What If Lying Was Always Against the Law?

Many of us wish no one would lie. But is the whole society better off because lying is often allowed? Empirical evidence suggests it is.

No one argues for general permission to lie, as far as I know. Society demands some honesty for its own needs, some internally and some externally. Advocates for exceptions want the power for specific individuals and situations, even for some institutions and entire societies, even for time so long the beginnings are forgotten as with ancient myth, but not as a generalization for everything. Religious leaders and parents call on followers and children never to lie and promise detection and punishment. Liars want everyone else to always be truthful. Sissela Bok, an academic from a family with a diplomat, wrote a book calling for honesty and a feminist approach was offered by Adrienne Rich (both are cited below). Some lying is illegal; perjury law applies here and there.

However, no law makes all lying illegal, as far as I know. Surely it’s been proposed. The United States has at least 51 legislatures that could enact such a ban and attach criminal penalties. Fourteen of those legislatures have been in existence for at least two hundred years. Probably a few bills were introduced. I know of only one that passed and it was repealed. I don’t think there’s a chance of passage of one today. Why isn’t there?

Why not a ban?

Maybe for good reason. At least, it’s debatable.



While we could soundly exclude exaggeration and misleading from lying, even arguing that misleading permits not lying, one could just as soundly include them, although the law generally does not, sometimes treating misleading as a violation but still a violation that is separate from lying. Spinning is a less precise term that generally is encompassed by these concepts. Here, I’ll treat them as included.

If we were to require communicating about everything on request, there wouldn’t be time and that would place control on what’s said on the listener who ceases listening, creating a cutoff point unrelated to the utterer’s intent.

A “larger truth” may be a good excuse for a lie, but it is not a substitute that makes it a truth. If it were, every lie having a “larger truth” accompanying it, there’d in essence be no lies and no one would mind. But, of course, we mind and that sequence is a non sequitur.

Truth is not always discoverable. Some truths have been undiscovered for millennia. Given history, some we haven’t discovered yet but may eventually. Probably, some can never be discovered, at least by sentient beings known to exist. A classic exercise is to try to describe color to a person blind since birth.

Whether truth is absolute is dubious. Many people believe truth is absolute but that doesn’t make it absolute. It is for basic arithmetic. If this to be is doubted even for the existence of positive integers, I don’t know that argument. Even absolute truth must be mediated through senses and mental processing that are capable of subjectivity and thus the absoluteness of truth must be determined by another means. It is not absolute for all subjects, not even all of mathematics, e.g., not the field of interesting numbers. For the latter, it may be susceptible to determination of belief, lack thereof, or degree thereof and, while thus relativistic, simultaneously susceptible to a claim of absolutism as nonrelativism.

Because survival is among our highest priorities and we believe our relationship with nature, usually as one with it or as superior to it, is a key to survival, insofar as truth is in nature, people justify lying to each other to preserve their relationship with nature against human challenges, such as doubts.

Insofar as truth is culturally determined, and some is, underdiversity in a community establishing norms of truth in a domain may result in a difference from what the norms would be if the diversity were that of a larger population.

Humans now specialize. Our ancestors didn’t always. In earlier times, before history, in times explored by archaeologists, humans were generalists with brains a bit larger than ours of today and who were fewer in number. Generalists may be more likely to apply uniform standards of truth to all questions. Specialization increases the likelihood that different standards are applied not only to different specialties but also by different specialists who may not even understand other specialists’ standards yet may have to interact with them, often leading to efforts at avoidance of each other to prevent corruption of a standard-bearer’s standards. E.g., journalists and judges have different standards; scientists and theologians have different standards; Democrats and Republicans can barely talk with each other in public.

A lie can become a truth. Facts can change, but that is not the only mechanism. Where truthfulness is subjective (and it usuallly is) but information critical to judging truthfulness is irrecoverably lost, the general default is that a given statement should be judged as truthful, in which case the judgment that a statement is a lie becomes unsupportable.

Where lying is acceptable, so is rehearsal, at least when done well.

Intent and Content

I’m judging lying by combining content and motivation. If motivation alone is sufficient because one could be coincidentally or accidentally right but that chance should be held irrelevant, far more of what we communicate would be lies. However, truth even though unintentional is hard to oppose by a law, because we like good results even if arrived at by chance.


Transparency vs. opacity is no guarantee of honesty or of dishonesty. It may be more of a guarantee of normalization or flexibility, respectively. E.g., whether transparency promotes honesty depends on whether observers capable of observing because of transparency demand honesty or don’t.

If Subjective

Subjectivity complicates things. A statement by one person and even in its context may be perceived as true by someone and false by someone else because of subjectivity. Some of us consider objectivity to be relative (I do except for some mathematics), and subjectivity is also relative, nonetheless subjectivity is often clear. For instance, if the statement is by someone else, our relationship with that someone likely colors our determination of truthfulness.

