work together in a tribe, you need to have mutual trust. There will always be free-loading individuals, but selection pressure could keep in check the percentage of such individuals in a group. (Both by the group getting rid of deceitful genetic lines by kicking them out, and by group selection and inter-tribal competition favouring tribes that are able to cooperate with trust.)

    Tribes that thereby “discover” the supernatural, an external more-powerful agent able to know who is cheating and who isn’t (be it a deity or a belief in karma), find therein a good reason to remain trustworthy. Arbitrary example of how this can work: I hear via the grapevine of someone living in United Arab Emirates that when a natural disaster occurs (e.g. earthquake) they don’t really talk about it, they don’t really report it in the newspapers… Reason? They’re ashamed. They interpret it as punishment by Allah, if I understand it correctly. Thereby they work harder at keeping in line with their laws.

    I believe Judaism have a very strong belief in honesty (I can check up on this), and Christianity too, though from that being my own tradition/culture and it being as fragmented as it is, and the amount of lying going on in certain circles in American Christianity (*grin*, surely elsewhere too, just media coverage favours the examples I now have in mind), Judaism is becoming a more interesting consideration for me.

    A question for all the godless then: is religion thus needed in order to keep a society more honest? Are the godless truly incurably more dishonest, deceptive, deceiving, conniving and untrustworthy? … (The floor is yours!)

  • 11 Michael // Nov 1, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    Aletia. I did not misunderstand Randel, I just misrepresented his views. Dishonesty! From a Christian! On a blog entry about honesty! Wow… good thing I have a situational ethics. The situation made my lie less bad (though possibly still a little bad!) I was trying to make my own point about what people think. But anyway…


    I can tell you right now that the ‘godless’ are not more dishonest. Religious people just feel more guilty about it. In my (somewhat less than humble) opinion, every thinking person has a system of ethics. Talking about everyone just doing what’s good for them doesn’t honestly reflect what people do and believe. Even purely humanistic social contracts are an ethic based on more than individual benefit. People like to talk like they don’t believe in evil, but very people actually don’t believe in evil. They just don’t agree about what ‘evil’ is.

  • 12 -M- // Nov 2, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    @ Hugo: my 2 cents contribution: there are hundreds of example of what we called “cheating” in birds, insects and even mammls. The most famous one: cuckoos laying in other birds nest, and getting their chicks raised by other bird species, to the expense of the other chicks; male manakins stealing the decorations of other males’ nest to attract females…
    Also, game theory applied to biology is a fascinating tool to understand the evolution of cooperative (or non cooperative) systems…pity I am so useless in maths!! 🙂

  • 13 -M- // Nov 2, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    Oh yeah, sorry, my all time favourite: females paradise bird sneaking out just before sunrise to mate with the male next door, while her own mate and her 2 helpers are sleeping…and sneaking in before everybody wakes up, without being noticed! fascinating! 🙂

  • 14 Hugo // Nov 2, 2009 at 8:24 pm

    Interesting. One interpretation with regards to lying and being evil is the need for self-awareness. However, during the “evil cats?” discussion, one friend commented:

    “Of course that is evil! Unless evilness only applies to beings that can comprehend the concepts of right and wrong (and I strongly suspect cats can’t). But that argument probably exempts most of the human race, myself included…”

    Thus I feel one could easily defend the suggestion that conscious lying can just be considered a continued development on such “instinctive deceit” on the parts of non-self-conscious animals. With self-awareness the behaviour could remain the same, except with the possible addition of guilt, as Michael highlighted.

    Michael, nice addition. That now reminds me of Christian and non-Christian stats for divorce: Christians apparently divorce just as much as non-Christians. They possibly just struggle a lot more with actually doing so? On the other hand, I know fundie-leaning churches that would say “they’re not *real* Christians”… ugh.

    I also wondered if we might discuss lies of which the person that is spreading them is unaware (i.e. believes to be true), but that discussion would probably at best just be a rehash of some of the stuff from the “evil cats” discussion.

