As you can see, the last time we
discussed lying was way back in 2005, and with a context driven question in
2018. This is not surprising since lying is one of the key topics in ethics and
morality. I am also not in the habit of re-reading my past essays so I shall,
on this occasion, discuss a very narrow aspect about lying, mainly: do we have
a duty to find out whether people are lying to us? And if we do what is the
anatomy of lies, or at least big ticket fibs?
My enquiry does not imply that we
are not victims of liars nor that lying is not morally reprehensible. What I
mean is that just because we are victims of liars it is still the rational and
reasonable thing to do to identify liars before they cause us any real damage.
And my position is not based on some moral or ethical duty to prevent liars
from causing us any harm. But rather it is a matter of survival prudence to try
and stop liars from causing us any harm. There is nothing ethical about
avoiding harm; it’s just an occupational hazard.
Before I proceed further, I will
not concern myself with white lies, survival lies, eg lying to the gestapo, or
not-me child type lies. I am thinking in such big ticket lies as: if you invest
all your savings with us you’ll receive a 25% return on investment; trading on
WTO rules is more profitable than negotiating international deals with friends
and neighbours; for-profit health care services are better than universal
health care. And I chose these examples, although not exclusively, because they
are very common everyday banter, they are very easily verifiable and they cause
us, and have caused us, great damage and harm.
I will argue and hope to show that
the best way to understand the anatomy of these dangerous lies is to use the immunology
model for infectious diseases. The validity of this model is to help us
understand that lying is based on the following principles: microbes are a type
of life that can interact with humans in the same way that lies can interact
with our knowledge and beliefs. Even more, our beliefs are our personal precious
jewels and thus more susceptible to harm rather the cold objective knowledge
and facts we might have learnt in our life. But our beliefs are our weak spot.
Another aspect of the model is that
we know, a priori, that dangerous microbes and dangerous lies will cause us
harm unless we do something about it.And up to an extent and, due to scientific methodology on the one hand
and rational moral principles on the other, we have means to identify,
understand and counteract against diseases and lies. I will come back to this model
We grow up in life with this false
belief, and no doubt I am guilty of this as anyone else, that truth is indeed
the antidote and the refutability of lies. When lies hit the wall of truth, we
believe, these lies will disappear into harmless nothings. Unfortunately, this
is philosophical bunkum and a dangerous one at that. Earlier I said that
beliefs are our personal jewels and described knowledge in terms of cold
Lies are indeed like
"microbes" that attack our precious beliefs and thus destroy the
value of our jewels. It’s one thing for us to change our mind but a very
different matter for liars to infect our mind with their lies and usurp our
beliefs with their lies. In other words, liars want to convert our emotional beliefs
to take the appearance of hard cold knowledge. Hence, liars are trying to usurp
our understanding of the truth with their fake version of the truth. The new
“truth,” that is an infection of a lie, acquires the properties of beliefs such
as emotions and visceral feelings whilst pretending to be hard cold knowledge
Cold objective facts, are anything
but emotional, but more importantly, we are not entitled to our own facts. We
are entitled to our own beliefs, but not to our own made up or unverified
facts. A lie from others converts a possible belief we might have into “knowledge”
thus inheriting the emotive impulse to act whilst neutralising our natural cautious
instinct to question new information: basically, we suspend our risk assessment
skills we naturally employ to new information.
Unlike beliefs, facts can and are
scrutinised by agreed methodologies that have worked well and when they don’t
we find better ones or fix them. Beliefs cannot be so scrutinised not just
because we haven’t got a powerful Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine to
read our brains, but because reading our brain does not equal to a belief: an
image of the queen mother is not HM the Queen Mother. This is what I mean by
our beliefs are our jewels: we create our beliefs in the sanctum sanctorum of
our brain with no recourse to the outside world. We are the omnipotent god of
In a way there are two functioning
“engines” to control infectious diseases. In its wisdom or by chance nature
gave us a powerful immune system to fight and control a myriad of infectious
diseases. And it’s not a surprise that the “philosophy” behind immunology is
what we philosophers call empiricism; basically immunology is a biological system
to gather information, provide intentional actions and most important of all
learn from experience. Of course, the discipline is nothing like this but my description
is enough for my purposes: I have no intention of exploring the details and
risk coming across the devil.
The other “engine” is the principle
of vaccines: in my argument vaccines “teach” the immune system to recognise and
attack invading diseases, in the same way that facts teach us to distinguish
among lies, beliefs and reality. Facts are the foot soldiers that fight lies, and
once lies are destroyed we enjoy the emotion euphoria which we call the truth.
Vaccines, like facts, work on the
principle of “Herd Immunity” (search term for details): basically immunity
against a disease works by having as many people as possible vaccinated against
the disease. Protection against an infectious disease is not just us being
vaccinated but also by others being vaccinated too. In philosophical terms the
Herd Immunity functions on the principle of cooperation or to use a modern
business term, herd immunity is a numbers game.
Facts (knowledge) work in the same
manner as herd immunity: the more facts we know the more we are likely to
identify liars or counter act lies. Dangerous lies will only survive if people
are not aware of the facts, but today due to higher standards of living, mobile
phones (as Alfonso always argued) and the internet we have some tools for efficient
personal learning and access to practical facts. Of course, I am not saying
that what we label as a fact is indeed a fact. As I said, facts we can use are
usually the result of an accepted methodologies, such as the scientific method,
fact checking, evidence based information and so on.
Thus big ticket lying can be
defeated or at a minimum contained by learning and accessing real life facts.
Experience is a means to adjust our application of knowledge to function as
intended. This schema is practically the immunology model described in less
than a score and four words.
The problem with the herd immunity
model for us, in the debate on lying, is that the bottom line is always that our
beliefs are our jewels and we shall never give them up lightly. Thus, members
of the herd might not always employ herd rationality but rather stick to herd
The essays are meant to give some ideas for the discussions we have. That is, if people feel like using them that way. I also use these essays to express some of my ideas and thinking on the subject.
However, because I usually write these essay at short notice, I have no time to do in depth research on the subject. And any ideas I feel are my own, might have already been expressed by others. But I did not come across them in the limited research I some times do.
Finally, most times I do not have time to polish my essay as they ought to be. I apologise for this.