The Noble Lie-1: The slippery slope from benign to evil

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

As children, we are repeatedly told that we must tell the truth at all times. But despite the indoctrination, all of us lie in small and sometimes big ways because we are weak or because we feel trapped in a situation where lying is the only way to escape without harming ourselves. However, all except pathological liars know that they are doing something wrong when they lie for those and similar self-serving reasons and feel guilty about it.

But while it is generally agreed that truth is preferable to falsehood, the idea that truth is a fundamental virtue that trumps all others does not always hold true. One can easily think of scenarios where lying for immediate tactical advantage is not only not wrong but is actually a virtuous act, say in order to save someone’s life by misdirecting a killer. But most people would agree that apart from such extreme situations, lying is to be avoided.

More difficult situations are those in which no serious harm is threatened but the lie might benefit others. So for example, we might lie to protect a co-worker who might lose her job if we told the truth or people may tell lies to benefit the company they work for because to tell the truth might result in the company being hurt and many people losing their jobs.

But what about in the world of ideas? Is true knowledge always preferable to false beliefs? Some would argue that even here it may be acceptable or even desirable to lie but I feel that this line should not be crossed. All people should be encouraged to seek the truth, even if it may destroy cherished beliefs. Furthermore, the reason that something is false is because either the evidence contradicts it, or the arguments in favor of it don’t make sense, or believing it leads to logical contradictions. Encouraging people to believe in false things is to also encourage them to discount the value of evidence and to abandon their reasoning skills and this can making them easy prey for liars and charlatans and demagogues.

One often hears the case made that believing false things can be beneficial. One can think of many situations where people choose to propagate falsehoods over truth for what they believe are benign or even positive reasons. For example, parents often deliberately tell their children things they know to be false (like the stories about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy) and these are thought to be harmless, because at some point the children are told the truth if they haven’t figured it out for themselves. Even though this deception is probably harmless, when children learn that they were deceived by the people they trust the most, they may become somewhat cynical.

Furthermore, there is the danger that this attitude can be extended to assert that it is acceptable to tell even adults lies ‘for their own good’. Political leaders often fall prey to this temptation, thinking that people cannot handle the truth, that they must do things ‘in the public interest’ that the actual public may not agree with, and the only way to do that is to lie. The trap here is obvious. There is a very thin line that separates telling lies for the benefit of the people being lied to, and telling lies that benefit the liars themselves. It is all too easy for political leaders to think that only they have the wisdom and judgment to understand the complexities of a situation and the action it demands, and treat the public as simpletons who must be fed some bogus story to get them to agree to a pre-determined action.

The war against Iraq was such a case. It was based on falsehoods that were clearly known to be falsehoods by those who took the country into war. Were the leaders self-aware that they were cynically manipulating public opinion in order to achieve crass goals of power and money that they knew the public would not support? Most people would agree that that would be wrong.

But what if the leaders were engaged in what they thought was a ‘Noble Lie’, because they thought they were serving a greater good that the public was too naïve to understand if they were told the truth? I would argue that it would still be wrong. The idea of a Noble Lie depends upon the notion that the people who can deal with the unvarnished truth consist of a small elite, while the mass of people are either incapable of understanding it or are too fragile to handle the truth and thus must be protected from this knowledge.

Such an attitude is condescending and profoundly anti-democratic that feeds on, as well as nourishes, the self-regard of the people who espouse it. Such people invariably think of themselves as part of the elite who can handle the truth and should know it. You never hear people demanding that they be lied to.

Next in the series: The Noble Lie as a deliberate political strategy

POST SCRIPT: “You can’t handle the truth!”

Here is a clip of Jack Nicholson’s speech in the film A Few Good Men, where he argues that a few people must make hard and unpleasant and secret decisions, even if they are criminal, in order to protect the very people who object to such acts. It is a good example of the mentality behind the Noble Lie.


  1. John L. Clark says

    In Michael J. Sandel’s book “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?”, he discusses the question of lying in some depth, and he argues for a potentially surprising conclusion that lying is never justified. As you say, “I feel that this line should not be crossed”; Sandel agrees, but in all cases (not just in “the world of ideas” as you characterize it). You could summarize Sandel’s argument by saying that lying always impacts “the world of ideas”, and this impact damages the infrastructure of our ability to use language effectively.

    Sandel does consider the case of misdirecting a killer, and finds that it is better to mislead than to flat out lie. As I understand his argument, when we lie in situations like that, we lose credibility that enables us to engage even with those whose ends are evil. Put more simply, lying to such people leads to a situation where they won’t believe anything we say, and our ability to communicate is compromised. Sandel digs into this in more depth, and considers a number of other interesting and historical examples, and I certainly recommend giving this issue more time either with his discussions or by investigating other philosophy on this issue.

  2. says

    Actually, I lie in my calculus classes all of the time (e. g. “the graph of a continuous function is one that you can draw without lifting the pencil off of the paper), conflate the gradient with the derivative, etc.

    Sometimes the lies are “approximations to the truth” when the truth is too complicated to be comprehended at the time.

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  4. Alyx Jacobs says

    I agree with the evil of ‘noble lies’, especially in the context of political issues and condescending to the electorate. At the same time, I have very fond memories of believing in Santa Claus, etc. as a child, and didn’t experience any sense of betrayal when I found out the truth, although I know people who did. I would classify myths like that told to children as more closely related to fiction then outright lies. I doubt my 3 year old has a clear understanding that the Dr. Seuss books we read aren’t about real things, but I still read them to him with the understanding that at some point that will become clear to him.

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