The George Washington Lesson…

“The worst thing about being lied to is knowing you weren’t worth the truth”

 

– Should You Always Tell the Truth? –

A couple of years ago, a study out of Notre Dame University investigated whether or not telling the truth (about everything – big and little) would improve one’s health.  Two groups of people (a control group and the experimental group) were told to keep track of all the lies they told over a 10 week period.

The experimental group, in addition to being told to keep track of all the lies they told, were also asked to STOP lying about everything (although they could duck questions they didn’t want to answer, or they could OMIT information.)  The participants, aged 18 to 71, took a weekly lie detector test and filled out questionnaires about their physical and mental health as well as the quality of their relationships.

As might be expected, those in the experimental (no lie) group, told fewer lies per week, but in addition, reported fewer psychological and physical health problems.  By the end of the study, the “no-lie” group was down to 1 lie a week (the American average appears to be about 11 lies per week).  They were more honest about their daily accomplishments instead of exaggerating them, and they stopped making up excuses for being late or failing to complete a task.

Sam Harris, author of Lying, has a profound observation: “Most forms of private vice and public evil are kindled and sustained by lies”.  We all know, at least in theory, that we shouldn’t lie.  Most of us are taught to tell the truth from a very early age (although children with very active imagination might have a more difficult time separating truth from fantasy).  We have also developed a finely honed cynicism around the perceived truthfulness of various occupations.  Politicians rank (deservedly???) very low.

Does this sound cynical?   President McKinley told the American people that the USS Maine had been sunk in Havana Harbor by a Spanish mine, and this created the support for the US to engage in the Spanish American War.  (It was later determined that the explosion on board was due to a coal bin explosion and not a mine).  Hitler told the Germans that Poland had attacked first and staged fake attacks against German targets, thus justifying the invasion and starting WWII.  FDR claimed that the attack on Pearl Harbour by the Japanese was a surprise, sneak attack.  It wasn’t, but it galvanized American sentiment sufficient to allow the Americans to enter the war.   President Johnson lied about torpedoes in the Gulf of Tonkin, and President Bush about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that lying was always morally wrong – even those little white lies that good people tell.  But what happens when a lie, (a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive,) seems the perfect response: a brother lies about his sister’s where-abouts to the drunken husband threatening to harm her. If we are trying to bring about a positive outcome in a difficult situation, complete honesty may seem second best next to values like compassion, respect, or justice.

We seem to have a social agreement that in some cases it is permissible (if not advisable) to tell a lie – for instance:  1. If telling the truth will hurt someone. (You are boring and a complete waste of my time); 2. If the truth is too complicated for the listener to understand (Of course Santa brought you these toys) and 3. It is expected that you will lie (“Your Honour, my client is innocent of all charges”).  Some of these would be acceptable to a Utilitarian philosopher (sometimes called a  Consequentialist) who might base the reasoning on the claim that actions, including lying, are morally acceptable when the resulting consequences maximize benefit or minimize harm. A lie, therefore, is not always immoral; in fact, when lying is necessary to maximize benefit or minimize harm, it may be immoral not to lie.

But critics of the utilitarian justifications for lying observe how difficult it is for anyone, even honorable persons, to know that a lie will bring more good than the truth; the consequences of actions are too often unpredictable.

The question then, in business, is perhaps not one of “do you tell lies?”, but more importantly, “Are you known as a person who tells the truth?”  Are you known as a person who tells the truth even when the truth may make you look foolish or incompetent?  Are you a person who tells the truth even when doing so may place you at a disadvantage?  Are you a person who tells the truth even when it is uncomfortable, or may create hard feelings?

And who, in your world, do you trust to tell you the truth?

So, here’s the challenge – for two weeks, keep track of how many lies (big or little – exaggerations included) do you tell?  And during the next two weeks, can you reduce that number?  And when you do, how do you feel?

An excellent perspective on lying can be found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/lying/lying_1.shtml

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