While breathing her last on the hospital bed, an old woman confided in her husband that their very obedient 35 years old youngest son, dearly loved by his father, was actually conceived in an extramarital relationship. She died, but with her died that strong bond of love and care which existed between the son and now, merely a guardian father. This last minute truth, destroyed all that was beautiful replaced by an eternal ugliness of hate and despair leaving others to wonder, if truth should always be spoken regardless of its consequences, and whatever happened to the ‘honesty is best policy’?
Taking a little extreme view, Immanuel Kant, one of the leading Western philosophers, believed that everyone has a strict duty to tell the truth even if it might be harmful. He believed that lying could never be an excuse, as it was always harmful to a particular person or to mankind in general. If harm results from telling the truth in a compassionate manner, then it is an ‘accident’, but if harm results from a lie, then the liar is responsible. Kant further supposes that telling the truth is always a duty, whether it relates to the other’s right to know or results in innocent people being severely harmed.
There are in reality two things—knowledge of truth and dissemination of truth. Facts that have cleared the test of falsification are incontrovertible and may be known to a few. Now if this information is beneficial to the interest of the public, it should be widely circulated but if not, then wisdom demands that it should be concealed. Thus, not revealing the truth could help avoid mass destruction or prevent the onslaught of an unstoppable wave of conflicts leading to chaos and unrest in the world. In other words, concealment of truth cannot be akin to telling lies. Words can be perceived in different ways therefore prudence is necessary before uttering them. In “The Education of Henry Adams”, Henry Adams writes: “No man means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous.”
This is certainly not an invitation to be deceptive and dishonest. There cannot be any question about the virtues of uprightness, about the importance of clarity in relationships and economic transactions, about sincerity in fulfilling promises, about giving truthful evidence when standing as a witness, about faithfully complying with senior’s orders etc. but simultaneously there are some burdens one needs to bear for the maintenance of peace in the society. Most certainly lying is an act, which if encouraged, can end up in a weird network where it would be impossible to distinguish between truth and lies and can also render the unscrupulous to become a habitual or even compulsive liar.
An interesting exercise would be to examine a few situations where lying could be considered better than telling the truth. One has already been mentioned in the opening lines except that rather than telling the truth, abstaining from divulging the information would have been more sensible. The real test comes up when truth has to be revealed in a sensitive situation. For example, breaking the news of death of her young son, to a heart patient is unavoidable. This can be done either point-blankly in which case, the shock can be fatal or in a more subtle way, where the mother is gradually prepared to receive the predicament that may not affect her adversely.
Similarly, where a terminal ill patient needs to be informed that he has limited time left is something many medical professionals find awkward to communicate. Besides, looking someone straight in the eye and telling him that he will cease to exist in a month’s time is a most difficult job. A couple of years back, a senior surgeon, unable to tell his favourite teenaged nephew that he was about to die, could only bring himself to cry bitterly on seeing him, making the child wonder at his behavior. These are real life episodes that place a person in uncomfortable positions because of truth.
Another interesting case would be if someone is caught in an undesirable or difficult situation and want to wriggle out of it on the basis of a lie for in the event of being honest the repercussions could be more serious than actually discerned. For example, an extreme instance can be imagined where a terrorist group captures some people with the intention of killing those belonging to a specific sect. To save one’s life, apparently there is no harm in denying one’s affinity with that sect thus escaping a horrendous death. Lighter troubling occurrences can be students and employees found sleeping at their desks, a minor servant child nabbed by her cruel mistress while trying to sneak out some food for her younger brother, an old man held for a minor offence of shoplifting fruit, ascribing it to a forgetful memory and so on.
Children at school who fear being bullied by their seniors, often take recourse to claiming a highly placed official like the police chief or someone in power as a close relative to keep them off limits. Although they are being downright dishonest, yet they are protecting themselves to becoming targets of ragging or such other possibilities at the hands of hoodlums. These are innocent lies and mean no harm to anyone whereas the truth that they are without cover can make them vulnerable to torture which could directly affect their studies. We all have been through schools and colleges and expecting the school/college authorities to handle rough-necks is far-fetched because many a times the torture is not physical in nature.
Where a family soap opera is in progress and members are at each other’s throats over petty issues, someone who adds fuel to fire by truthful disclosures could be inflicting greater harm compared to an elder who steps in to announce ceasefire on the behest of a lie, Unnecessary arguments can erupt on account of say, publicizing in advance an imminent event (e.g. wedding or under-consideration proposal) in the family. Although it may be true but if it results in incurring the wrath of other relatives, is definitely foolish.
Observers have even noted that estranged family members have been reconciled when a go-between exchanged ‘good opinions’ falsely claimed to be expressed by rival groups about one another that helped to melt the ice.
Lying is a delicate territory and truth is bitter. While moralists insist on always resorting to truth no matter what happens, the circumspect and astute suggest a more balanced approach that may not necessarily be hypocritical but yes, perhaps political. The line between telling or not telling the truth maybe blurred but can be defined in the light of the consequential good or bad effects that ensue.
The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)