We tend to think that our responsibility to the truth is satisfied if we refrain from uttering hurtful lies. Even the most ethical among us seem to think that we’re fine as long as we don’t intentionally deceive others. Is our responsibility really limited to that?
Many people tell white lies to their spouses, lie on their tax returns, commit warranty fraud, propagate rumors, emphatically state things which they have no evidence for, and allow people and organizations to get away with saying things that aren’t truthful. The same people feel hurt when someone lies to them.
Lying can be intentional or unintentional. When done intentionally, it is often because some advantage is to be gained by the deceit. When unintentional, it can usually be blamed on carelessness or intellectual laziness. Just as we are culpable for intentional lies, I believe we are also blameworthy for our unintentional lies.
Lying damages society in a number of ways. That is true whether the lie is intentional or unintentional but we tend blame only those that lie intentionally because we assume that unintentional lies can’t be avoided. That assumption is wrong.
Most unintentional lies can be avoided by doing some simple fact-checking. A lot of the rest can be avoided by doing more in-depth research. The rest can be avoided by rephrasing our statements to note our level of uncertainty. All unintentional lies can be avoided by being aware of our own ignorance. We are all ignorant, to an extent, in different areas of knowledge. That is fine as long as we are aware of what we are ignorant about and refrain from speaking with an air of knowledge on those subjects.
Take for example, the person who hears that homeopathy works wonders and recommends it to a friend with cancer–as an alternative to a hospital visit. Later that friend dies, partially because he wasted time with an ineffectual treatment instead of getting chemotherapy. The person who recommended the ineffectual treatment is at least partially to blame for the death.
It is not enough to believe that what we are saying is the truth. To ensure that our statement doesn’t bring harm to society, we must investigate the truth of the statement before stating it. We must ask ourselves in what ways the statement could be false. Even when we have gathered evidence to support our assertion, we should caveat it with a reference to the evidence or to our level of uncertainty. There is nothing wrong with prefacing some statements with “I think” and concluding them with “but I could be wrong about that.” Too many people are too quick to assert something. If they would only add a reference to the evidence they are basing that assertion on, we could more easily determine its validity for ourselves.
If a scientist tells us that we are safe from an earthquake and then a deadly earthquake occurs, we are rightfully angry. How could that scientist not look at all the evidence? How could that scientist not end the statement with a comment about the uncertainty involved with such a statement? We are angry about this and yet we continue to propagate rumors about people we don’t like particularly well.
Perhaps the amount of blame we assign to the unintentional liar should be based on the intellectual ease with which the lie could have been avoided. If someone makes a false statement that couldn’t have been avoided without considerable research then perhaps that person is not as blameworthy as the one whose lie could have been avoided by doing some simple fact-checking.
We must become critical thinkers (I believe this skill should be formally taught in elementary school). After my parents and most of society deceived me, albeit unintentionally, for more than ten years, is it any wonder that I hate deception? It is our responsibility to learn how people deceive each other both intentionally and unintentionally. By studying the art of truth we also learn about cognitive biases–how our brains deceive us and how we go on to deceive others because of that.
Before I conclude this post, I want to talk briefly about something that really irritates me; rumors. I was once accused of committing a crime (I was never charged and the real perps admitted to it several weeks later), so I know the power of slander/rumors and the damage that they can cause to their subjects. By being responsible for the things that we say, we become one less person that starts a rumor–one less person that hurts another. When I hear what sounds like a rumor, rather than spreading it further, I find it more productive to offer alternative explanations to the rumored one. It often takes the gossiper aback and causes him or her to reconsider their evidence.
I encourage you not to blindly believe the things I’ve said here but to reason through it yourself. By learning the skills of critical thought, we become filters for the information that flows through society. Not only can we stop ourselves from uttering unintentional lies, we can offer commentary on the ones that others utter. And always remember… we are to blame for our lies, the intentional ones and the unintentional ones.