How We Know What’s True

How we try to find the truth may determine what we consider to be the truth. Maybe we rely on the largeness or type of effort we put into it. Thus, when we apply our uniqueness to arrive at a result, the self-approval we stamp onto our effort may extend to self-approval of the result that came in the course of our effort. Someone whose investigation of a person’s knowledge or mental state was adverse and without much cooperation, such as that by a police detective or a psychologist, may have believed that the subject person’s first statement was always false or, if uttered quickly enough, was always truthful or may have believed that a statement by the subject person was true or false because it was phrased with or without certain lingo, facial expressiveness, or body motion the investigator believes consistent with truth. Any investigator may need to find the truth. A detective, for example, may be trying to identify a serial murderer so an arrest can be made, and therefore may need to extract statements that are either inculpatory or exculpatory in order to prevent the possibly-unknown serial murderer from striking again, whether the perpetrator is the person the investigator is interviewing or someone else. But a questioner’s motive does not alter whether and to what extent the statements obtained are truthful.

That finding the line between truth and lie may be difficult may not change the nature of the issue.

Lying to oneself may not change the issue, either, because it is still lying. It may not be convincing to oneself, but, on the other hand, it may be convincing, even to oneself.

True on Whose Say-So

Because of how a society is organized, the determination of a statement’s truthfulness may be influenced by being from the general population or from the leadership, if the latter because it is already leadership or because it devotes resources to achieving agreemment on the content what is thus determined, which resources can include political or financial. In other words, some statements can be labeled as true because of political pressure or because someone, in effect, purchased the label and reversal is too expensive. The labeling is not as crass as that the label was purchased; it is that, as a consequence of the lack of the purchase, the statement is believed as true as though no trade was involved.

Leaders may view the establishing of what is true as their prerogative and view challenges from lesser leaders and nonleaders as challenges to a leader’s fundamental authority and punishable. This is often persuasive of the people below and often for a long time and against many potential challenges.

A supermajority or superplurality, either one with temporal stability, believing a statement can be a social determinant of truthfulness. A superplurality applies where a majority is unobtainable on either side of a statement’s truthfulness. In that world society has generally been suuccessful, surviving, growing, and adding choices, the social determinant has some (albeit incomplete) ground for theoretical validity indepenndent of nunmbers of believers.

Time Available

Truthfulness may be determined by the time available for the determination, in turn depending on subjective judgments by people on availability of time. Adjudications of guilt are generally time-constrained. On some questions, we may simply lose interest and the next time we recall the same question we may think it already answered and refer back to our last conclusion, however tentative it may have been.

Communications Methodology

Communication style may determine our perception of truthfulness. The choice of language, dialect, or lingo may be taken as a marker of truth, particularly on certain subjects and to given audiences. For some people, whoever speaks last on a point is the correct one. Stating a truth in the form of a Socratic interrogative (e.g., “don’t you think red is a color?”) can be hazardous when it competes with a declarative. Failure to refute within a time frame or with a particular nonsubstantive style can lead third parties to determine that the prior statement must be true by default.


Binary Systems

General Including Adjudications and Elections

Binary decisional systems are binary when one side is right and therefore the other is wrong or vice versa, there is no third side worth noting, and a decision has to be reached. Typically, a third party evaluates the competing claims and their respective support and decides the outcome. These systems encourage both sides to lie to the decider and that encourages the decider to lie to the two.

These systems include adjudication and political elections. A judge is generally charged with arriving at a factual and legal conclusion in a case. An electorate is effectively charged with deciding which candidate should win. A judge generally depends on the facts being adduced by the parties, rather than investigating independently, and there may be, especially in a judicial context, formal procedures to constrain the insertion of third parties’ contributions. An electorate depends on representations by the candidates and their surrogates. Both consider opposition views but give little weight to third parties’ evidence or views. Both give little weight to past lying by a party; courts do not keep data on when someone lied in past cases and that is less of a subject about electoral candidates who have run in the past, even less for candidates who have not run in the past, unless it is somehow especially relevant to the current campaign. Judges may force decisions even though finding one more piece of evidence is usually possible. Electorates may force decisions because even a vote of 5,037,621 against 5,037,620 and the victory, if not the mandate, is, mathematically, crystal clear. In a judicial case, if one side lies, the judge’s options are limited, because removing or disregarding the party who lied would likely prevent arriving at a fair outcome and thus would prevent the court from completing its most important work. For an election, if one side lies, the election is not postponed or canceled. In either case, a major check on lying by one side is for the decider to discredit that side and favor the other. In either context, the most attractive remedy for lying is for the other side to lie and leave it to the decider to come to a conclusion that most observers would consider fair and therefore would lead most observers to support retaining the existing procedure, judicial or electoral respectively.

Thus, we, as a society, implicitly endorse lying in binary systems as a necessary aspect that we can minimize but not eliminate.

That’s when binary systems are for necessary purposes. When they’re for discretionary purposes, they have the same effect. But, while fulfilling necessary purposes can itself justify preservation of the system until a better way is developed, that’s harder to justify for discretionary purposes. Any society needs dispute resolution and political control, thus we need adjudications and elections. However, an arguably discretionary purpose is rehearsal of disputes in an environment based on skill. Sport offers that. Since major sports tend to make the binary system and the lying it produces visible, one might expect that the visibility of lying and that the context is discretionary would lead to societal disapproval, but it hardly does. Life-long or life-threatening injury from sports is far more controversial for sports that depend on recruiting children into becoming interested than even the lying about whether such injuries are inherent in the nature of the sport. To the society, sports and its positive values are more important. It might seem ironic that among those positive values is rule-following. In effect, we teach children that shooting up opponents with bazookas does not make the shooter the winner, and that’s good, but what we teach about not lying is more about not getting caught lying, especially not getting caught by a referee or similar authority figure. We teach that the goody-goodies object to lying and have some authority so they punish for lying but that most people are normmal and therefore not goody-goodies and don’t punish for most of it.