  • 15 Michael // Nov 2, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    Read an interesting bit of evil (bad 🙂 ) lying today which I thought might be an interesting addition – The (still common) lie that Jews are greedy and stingy is an interesting study. During the year AD 1179 in Catholic Europe, certain laws were systematically introduced to discourage Jewish immigration and proselytizing:

    (1) The Church synod of 1179 first forbade Jews from living in Christian areas.
    (2) Then forbade them from owning land.

    This effectively squashed their possibilities of providing for their families.

    (3) Then a Church edict of 1179 made it illegal for Christians to practise money lending.

    Which accounts for the unfair image of Jews us money-grabbing.

    Jews were thus virtually forced into usury. Up until the time of the crusades, they were very successful in commercial banking and merchant trade. Then, with the routes open to the east, the Church did not need the Jews anymore and did nothing to discourage mass killings of Jews by crusaders on their way to the ‘holy land’

    – This all according to Szlakmann (1990).

  • 16 Michael // Nov 2, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    In case I wasn’t clear, the distinction is that this is a lie created not only by a person’s acts, but by their deeds as well.

  • 17 Hugo // Nov 4, 2009 at 12:13 am

    Ooh, another military service example, my father did lie. 😉 He wanted to become a “parabat” (paratrooper), but his eyesight wasn’t good enough. So he memorised the chart!

    I’m pretty happy that two weeks before they were scheduled to go to Angola, they apparently decided they no longer need paratroopers. That left us with interesting stories of training, officer’s training especially – marvellous stories, without the ethical questions of actually fighting in a war.

    Other war stories I appreciate are the soul searching ones I heard from my pastor back home… of the kind: “we were fighting the godless, the communists, and yet, there was the ‘enemy’, also clutching a bible close to their heart”. Talking about lies… there’s government propaganda…

  • 18 Michael // Nov 5, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    In democracy, Politics=propoganda=lies.
    Someone smart once said that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”. Sigh…

    Another kind of lie might be called ‘religious misrepresentation’:

    I’m reading Erich Zenger’s “A God of Vengeance?”.

    Shocking! He quotes an insightful clinical psychologist (named Buggle – hee hee!), saying something to the effect that the Psalms are the most violence-obsessed and immoral text he’s ever read. His examples are convincing.

    I wonder if my (and most lay-people’s) impression of the Psalms as the gentle heart of the Old Testament, where we walk like peaceful sheep by the side of a babbling brook, fondly patted on the head by our Savior, isn’t a result of selective misrepresentation by pastors and theologians (or simply our own stupid blindness).

    It reminds me of an Islamic teacher who told me that Islam is meant to be a peaceful, (even pacifist) religion. He really believed that. Just like we like to think of the Psalms as gentle pictures of a God who never leaves us instead of a God we use as a weapon to bludgeon our enemies.

  • 19 Kenneth Oberlander // Nov 5, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    @Hugo #10

    Once humans developed language, they had developed the ability to actively and intentionally deceive, lie… something that undermines trust.

    You don’t necessarily need language to actively deceive…I’m pretty certain our non-sapiens ancestors would have been pretty creative with deceptive body language etc…

    Damn, I see -M- got in before me with this argument…

    *Shakes fist*


    Someone smart once said that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”

    It was Sir Winston Churchill.

    I might almost substitute “science” for democracy… 😉

    Also, the lies, damned lies and statistics quote would be apropos…

  • 20 Kenneth Oberlander // Nov 5, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    Aaaargh, with my substitution the Churchill quote makes no sense.

    Replace “government” with “knowledge acquisition”.

    There. All fixed.

  • 21 saneman // Nov 6, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    what about lying to children about there being a god when they are too credulous to know any better?

    Surely that is the worst lie of all?

    or is lying to children sometimes OK, because its for there own good?

