Why lie?

Here's an excerpt from Judge Alex Kozinski's opinion in US v Xavier Alvarez (PDF), in which the judge describes some of the reasons that people lie:

Saints may always tell the truth, but for mortals living means lying. We lie to protect our privacy ("No, I don't live around here"); to avoid hurt feelings ("Friday is my study night"); to make others feel better ("Gee you've gotten skinny"); to avoid recriminations ("I only lost $10 at poker"); to prevent grief ("The doc says you're getting better"); to maintain domestic tranquility ("She’s just a friend"); to avoid social stigma ("I just haven't met the right woman"); for career advancement ("I'm sooo lucky to have a smart boss like you"); to avoid being lonely ("I love opera"); to eliminate a rival ("He has a boyfriend"); to achieve an objective ("But I love you so much"); to defeat an objective ("I'm allergic to latex"); to make an exit ("It's not you, it's me"); to delay the inevitable ("The check is in the mail"); to communicate displeasure ("There's nothing wrong"); to get someone off your back ("I'll call you about lunch"); to escape a nudnik ("My mother's on the other line"); to namedrop ("We go way back"); to set up a surprise party ("I need help moving the piano"); to buy time ("I'm on my way"); to keep up appearances ("We're not talking divorce"); to avoid taking out the trash ("My back hurts"); to duck an obligation ("I've got a headache"); to maintain a public image ("I go to church every Sunday"); to make a point ("Ich bin ein Berliner"); to save face ("I had too much to drink"); to humor ("Correct as usual, King Friday"); to avoid embarrassment ("That wasn't me"); to curry favor ("I've read all your books"); to get a clerkship ("You're the greatest living jurist"); to save a dollar ("I gave at the office"); or to maintain innocence ("There are eight tiny reindeer on the rooftop")….

An important aspect of personal autonomy is the right to shape one’s public and private persona by choosing when to tell the truth about oneself, when to conceal, and when to deceive. Of course, lies are often disbelieved or discovered, and that, too, is part of the push and pull of social intercourse. But it’s critical to leave such interactions in private hands, so that we can make choices about who we are. How can you develop a reputation as a straight shooter if lying is not an option?

Why We Lie


  1. I doubt that judges being awesome is a new thing.
    I’m sure there have always been awesome judges.
    But it seems perhaps that the awesomeness is getting reported more, of late.
    And I like that. :)

  2. Lying to prevent a greater evil is fine.  “No, Mr. Nazi, there’s nobody in my attic.”

    Lying to avoid social awkwardness is just pathetic.  “I can’t tell her the truth; she won’t want to be my friend anymore.”

    1. Ahhh.. NO.

      If you’ve ever had Thankgiving at a family gathering…that stuffing was perfect..oh so good.

      And (from tonight) to the SO who really worked outside and then he came in made potato salad…..”That’s pretty good potato salad”. (Needs a bit more vinegar and mayo tho).

      You’re single aren’t you?

      1. I suppose that if you lie to your friends from the start, it’s hard to then tell them the truth later, eh.

        1. That’s the point of little white lies — they’re small and no one will hold you to account of them later.

          “What do you mean you don’t like that skirt in the window? Four years ago I wore that exact same skirt and you said I looked great!! You’ve been weaving a web of lies around me for years, mister — you never did like that skirt I wore that one day, did you? Years of living a lie!” etc etc.

        2. I suppose that if you lie to your friends from the start, it’s hard to then tell them the truth later, eh.

          If I’ve been in a close relationship (lover, friend, coworker, whatever) for three months, I expect that I will have made it clear that my not liking a particular item of food or clothing isn’t a personal insult to them.

          Communication:  it’s magic!

    2. You think it’s pathetic, and that’s okay. I think lying about having war medals is pathetic, too. Either or both may deserve some measure of social censure.
      But legally forbidding people from being pathetic? That’d be worse than pathetic; it’d be monstrous.