Adjudication Between Two Parties

Our judicial system at trial has several peculiarities. Judges do not hire investigators to do their own fact-finding. It generally separates eyewitness testimony from expert testimony. While one person in some cases could combine both roles, that’s relatively rare. Instead, generally, an eyewitness is not allowed to testify on the basis of expertise even though it may have informed their decisions that undergird their eyewitness testimony. That can create a situation of lying by a witness who effectively denies having expertise they possess. Omission of a witness can cause a party’s case to be presented as complete when it is not, thus, perhaps, a lie. A jury is usually barred from questioning a witness; a few judges do allow it but only by filtering questions through the judge, effectively barring followup questions by the jury. Claims not raised by a party (mainly those in a civil case or those from a criminal prosecutor) may be barred from consideration, even if those claims independently occur to a fact-finder and could help arrive at the truth. A jury is usually forbidden to investigate facts beyond what it can do while silent in a jury box or isolated in a jury room. A lie of this sort need not be a juror’s lie, a jury’s lie, or a judge’s lie; it can be the court’s lie or, considering an appeal or a collateral attack, the judicial system’s lie.

Splitting the difference between the parties is often seen as a way of finding the truth, the premise being that the parties likely exaggerated in opposite self-favoring directions. But the truth may still coincide with what one of the parties said or may go beyond what either party said. Belief in a binary system may blind a fact-finder.

Elections Need Not be Binary

We could debate whether a two-party system is superior to a system with more than two strong parties. The latter is found in some parliamentary national governments and at times even minor parties become crucial to a strong party’s victory, such that the minor party withdrawing its support can lead to a new election. I don’t know whether lying increases shortly before election day if many voters have each narrowed their likeliest choices to two and can be addressed in binary style with little risk of a voter going with a third party.

Our two-party system, however, is well-entrenched, and being binary appears to be almost inherent. Maybe it doesn’t have to be that way, but it’s evidently too valuable not to be.


Wars are terrible, arguably sometimes unavoidable but still nothing most of us would want to live under, given any peaceful alternative. Wars are usually not sudden surprises for skilled and devoted leaders. They see what could be coming, what is likely to come, and what is going on at the moment. They’re able to do something about the situation, perhaps wage and intensify war with the objective of winning quickly and decisively, perhaps prevent war and maintain peace, perhaps constrain war to a less-problematic region such as a border so that most people are not being assaulted, something. If a leader achieves a relatively positive outcome by lying to the enemy, most of the people protected by the lying probably will be glad.

Spying can prevent or reduce war and inherently relies on lying. (Regardless of lying, the larger activity is intelligence-gathering, which can use public information sources.) To the intended victor, lying to spy is good. Also, when it’s international and as a form of self-defense, likewise when it’s by a national government against a domestic insurgent, espionage is generally allowed by law.

Sabotage has largely similar authorization and comparable effect relative to war and, also inherently, relies on lying.

For either espionage or sabotage, lying can be merely implicit. Crossing a border without saying anything because day shoppers don’t have to say anything (assuming that’s the law) generally implies a lie that the crosser will not spy or sabotage.

Scholarship Including Science

The world has problems and goals. We meet some of them through inquiry. Some answers come from what is already known; some, from what is not yet known. Some of the latter is from scholarship, including science. Science depends not only on theory but also on collecting facts we can believe. We may not like them but we can believe they’re true. Some branches of science investigate humans. Some human studies depend on what humans tell us. That’s where a problem arises. If we tell humans why we want to know, they may tell us what we should hear or what they think we want to hear, which may not truly describe the facts. We’re misled into delivering bad science. The solution often is to lie outright to the people we’re testing about our purposes, so that they give us accurate answers. We make scientific progress. Maybe that lets us invent a medicine that keeps us healthier or we solve climate change or we design a computer that’s easier to use. I have not heard of a way to take lying out of science and still maintain a rate of scientific progress even similar to or more than what we have now.

Scholarly content can, of course, get out of date. New knowledge displaces old. But not everyone, not even every scholar, is willing to update their knowledge. Some of that is due to reasonable doubt. Some of that is due to correct doubt: the new knowledge turns out to be wrong. But some refusal to update is due to a wish that the old knowledge remain in effect. Perhaps a scholar who discovered it wants to continue getting credit for that discovery, and there’d be more credit if the knowledge has not been displaced. (One scientist, challenged on having changed his mind, reputedly replied, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”) Whatever the motivation, an unreasonable refusal to allow new knowledge to displace old when uttering the old is lying.

