The real truth about lies | Sunday Observer

The real truth about lies

9 February, 2020

Most of us have heard of a man known as ‘Don Juan’ or ‘Casanova’ who charmed wealthy women for his romantic conquests. He was actually Giovanni Vigliotto who had got married to several women. We do not know how many times he got married, but we know that he made a living by getting married to wealthy women. He was enjoying the fruits of his conquests until he met Patricia Gardner, one of his would-be conquests, who took him to court for bigamy. At the trial, Gardner admitted that one of the things that attracted her to Vigliotto was his ‘honest trait.’ When he looked at her directly in the eyes, smiling, he lied through his teeth.

Psychologists and folk wisdom advise us to check if someone “looks us in the eye” as a gauge of whether they might be lying. Paul Ekman, an expert on detecting lies, says that ‘believe-what-I’m- saying eye-lock’ reveals little about whether someone is telling us the truth. The act of lying demands conscious, unintentional activity which handles the control systems that keep our words and deeds smoothly on track. According to Ekman, liars pay more attention to their choice of words, censoring what they say, and less to their choice of facial expressions. Ekman, however, admits that there is no sure-fire lie detector you can only detect hot spots.

Fourth precept

A research done at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville confirms that some of the lies are not earth-shattering. Sometimes people pretend to be supportive of their spouses or friends than they are. A woman would lie to another woman to spare her real feelings. Men lie to other men for self-promoting reasons.

The fourth precept of Buddhism stresses the importance of truthfulness. If truthfulness is lacking, there can be no trust and confidence. Nothing is more demoralizing and ultimately degrading than to live among people whose word is not to be believed and whose every statement has to be examined for possible deception. Lying is rampant in politics. Politicians give false promises during elections and forget about them later. Such activities retard the progress of a country. Most of the under-developed countries are facing economic stagnation due to their leaders’ lying.


Truthfulness is of utmost importance in personal relations. If you are addicted to lying, you destroy your own reputation. Habitual lying leads to moral deterioration. The confirmed liar alienates himself from truth and in the end his whole outlook and judgment become warped. Constant untruthfulness is a habit formation destructive to your character. The man who upholds the truth allies himself with it. His character and reasoning powers will be strengthened and he will acquire penetrative insight into the nature of reality.

Although religion and morality dissuade us from lying, most of us tell fibs thinking that they are harmless. Such liars have little preoccupation or regret. Whether you like it or not, the attitude towards casual use of prevarication is common in society. The Josephson Institute of Ethics in California recently conducted a research involving 20,000 secondary-schoolers. The results showed that 92 per cent of the teenagers had lied to their parents. Seventy-three per cent of them were ‘serial liars’ for they lied every week. Despite such admissions, 91 per cent of them said they were satisfied with their ethics.

Receptionists and secretaries have been trained by their bosses to tell lies on a daily basis. Some of them are as follows: “I’ll call you later; He is in a meeting; I’m sorry, he left office a little while ago; He is busy, can you hold on?” Such receptionists and secretaries may not be guilty of telling lies deliberately because they have to tell lies to keep their jobs.

Certain professionals such as lawyers and public relations consultants specialize in shaping or spinning the truth to suit their clients’ needs. Some lawyers are in the habit of training their clients to tell lies under oath to escape punishment. If lawyers tell the truth, most of their clients would be condemned to death or prison sentences. They will also lose their income.

There are little white lies which have become ubiquitous. Those who tell white lies do so for valid reasons. When you visit a relative or friend, they will invariably prepare something special for lunch or dinner. There may be certain items of food you may not like, but you tell your host that the meal was wonderful! You do so to avoid hurting their feelings.

Difficult question

What’s wrong in telling such lies? Michael Josephson, President of the Josephson Institute, says you should consider the lie from your host’s point of view. If you tell the truth, will she like it? Will she say, “Thank you for being truthful?” These are difficult questions to answer.

Sometimes, parents advise their children to tell untruths and half-truths to avoid hurting the feelings of others. One day, a child told his grandmother, “Grandma, you have a beautiful face.” She shot back, “Did your mother ask you to say so? Don’t be silly. I’m pretty old and there are wrinkles on my face. How can I look beautiful to anyone?” The boy did not know what to say.

Despite moral grounds, some people still defend such ‘nice lies’ used to express our appreciation for gifts even when we really do not mean it. I remember the words of English novelist Sir Walter Scott who wrote, “What a tangled web we weave, when we first practice to deceive.”

Harmless fibs

Such ostensibly harmless fibs can have unforeseen consequences. According to philosopher Sissela Bok, such ‘nice lies’ can put you on a slippery slope. When you get used to telling ‘nice lies,’ other lies can come very easily. She has written a wonderful book titled ‘Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life.’ It says, “Psychological barriers wear down; the ability to make more distinctions can coarsen; the liar’s perception of his chances being caught may warp.”

Now we are caught up on the horns of a dilemma. Are all white lies to be avoided at all costs? Some ethicists say such lies are forgivable on the principle of trust and caring. Others believe that even such untruths can lead to a loss of trust. When trust is damaged, the community as a whole suffers.

Ultimately, societies falter and collapse. However, the celebrated American writer Mark Twain says, “When in doubt, tell the truth. It will confound your enemies and astound your friends.”

Whatever philosophers and psychologists have to say about truth, Buddhism has no room for falsehood. It demands absolute truth which is the final end of Buddhism. And it is the final standard of Buddhist morality. A community will be pleasant to live in if there is no falsehood found in any form. Truth is thus essential for social as well as individual welfare. The Buddha said, “Strong are those who always speak the truth and never deviate from it.”

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