  • 22 Hugo // Nov 6, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    Surely that is the worst lie of all?

    Obviously not.

  • 23 Michael // Nov 6, 2009 at 6:01 pm


    It’s not lying if you believe it to be true. It may be incorrect, but it can’t be a lie for me to teach my kids about a God I truly believe in. In fact, if I actually believe in God, then to tell my “credulous” kids that I don’t believe in a God is a lie, and (obviously for me) an immoral lie.

  • 24 Michael // Nov 6, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    On the other hand, it is a lie to tell your kids a belief about God that you don’t actually believe in. This is a more interesting question: Especially in fundi and pentecostal circles, faith is often thought of as “positive confession”. In other words, I should lie about how I feel because I know that what I feel is a lie (according to my interpretation of scripture).

    Is it a lie to tell your kids, “It’ll be ok, God is in control” when you don’t actually believe it because you are in a crisis of faith that they may not be able to understand as necessary part of a life of faith (according to this religious persuasion)?

  • 25 Hugo // Nov 6, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    Kenneth, I’m quite surprised at your “low views” of science! Thinking a bit about it, I can come across some of the ideas that would inspire such a feeling, mostly surrounding the messiness of peer-review and personal-ego’s getting involved in research communities and the fight for funding… The messy reality-side of it, as opposed to the idealistic vision we lay-people get presented with? I’d still say it’s not nearly as bad as democracy though, and the implied “maybe we can still invent something better, we just haven’t yet” in the original democracy quote does not carry over to science for me. As sucky as the scientific process is, it seems the pinnacle, with regards to establishing “empirical fact”, the answers to the kinds of questions science can ask. (I believe there are very important things outside the realms of science though, hence I’m not calling it “the pinnacle of knowledge acquisition” in general, unless we first narrowly and pedantically define knowledge. Not all readers care for the “heavy philosophical” views on knowledge.) Enough pedantry.

    Michael, at the seminary in Stellenbosch, I attended a talk on the Old Testament, tough to translate the talk’s title correctly, but “have we here a violent God?” Eye opening, important things for pastors/theologians/Christians to learn or know about, and most interesting, a couple of more fundie-leaning audience members taking exception to some of the things perceived to be implied in the talk. 😉 With a friend reminding me of it, Karen Armstrong’s “A History of God” certainly got bumped up higher on my reading-priority list.

    Psalms-as-violent is an interesting thesis though. I certainly can understand that suggestion when I think about it, many a psalm being quite raw and emotional, written by people 😉 in their struggles with some harsh realities in life?

    On confessions and creeds: good thoughts on the effects of positive confession. My pastor back home said they started toying around with the idea of a “doubt confession”, presumably as a way to counteract the harms of the creeds we feel we should use, the things we feel pressured to confess we believe. (Thomas Paine: “Infidelity does not consist in believing or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.”)

    Back to “religious misrepresentation as lies” – that would be another example of “it’s not lying if you believe it to be true”? The important difference between a lie and lying, like the difference between doing evil or enabling/facilitating evil unknowingly, and actually being evil.

  • 26 Ben-Jammin' // Nov 7, 2009 at 4:14 am

    Ooh, another military service example, my father did lie. He wanted to become a “parabat” (paratrooper), but his eyesight wasn’t good enough. So he memorised the chart!

    Phrase I learned in the U.S. military: If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying. 🙂

  • 27 Kenneth Oberlander // Nov 7, 2009 at 11:49 am


    Kenneth, I’m quite surprised at your “low views” of science!

    Heh. Not really. I’m aware of where the scientific method goes screwy. I’m still damn proud of where it works…

  • 28 Michael // Nov 7, 2009 at 4:07 pm


    Back to “religious misrepresentation as lies” – that would be another example of “it’s not lying if you believe it to be true”?

    No, actually what I’m referring to is more willful then that. Example: The liturgical reformers edited the last two verses out of psalm 137 and removed psalm 109 and 58 completely from the Roman Catholic ‘liturgy of the hours’.