Scholarship is practiced within several disciplines, e.g., history, mathematics, and theology. What is considered true is generally determined by a consensus among leading scholars within a given discipline, the consensus resting on standards on the adding of new truth, the maintaining of existing truth, and the discarding of what is known no longer to be true. The standards vary by discipline and thus raise questions about what would happen if standards in one discipline were applied to another. Answers to these questions could be especially complex. Unlike law, scholarship can’t be a seamless web.

Within science, as carefully as it is practiced, problems arise en route to the truth. While scientists are often sincere in their efforts to cope with these problems, they sometimes succumb to pressure to produce an answer from research and the answer thus produced may be false without sufficient effort at correction. The population sample may not be a random sample, as when college students are taken as typical of a national population, common in scientific psychology (some schools require every student to participate in at least one study of the student’s choice, providing a ready pool of human subjects but biasing toward the psychographics of college students on questions applicable to national populations). Euphemismm and other linguistic indirection may be needed for successful interviewing or response, but will likely lead to some misinterpretation. An open-ended question may be misunderstood as either more or less open-ended than the interviewer intended and the study protocol may restrict or prevent clarification by the interviewer. Some answers to open-ended questions may be discarded by investigators not because of complete irrelevance but because of difficulty in categorizing or measuring them. Reduction through coding from open-ended answers to measurable answers generally requires that either the interviewer or the respondent code, and either is susceptible to error of the sort best resolved by sample size and by having many interviewers with some balance; respondents can code more accurately because they understand what answer they are coding but less accurately because they are less consistent across different respondents or interviewers. Closed-ended questions may be responded to as even more closed-ended than they are; for example, when thermometer scales exceed five points, responses tend to distribute among three points, the perceived middle value and the two ends, forming a “w” distribution that likely oversimplifies reality. If responses are to restrictive questions and are then applied as answers in a less restrictive environment, such as if answers are initiallly limited to yes/no/unknown but are then referenced where any answer is permissible, it may be incorrectly presumed in the latter context that the respondent never had a nuance that was vital. In studies of life forms including humans, the evidently-beneficial behavior of a majority or even a plurality is deemed to warrant extending into a requirement that everyone should behave alike on point. Finally, consumers may misunderstand studies and a misunderstanding may largely overtake investigators’ reports of the same studies, especially in the popular or even professional application of such studies. If the misunderstanding is due to a failure to provide context, that may be due to lying.

We could rely on natural experiments so that an investigator need never lie to study participants. But natural experiments of a useful level of quality are relatively scarce. The result would be a severe slowing of scientific progress and consequently of human progress from the application of science. Science would be less valuable to society and thuis harder to protect from competing approaches and their advocates, such as faith, theologians, and adherents, manhy of whom who believe they already have all the desired answers and therefore that there’s no need for science.

Even in science, we sometimes use an arbitrary convention to arrive at what we believe is true. We apply Occam’s razor, a principle by which we choose the simplest of competing hypotheses that all explain all of the known data. Occam’s razor may help us to arrive at the right answer most of the time but still sometimes be wrong. When it is wrong, we are using arbitrariness and not truth (the latter being perhaps imperceivable) to select a statement as true and another as false and thus we are lying to ourselves, scientists lying, too. Where a decision on truthfulness cannot be delayed without consequence so negative that the society will not tolerate the delay, the intolerance to the consequence of indecision may justify the lying, but that does render it not lying.


Health includes treatment, whether grounded in science or tradition, and some treatments fail unless lying is included. A medic may need to save a life by inserting a tube through the nose into the stomach (this was part of first aid and may still be); the body will clam up against the tube and prevent its entry unless it’s inserted by surprise; being truthful would mean a quick and painful death by asphyxiation. A person may be severely burned or have lost a lot of blood and their ability to live may be doubtful; encouragement may make the difference in whether they stay alive. Most of us don’t object to people near the person giving encouragement contrary to what they see with their own eyes, especially when the patient can’t see it. It may be that patients request optimism even if it’s a lie, althoough we may know that only from the few patients who eventually got well and confirmed their earlier views. There are other views for people whose death appears inevitable and near, who are considered so exceptionally bad that their deaths would be welcome, or who are suicidal, but honesty in most marginal cases would be considered cruel and probably irresponsible. When the dying person is someone we love and they’re in terminal pain and at the same time bothered by something social, lying about the social condition may help make dying less painful and many people would approve of that lie; an example may have been the lie told to Thomas Jefferson who was dying in debt and was told that his friends had gotten together and raised the money to pay off the debt; a more recent example was of a father whose son was scheduled to take an employment exam but who lied about the current day of the week and then said that he had taken the exam and thought he had done well (he ultimately did do well), reducing, according to the son, the father’s stress just before death.

Psychological Service

Clinical psychological treatments often depend on lying. Whether they should is a separate question; that they do is affirmable from publications by various practitioners.

Getting out of those treatments also often depends on lying. Plenty of anecdotes can be collected from former patients who found that drugs were administered by busy nurses who would let patients take their own meds if they were willing and able to and reported being happier due to the meds and so patients learned about lying as a self-preservation tool.


