Bryan Caplan  

Life Without Lies

How Many Times Must We Bury Be... Sumner Gets Blockian...
[Warning: Invention of Lying spoilers!]

The supposed premise of The Invention of Lying is that human beings never evolved the ability to lie.  While I greatly enjoyed the movie - it's the best cinematic critique of religion since Life of Brian -  I'm afraid it doesn't carefully reason from its premise.  If people lost the ability to lie, they still wouldn't have to constantly blurt out damaging information.  There are many close substitutes for lying that people would turn to in a lie-free world.

At the top of the list:

1. Keep you mouth shut.  Much of the humor The Invention of Lying is more about blurting than lying.  But silence is not a lie!  And obviously the people in IoL have the ability not to talk; it's not like they constantly announce whatever's on their mind.  Now that would be weird: "Now I'm blogging about IoL.  Still blogging.  Oh, and typing.  I'm hungry.  Now I'm thinking about what to write next.  Now I'm doing the meta version of that..."

My point: People who couldn't lie could avoid a lot of bad consequences simply by not talking.  As Thumper put it, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothin' at all."  In a world without lies, people would do this even more than they already do.

2. Change the subject.  If someone who looks awful asks you, "How do I look?," who says you have to respond?  Why not say some true things about something else?  E.g., "Oh, look at the time - it's almost 7!"  This is already a common practice; take away lying, and it would be even more common.

3. Strategically avoid others.  If you can't see someone without lying, why not just avoid him?  If we really couldn't lie, we would be much more eager to screen calls, sent notes, and otherwise avoid face-to-face contact.

Now why do I bring this up?  Partly, I'm just being a petulant fanboy.  But my deeper point is that, contrary to IoL, people don't "need to lie."  I live by the old-fashioned view that lying is almost always wrong, and my principle hardly turns me into a social pariah.  An eccentric, yes; but I don't have to reduce strangers to tears to keep my hands clean.  A "society without lies" would be different than the one we have today.  But it would not be the Midas touch all over again.  On balance, life without lies would be a big improvement over the world of today: We'd avoid the obvious disadvantages of mistrust - without giving up good manners.
P.S. Here's Robin's take on IoL.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (7 to date)
GabbyD writes:

the implicit assumption of the film is that people are mainly misogynistic.

Kurbla writes:

There is that "Radical honesty" selfhelp program in which one doesn't avoid the truth.

B Riley writes:

The characters are much more uninhibited than I thought they would be, but The Invention of Self-Censored Speech wouldn't be catchy. The premise was more outlandish, but more insightful because of it. As you point out Bryan, lying per se isn't necessary because we have ways of manipulating others' beliefs indirectly. But if strategically withholding information or answering a different question than the one asked often has the same result as a direct lie, why reject one and not the other?

tom writes:

"How do I look?" means "you are a person to whom I think I am close enough that I feel I can ask you to reassure me about how I look and in particular to let me know if anything changeable is so appalling that I must change it."

If you responded "look at the time!", your avoidance of the question would mean "Despite our relationship, I will not give you reassurances because you don't look good enough for me to say something positive, and I also will not respond to your implicit request about any egregiously bad choices or misapplied makeup." I doubt you really do that (though you would be a lot like Jim Carrey in Liar Liar if you did). But answers like yours make honesty into a fetish.

Is it wrong to hope that every woman you go to lunch with this week asks you the question?

Nathan writes:

I think the movie works from the idea that the omission of truth is itself a lie. A bigger problem for the movie is that there appears to be no mental illness. Wouldn’t there be a schizophrenic person who claimed to have herd the voice of the big man in the sky prior to the protagonist?

caveat bettor writes:

And I always had thought that most religions taught that lying was bad.

Of course, religions are full of hypocrites.

Then again, the control group seems to suffer similarly.

alex s. writes:

I've never understood why fictional treatments that force characters to tell the "truth" never seem to dwell on the subjective nature of truth. (Maybe this one does, though I'd be surprised.)

I always thought the really dangerous people were the true believers. Not (just) religious types, but the salesman who really believes (if only for a moment) that this car/house/idea is just the right one for you.

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