    Evangelical worship leaders do the same thing. I have done it often. I simply edit out the parts of the psalm that seem inappropriate to me. Of course there’s nothing dishonest about that unless you profess a ‘higher’ view of inerrancy of the scripture. In that case, you’re saying on the one hand that Paul’s statement’s about women not leading in church cannot be considered culturally unsustainable and irrelevant (because scripture is inerrant) and on the other hand that the psalmist’s prayer of blessing on the ones who would smash the Babylonians’ babies against a rock must be rejected or allagorised out of existence. This is the kind of dishonesty I mean. It is a general religious problem (or possibly a generally ideological problem), but is especially evident in more fundamentalist reasoning (at least in my experience).

  • 29 Michael // Nov 7, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Crap. could you fix that entry for me please. I really have to learn to use those tags.

  • 30 Hugo // Nov 15, 2009 at 11:40 pm

    Michael, I’m wondering how you’re thinking about Psalms and Islam these days? Do you consider the Psalms violent? And Islam? Or do you consider “multiple interpretations are common, and it is important that we chooes the best interpretations”?

    In this regard, I often think of Karen Armstrong and her Charter for Compassion. She suggests the core of all three monotheistic religions is compassion, and invites everyone to see them that way. I have not read all her scholarly works, I don’t know how solid and objective that core is. Maybe it really is the core of all three, maybe it was only the core to a majority, or maybe it is no longer the core to the majority, and you can’t really objectively reason them into the fact that it is. If I had the time, I would be curious to see how solid her compassion-thesis is. But in fact, I don’t really care: if it isn’t solid, it is still better that everyone choose to make it that.

    For me it kinda resonates with Seth Godin’s new foreword to “All Marketers Are Liars Tell Stories that I read recently:
    A new cover, a new foreword, but the same book

  • 31 AtA: Are All Sins Equal? // Nov 17, 2009 at 12:15 am

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  • 32 Michael // Nov 19, 2009 at 10:15 am

    Yes, I have read quite a bit about various interpretations of the ‘imprecatory’ Psalms. I think they are definitely violent. Attempts to alagorise them are always feeble (even the formidable C.S. Lewis’ attempt is weak: Speaking of Psalm 137:9, he says something like: “Our sinful nature constantly gives birth to ‘baby’ sins. If we allow them to grow up, they will someday overpower us. The only thing to do is smash the little bastards’ (his words) heads in).

    I recommend Erich Zenger’s “A God of Violence?” for a straight-talk discription of the violence in the Psalms that is not aimed at actually chucking them out of the canon.

    Also, Longman’s “The Cry of the Soul” gives some good ideas about what to do with them (these violent Psalms). The thesis is: “Don’t assume that resolving your turbulent emotions is the key to meeting God…” [strangely, a common idea in Pentecostal circles] “…It is actually within the inner mayhem of life that a stage is built for the intrusive story… The absence of the tumult, more than its presence, is an enemy of the soul. God meets you in your weakness, not in your strength”.

    Islam and the ancient Hebrews are sometimes violent because of the same reason – they are/were surrounded by violence. It was a violent world that the psalmists lived in. When the author of Psalm 137 talks about ‘blessed is he who takes your little ones and smashes them on the rocks’ he is not sitting comfortably in front of his laptop updating his twitter feed. He is in slavery in Babylon. He speaks from experience. He has seen how the Babylonians smashed his own children (or at least children he knew) in the sacking of Jerusalem. It was common practice.

    Likewise, Islamic believers in the Middle east come from a culture of violence, not by their own choice, but by the choices (mainly) of historical western leaders. Whether it’s the crusades or the establishing of the Jewish state we’re talking about, Islamic people have been taught to be violent in the same way that Jews were in the psalmist’s times and Christians have been in Nigeria and other places. It’s not Islam that’s the problem. It’s people.

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