Journalism, a valuable service in societies that provide freedom for it, is, despite best efforts by sincere practitioners, susceptible to falsity. Journalism, in contrast with scholarship, is a faster way of making information available to a public. In the U.S., it is sometimes and colloquially described by its proponents as a first draft of hstory. It makes its product public as quickly as its publishers think they can, sometimes being pleased with being a minute or two earlier with a broadcast than a competitor, whereas scientists relying on peer-reviewed publication may be competitive by being a day earlier. The need to come out faster may mean that an error is not edited out in time and that error may remain in the lasting record visible to the public, which may not realize it’s an error and thus count the statement that is erroneous as part of the truth.

Journalism can have deliberate falsity, as well. A local news organization may have different standards for what it may publish as true for political news, sports news, and obituaries. Obituaries are less likely to state negative or unpopular information about a newly deceased, while political news may emphasize it. Sports news may be more favorable to teams and players favored by local fans and more critical of opposing teams and players. All three sets of standards, although contradictory, may be welcomed by consumers of that news publisher, enhancing the credibility and future patronage of that publisher, and the same consumers may agreeably consume all three categories of news in the same brief time period. Publishers may differ from each other in what constitutes newsworthiness and on good journalistic ethics, resulting in sometimes-contradictory publications. Yet any effort to apply a uniform standard of truth to all news media and all their output would cripple news media and lower their ability to accomplish as much as they do.

To uncover news, or to hide it, lying may be necessary. A journalist may lie to get access to needed information. A source may lie to hide it. Each may be rewarded for their tactics. Each, therefore, is rewarded for the lying, with substantial short- and long-term rewards.

Law, Binary or Not

Societies have standards of human behavior. We disapprove of murder, rape, arson, and spam calls. If we ask everyone if they’re doing it, we get more denials than could possibly be true. Someone’s lying to us. Some crimes can be solved through documentation, observation, and other honest techniques, but not all of them can be and we demand they be solved. Your typical Mafia murderer probably does not keep a log. Police sometimes lie to get the truth to come out. Courts often allow this, approving convictions even though someone lied (provided the lie didn’t spoil the trial but that’s because the courts don’t think all lies spoil trials).

Societal standards compliance can be achieved through lying. A fashion model had difficulty getting work when she identified herself in interviews as Black. She’d be asked, Yes, and what else? and she’d say “Black, Black, and Black.” Interviewers were nice but she wasn’t getting enough work. So, she started to say she’s “Mediterranean”. Then she got work. And she became a spokesmodel (I guess chief model) for a retail products company that had told her ad agency “no Blacks.” So the products company included a Black in its representation and maybe its customers recognized that Blacks could be fashionable, too, in the company’s products. Her lie, which itself would be objected to because passing is available only to some people and harms those who can’t, did a larger population some good.

Law may limit attempts to prove lying. A lie may induce someone to agree to a contractual provision but that person may not be allowed to prove it, because agreeing may render irrelevant what was said beforehand.

Law may limit stating whether a known person violated law. Unless a violation can be proven or has been, it generally cannot be alleged except to certain government officials (e.g., law enforcement authorities). A criminal defendant, precisely because not (yet) convicted, may declare being not guilty. Therefore, one may be required to state that someone did not violate the law or remain silent. Thus, listing known violators and thereby implying that no one else is a violator often turns the implication into a lie.

Families, Communities, and Organizations

Families are mutual support systems. It’s not always mutual; babies can’t provide much support, people who are infirm may be limited in the support they can give, especially if their infirmity is terminal, and many families separate. But, in general, support is mutual. That mutuality often strengthens the family’s members when they navigate the world, as when they advocate for each other and lend each other their credibility. Without family relationships, some people find navigating the world harder, success may be less, and survival may be shorter. Therefore, maintaining a familial relationship may be necessary. That permits a family member to impose a condition on that relationship. The condition may be agreement on a perception of fact. The result of the agreement may be a lie by one family member to another, a lie repeated perhaps for decades. Lying to the family may be needed for personal survival. Survival is generally considered good for the world. Probably most societies, for example, generally oppose suicide regardless of reason, generally try to keep convicted criminal prisoners alive for the durations of their sentences, even try to keep those facing execution alive until the intended moment of execution, generally offer health care even to the terminally ill for any amount of survival, even if the patient can’t pay for it, at least if the health care is not too expensive for the society in a developing nation, and generally lie to someone who seems on the verge of death because of a sudden event in order to convince them that they’ll make it if they just keep their spirits up. Societies approve of all of these decisions lie. So, given that those interventions are already justified, lying to the family is mainly cheaper and, if lying is ever justified, therefore justifiable.

Commonly, husbands partly conceal their wives’ contributions to their respective success, acknowledging less than would require compensating wives more. The concealment is a lie, at wives’ expense. As part of a larger pattern of concealing or devaluing some people’s contributions in order to reduce compensation to them, we reduce the rewarding of valuable work, in effect replacing capitalism, an economic system grounded on building capital by selling what one has, e.g., a service, for capital, with socialism, a notably less productive economic system that has been tried in various nations and abandoned in some and that tends to be less productive in nations that still center on it, compared to capitalist productivity in developed nations. Thus, we conceal and consequently favor a less productive economy. While some lies are meant to boost, and have the effect of boosting, the rewards we get, this kind of lie appears to have the opposite effect; but not entirely, because the lowering of rewards to people whose contributions are partly hidden, such as wives, comes with a raising of rewards to people who directly receive that hidden help, such as husbands, thus enhancing their relationships with their communities of the like-minded, increasing the rewards in the communities. So, lying to some people continues.

