Recently I was talking with a friend who was wrestling with the reality of working with people who lied all the time. “It’s not just big things. They lie about things they don’t need to lie about. It makes no sense.” The fact that they so easily lied about mundane things seemed to unsettle him more than knowing they lied about big things.
I understood my friend’s frustration. I used to work with a guy who lied all the time to people around him. He, too, fudged the truth on everything almost instinctively. He would lie to others in front of me all the time - and he knew that I knew he was lying. It didn’t take long before I not only didn’t believe anything he told me, but I generally didn’t trust him.
Most ethicists would agree with the following premise: as a general rule, lying isn’t the right thing to do. I suspect most of us would agree with the following corollary: there may be exceptions (we would lie to save a life, for example). We might even begrudgingly acknowledge yet another aspect: it’s to some degree understandable (even if it's not defensible) to lie in certain situations when the stakes are personally high.
Of course you lied about cheating on your taxes when the IRS called; of course you denied the affair; of course you said the bloody glove wasn’t yours. Both the lie and the act that triggered the lie are wrong, but it’s a lie that makes emotional sense even as we disapprove of it on a rationally moral level.
The ideal is that we set our moral bar at the highest level on this issue. The rule is “Don’t lie.” This includes an understanding that genuine moral dilemmas exist in which lying might serve a profoundly greater good (think Corrie Ten Boom lying to the Nazis about hiding Jews).
So, how much lower is that moral bar set when lying becomes acceptable for situations that are not at over genuine moral dilemmas but are instead over issues of serious personal impact?
How much lower is that already lowered bar set when any situation is fair game to get you out of a merely uncomfortable situation?
How much lower is that already lowered bar set when someone constantly evades the truth on even the most mundane and inconsequential things?
And just how much should that concern us?
What does it reveal about the character of the person in question?