I got up a bit earlier than usual this Sunday morning and biked over to a Starbucks on 16th and Arch. Attached to the Starbucks is an open indoor seating area with a very high ceiling and granite floors. It has the atmosphere of a once grand building that is now slightly run down. Clustered around a few tables in this seating area were some members of the Philadelphia Thinking Society. This was the beginning of the weekly Sunday meetup and the group was preparing to discus “Lying”. I was happy to join in.
So… lying… what is there to say about lying?
I thought about it before I went to the meetup and followed a path of questions pertaining to definitions. What is the definition of lying? Of honesty? Of truth? I’m a computer programmer and I see this problem as a computational function with a fixed input and a desired output. I am a human and I have a stream of sensory input… how do I take that info, process it and output “the truth” from it? I think you take the sensory input you have received, part of that being the communication of other people about what sensory input they have received. Then you try to build a model of the world that would explain the sensory input of you and other people at the current moment and at other times. Repeatability is key in this whole thing. I could go on but maybe that is enough for now. Time to move on to some more down to earth questions.
When have I lied? When have I been lied to? Is lying bad?
I lied once to cover something up at work. This was several years ago. A problem was discovered with a product we were delivering to a client. It was discovered at a time when we were very busy and I was very stressed out. I made the decision to ask my co-workers to ignore the defect and in fact I asked them to alter a presentation in order to cover it up. This is a classic lie. It seemed like a good idea in the heat of the moment but from any distance it is pretty clear that it was a bad idea. And in fact I learned my lesson when this problem was discovered by the client and I felt a chill of fear because I could have gotten myself fired. (But I didn’t.)
So, lesson learned, lying is bad. Don’t lie and you will live a healthy and prosperous life. But wait! I remember another lie I have experienced in my life. This time I was the lie-ee rather than the liar. The lie involved a stout elderly man sneaking into my house late at night. He came once a year, dressed in a red suit, arrived via magical reindeer sleigh. I was lied to about Christmas and Santa Clause, but I’m glad!
It’s not always easy to say when lying is wrong and when it is okay. Imagine a doctor lies to a terminally ill patient about their prognosis in order to take away some of their fear and pain. Imagine a parent tells a kid they can be an Olympic sprinter when they grow up if they just work hard enough. Often I think it’s a question of long term vs. short term gain. The above mentioned terminally ill patient may be comforted in that isolated situation. However if doctors get a reputation for lying to their patients then all patients are worse off. Sometimes it is a question of whether it is appropriate for you to protect a person. If you convince someone of something that is not true because it is good for them, you are taking power from them. You are deciding what is good for them. In some situations that is appropriate, such as with kids. In some situations it may be overbearing.
As in many such thought exercises I walk away with more questions than I had when I started. Just the same I feel a bit wiser for thinking about it and I’m grateful to the Philadelphia Thinking Society for making it happen.