Communities fulfill a role similar to that of families, albeit on a larger scale and not as intimately, but often more pervasively. Thus, the same logic applies, so that lying to a community is often acceptable by it.

Part of being in a community through agreeing on premises is that the successful among us attribute that success to qualities of which the community approves. So we may claim all the credit for our own success through individualism and deny having had any help from anyone, thus speaking in a code that has the community of the like-minded approving of us. This may be deeming mutual assistance as being beneficial to both therefore not a gift or transfer from one to the other; but by not boycotting mutual benefit is being allowed and thus the successful person is thereby helped. Both perspectives are supportable; one refers to lying.

Organizations, which are formal communities, benefit from one person’s statement to another being approximately relayed to a third who then approximately relays it to a fourth, and so on, until the organization’s ultimate statement to the outside is a lie. The organization can be of any kind, lawful or not, formal or not, old or new, with any purpose.

Family Reproduction

Reproduction is strongly encouraged. Augmentation of families, national populations, and the species is seen as so beneficial that even rape is, to many people, acceptable, as we see in the debates in the U.S. on whether abortion should be forbidden by law even where conception is due to rape. A man lying to the effect that he’d like to spend years with a woman so he can have sexual intercourse with her once is probably not ground for a lawsuit against him; I think it used to be but isn’t any more. A woman assuring a man that for medical reasons she’s incapable of pregnancy when she knows no such thing and doesn’t even believe it in error and she does get pregnant by him anyway is entitled to child support from him. Even sex just for fun is commonly a justification for men to lie; by extension, so is acquisition of a girlfriend or a wife. Even if an activity fits a nonjudgmental definition of promiscuity, adultery, or extramarital sex, we don’t call it by any of those names, because they are judgmental, and negatively so. If we approve of sex even in those contexts, we tend to approve of the lying that achieves it. (It would be interesting to study divorce law and complaints to see if lying is a subject of complaints and how the law treats it in various jurisdictions.)

Famiies tend to be more powerful than individuals and the creation and maintenance of families is encouraged, even allowing lying to that end. The family also supports opacity and then lying both intra- and extrafamilially for purposes agreed with by a larger community of which the family is part.



Children need education, because we need it and have to get the basics sometime. We need what we are taught to be something we learn (unless we decide to reject it, sometimes appropriate). To learn content, it often has to be simplified. Children, especially, know less and so need simplification of what well-educated adults can more easily understand. It also has to include multiple perspectives, since people may themselves live from all of those perspectives. So, if we are to teach about an action and a consequence, we may have to teach the perspectives of the first actor and of each person who faced a consequence. To retrieve this from nonfiction often requires the passage of time so information can be gathered and requires the collecting of multiple sources, such as several books. (I read about an event in which both a President and a Secretary of State took part (a trip to an airport); I read about it in two books, written by the two people who took part, with somewhat different perspectives.) If nonfiction is required, all of this gets complicated and complication is itself a barrier to learning. Fiction is often simpler, so it’s easier to learn. Metaphors often make understanding easier, but do it through lying. We need everyone around us to have at least some education; if lying gets them education we need them to have, we approve. So, a story may have a villain who speaks and a hero who speaks. Movies and TV shows may have complex storylines and adult audiences, but still be fictional, with actors speaking and emoting because a fictional script said so. Many of us go to watch this and many of us like the acting and want to see more of it, and not just to research acting.


Successfully lying is complicated and therefore requires intelligence, so children who lie early in life, and do so apparently to get away with it, are early in developing their intelligence, with the early start likely ramifying positively over a lifetime to the benefit of self and society. And we reward people who are intelligent, therefore we reward successful early-childhood liars.


Childraising depends in large part on lying. Whether it’s by parents or by institutions (e.g., orphanages, summer camps, and schools), the parents lie to convince their children and the adults who can contribute to the child’s future that their children are exceptional and the institutions lie to convince the children in their charge and the adults who can contribute to all the children’s futures that the children in their charge are all about equally deserving thus that none are exceptional so as to disequalize any. The parents want to concentrate their resources on their child’s success and stretch those resources to get more bang for their child while the institutions want to avoid depriving any of the children in their charge of resources because of exceptionalism assigned to another of the children. Of course, there are exceptions. And balancing both environments may be especially helpful for a child’s development. And an institution may teach the children in their charge that all of them are exceptional compared to children not in the institution and that may be helpful to the children. But lying is not excluded from any of these phenomena.

Maybe we lie to children to build their self-confidence when we adults beieve the truth wouldn’t help anyone.

Personal Safety

Staying alive or protecting safety through a lawful escape may require lying. Few people would disagree with lying in that circumstance, unless they desire that the person die, such as someone due to be executed.