    3. Maybe a better term than social awkwardness would be relationship awkwardness, or something along those lines.

      An example of my idea of social awkwardness is that the correct chemistry to enter a proper maieutic process does not occur all that often, so fuck it, I’ll dishonestly concede point after point at an escalating dinner table argument, particularly with someone I dislike and/or I know dislikes me, and how about them Cleveland Indians, eh?

    4. So what you’re saying is that you’ve adopted radical honesty, that you say whatever you’re thinking whenever you think it without any consideration for repercussions? Or is it only when someone prompts you with a question that you are required to brutally deliver your unfiltered thoughts? Something tells me that like the rest of us mere mortals, you subscribe to the same social pressures to massage your communication based on the situation.

      1. So what you’re saying is that you’ve adopted radical honesty, that you
        say whatever you’re thinking whenever you think it without any
        consideration for repercussions?

        No.  I’m saying that I have the social skills to avoid hurting people’s feeling without resorting to lying.

        1. you’ve hurt my feelings by (invisibly) deleting occasional posts of mine on boingboing that were slightly having fun with you. waaaah.

          1. Well, clearly you’re an abomination in the eyes of all right-thinking people.

    1. Convincing yourself you’re telling the truth ia the best way to convince others your telling the truth…

    1. You’d probably understand his point better if you read the PDF.
      He makes a very excellent case – as does judge Milan D. Smith – for the first amendment protection of falsehoods, and for the unconstitutionality of an Act which caused a man to be convicted for claiming to have earned a military medal that he had not.

      They pour scorn on the man for his lies; is was by their account “a series of bizarre lies” that he told. But it is not speech over which the government should have control. And THAT is what they are saying: not some enraging strawman.

      1. Sure, but how does that play to lying in advertising, the media, news, or just generally to make more coin?

        1. I guess in a situation like lying in advertising, the media and news it should be classified as fraud. I mean were allowed to have free speech but shouting Fire in a theater is still illegal. I guess the big difference between a normal lie and an illegal lie should be the distinction between does the lie cause unnecessary harm to those involved.

          1.  http://www.philly2philly.com/politics_community/politics_community_articles/2009/6/29/4854/fox_news_wins_lawsuit_misinform_public

          2. Yeah thats interesting. Its hard to see whither a  law againest misleading news would help or hinder journalism. At one hand it makes purposely misleading news a criminal offense. On the other hand it gives the judicial wing of government the ability to say what is and isn’t true by opening journalists up to criminal persecution. 

            I guess in order to have a truly free journalism we have to leave public scorn as the only punishment for bad journalism.

          3. @ Courior:
            Yeah, I agree. It’s an interesting conundrum. It’s just a shame that “public scorn” doesn’t seem to be working very well in the case of Fox News.

        2. It plays into the… READ THE PDF!
          It really does explain this very, *very* clearly, and is a delightful read.
          Fraud, libel, and a few other, very specific types of speech, do not have protection.

          But merely being knowingly false is not one of those types, and should not be, because the damage it would do to free speech would be vast.

    2. No, he seems to be (and actually is) saying, “Blanket prohibitions against lying are absurd, unconstitutional and a denial of the role of individual conscience in deciding when and if it’s the right thing to, as you say, fight it.

      I am hard put to explain how utterly obnoxious I find a willful lack of reading comprehension skills by pea-brained moral crusaders who cannot be bothered to read the original content before firing off their self-righteous posturing all across the internets.

      1. Thanks!  I’ll add “pea-brained moral crusader” to my epithet collection.  Not quite up to “brains of an iguana and the moral sense of a hyena” (Patrick Nielsen Hayden, circa 1977), but not bad.

  3. Crap.  That blows Raymond Smullyan’s simple formula for immorality.  

    (Which is, every morning, making the twin pledges “I will always tell the truth.” and “I will say this again tomorrow.”)

    1. Or, “I will always lie, especially to myself.” and “I will always lie, especially to myself.”

  4. Beyond the wall of the White Lie I remeimber Mark Twain; “If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.” It may not always be to my benefit, but it makes less complicated and easier to deal with otherwise…

  5. Judge K. is always a good read. I like the aphorism he coined here: “”Always” is a deliciously dangerous word, often eaten with a side of crow.”

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