Politicians, at least in the U.S., often win elections by standing firmly on principle for key positions. But they perform in office by compromising. That’s a contradiction, but they usually manage it. The compromise can embarrass the politician to their voters, and the embarrassment can cost them the next election. So, when, in office, they arrive at a compromise, they often keep it secret and even lie about having a deal in order to make it appear that they stood firmly on principle and everyone else backed down. A President did that in a negotiation with a national enemy, the Soviet Union; the President agreed to remove missiles six months later if the enemy wouldn’t say anything about it, and both sides kept their promises. A local politician agreed with another President to vote for legislation his district probably opposed in exchange for a grant to a university; many voters who would vote to reelect the politician because of the grant would change their minds if the grant was seen as part of a deal. So that deal was likely kept a secret by the politician and the President until reported decades later.

A U.S. Senator who was a White segregationist representing a State with a lot of White segrgationist voters got a Black woman pregnant and a Black baby was born. He denied it. But also he stayed in touch and showed up, in his limousine, at her community college and helped increase funding for community colleges. His having a Black child was described as his State’s “worst-kept secret”. But the major public revelation was only after his death, when his daughter held a press conference where she stated it clearly and her statement was broadcast as news. Since he was dead, his reelection was no longer an issue. I don’t know how the White segregationists reacted.


Financial or barterable capital or its equivalent is vital to survival. Generally, more of the capital is better for survival and thrival. We want people to accumulate more of the capital. We do question how some of them got it, but for the most part we want them to get it somehow. Having gotten it by lying to someone else is generally acceptable (a lie to us is unacceptable but if it’s to someone else not so much). Advertising is allowed to have some lying; endorsers can be much more enthusiastic than their product purchase history would support. When parties are negotiating a contract, verbal promises are not part of the written contract unless they’re incorporated into it, and this allows verbally lying.

Hyperinflation challenges survival for self and dependents for a lot of people. Hyperinflation is when the cost of living at least doubles in a year (an economist would say it increases by 100% or more per year), and nations have suffered far higher than that, and for multiple years at a stretch, which can lead to repression, turmoil, and world war. Some people have told about living under that much inflation. Descriptions that I’ve heard tend to be very incomplete or very vague. Someone said that they’d look for the person in a store whose job was to raise prices, run in front of that person, and grab things before their prices were marked up, but you can’t do that with most things, such as rent, fuel that’s delivered, transportation, medical care, or purchases in small stores where raising prices is only a part-time activity. And, if you don’t want to talk about it, you’re likely to get vague. You could become silent but that raises suspicions. Vagueness can be explained by illegality or by not knowing and then trying to not know, like if your teenage kid is stealing but you don’t want to know and you say that what the kid got fell out of the sky. Vagueness can also be explained by embarrassment: maybe a store is selling you eggs at last week’s price but you don’t want to tell your friends why you’re serving so many omelets for dinner because then they’d go to the same store and your friendly deal would be cut off by an angry store owner. You’re embarrassed by your undeserved advantage over your great friends so you don’t want to talk about it. Surviving requires that people do things they’d probably rather not talk about.


Commerce often succeeds through lying, so often that society thrives because of it. Through lying, a seller can complete an overpriced sale and the buyer can then spend to bring the purchase to the state they thought it was in at the time of purchase. Thus, profits or surpluses are increased by lying. We then praise the people and organizations, even nations, that have achieved the larger profits or surpluses, since asking how they got them means pursuing too many details when time and cooperation are short. Thus, microcommerce benefits from lying by its practitioners. But nations also benefit, and that increases the likelihood that even the least capable producers can still have their needs met by their families or their governments. Without requiring incomes or net worths to be equal, poverty can almost be eliminated (disasters can create poverty at any time but relief can usually be quick). This helping survival of people also helps expansion of the human species through reproduction and offsprings’ survival (up to some global limit not yet reached). Thus, commercial lying can benefit nearly everyone without anyone admitting it, especially the case when the lying is against the law, as it often is.


The nonprofit sector in its fundraising has a technique that helps it raise money. If it will make a donor happy, a nonprofit may promise to use the money without using it for some purpose the donor does not want to support. It then pools the gift with other money without attending to how it is used. If it spends more on purposes other than the one objected to than the total of the restricted gift, the spending is as if it complied with the donor’s wish. One could argue whether that is simply a simpler form of financial administration or a loss of control over financial assets and therefore, at least potentially and strictly speaking, a misrepresentation to the donor.

Managing Workers

Some lying is so someone keeps performing their job, or performing it well. Employers and their managers do this all the time. They say one thing to a worker and intend something else contradictory but serving the same purpose relative to the work. They may see it as motivation. This may benefit the overall economy, and competing to succeed within the larger economy may lead to imitation of successful methods.

Consequence For Finance

My income over my lifetime would likely have been substantially higher and my assets today greater if I had lied fairly often (judiciously, so to speak), thus if I had had less empathy for people I relate to. Perhaps we’re more honest with the people we’re closest to, who can catch us, and perhaps with the people who are farthest from us, who can’t give us much benefit for our lies; but perhaps not.


This is about sports with competition against other people. If you like climbing the Matterhorn by yourself, that’s different.

Sports players in a game may lie in order to mislead the opposition. A basketball move that isn’t the real shot but is intended to cause an opponent to waste energy and timing can be a lie. A false signal sent by a team member to a teammate in order to mislead an opponent as to what to anticipate may be a lie.

Golf (perhaps this is unique) depends on each player self-scoring visibly to other players. Golf is also common in business. Possibly the self-scoring system is used to judge credibility in business, with either over- or underscoring taken positively or negatively for analogues in business.


Part of community relations is embodied in religion. Religions often serve to unite a community by creating commonality of thought, setting standards of interpersonal behavior, and establishing a respected authority that may compete against a secular government, sometimes by war and often in checks and balances, but with a premise that people in the community should agree with the religious authority.

Yet many religions exist and probably most of their theologies contradict each other, not on all point but on various points leaders and adherents consider critical. They can’t all be true. If their metaphysical sources all coexist but communicate with each other little or not at all, that’s contradicted by the theologies; if there’s only one metaphysical source guiding a physical expression of theology, then the theologies contradicting that one are wrong and, if its members having had a chance to know the one that’s true and its source, lying; if there is no metaphysical source, any theology claiming one is lying. Yet all persist and presumably its members find that useful.

Mystery can be honest; but mystery might be useful as a gateway to religion, because religion may offer answers. If mystery is created in order to create the gateway, the mystery itself may be a lie.

To an atheist, an oath by anyone to God is a lie and the person swearing that oath to tell the truth is either ignorant of the nonexistence of God or is a liar who intends to lie. Either way, to an atheist, an oath to God to tell the truth is self-permission to lie. However, caution fits, since atheists may have a range of beliefs that might not require that conclusion.

Mystery can inspire an inadequate answer outside of religion. Perhaps someone likes certainty because it is secularly rewarded, such as in school or at work, so they invent an answer to strip away the mystery, but, unless it’s accidentally right, it’s a lie.


Myths generally are fiction. Those that are, are lies. They probably have useful content and a grain of truth, but being partly fictional without a boundary between fiction and nonfiction makes them fictional, often for the sake of simplicity, using that and other literary qualities to support persistence of a given myth.

Futurist Fantasy

Shaping the long-range future is contributed to by fantasy, a form of fiction, a form of lying. Saying “I’d like a flying car” is not necessarily a lie. Saying we will have one is saying something we don’t know as if we do, and that’s a lie. Writing a whole cartoon series on a fictional family with futuristic objects we don’t have is lying. Yet it may be useful. It may convincingly communicate aspirations and those may persuade other people to try actualizing those aspirations. If the actualization helps society, then the lying helped society.

Quantity may increase the help that lying gives to society. If numerous people openly fantasize about having flying cars, some of them or some observers may invest in studying specifics of feasibility, developing technology, and experimenting, and that may result in either a car flying or in discovering that the developmental prospects are too dim, and some people who fantasized about flying cars partly because they seemed attainable will replace their fantasies with other fantasies, reinitiating the cycle from lying to reality.

The future being unknowable although partly predictable raises a question about lying through prediction. To make a promise one does not keep may be to lie; it depends on whether the promissor should have predicted the failure of the promise.


Was Picasso when presenting his cubist art lying about people? Was Hitchcock in his movies? Do artists often lie about the world?

I don’t have an alternative. That there’s a larger truth (if there is) is irrelevant. It may be beautiful and widely and deeply admired, but that’s irrelevant. It may induce creativity in other fields, and invention and discovery may spur societal growth, but that’s all irrelevant. It may give us vital new perspectives on what we already knew, but that, too, is irrelevant.

Art often lies. Even photography often lies, because cameras don’t always work the way our eyes abd brains work, and often we don’t realize the differences.

Yet society grows from art, especially from new art. Also, it regresses, but, likely, on balance, over time and across space, society grows.

Fiction Encompassing Mixtures

Fiction is mind poison, although treatment is available and resilience helps.

It’s probably impossible to create pure fiction that isn’t extremely short. For example, if an established natural language comveys the fiction, the language itself is nonfiction, and therefore the conveyance as a whole is a mixture of fiction and nonfiction. If a boundary between fiction and nonfiction is not clear, the fiction and the nonfiction are, to a degree, indistinguishable, and thus the whole must be received as fiction.

Fiction, of course, is lying.


A complicated issue is whether we need pleasure. Consider that courts require that criminally convicted prisoners in prison are entitled to recreation, I think daily, with even those locked in cells for solitary confinement being entitled to one short release every day. If we need fun, perhaps fiction provides that by entertaining us, not always cheerfully and maybe with a wide range of emotions but nonetheless entertaining. Not all fiction, of course, but some seems to. Whether entertainment through lying is necessary is an interesting question to explore.

Cross-Domain Functionality

Lies become part of our social fabric precisely because many of them are useful in society. Most of us want to propagate them. Most of us want to teach their utility and teach selective emulation of the process of lying.

Certifying an Affiliation

A lie can serve as a shibboleth, a group membership confirmation. If the lie is believed to be true, that can add to its value as proof of membership.


Privacy is useful and allows a society to grow and thrive, although achieving privacy may require lying. Consider any idea that is not already accepted by most people, such as a business idea to open a grocery store in a certain neighborhood. Friends might say there already are enough grocery stores there. They might be right. Or wrong. If they’re wrong but they persuade your potential investors before you do, you may not be able to follow through on your plan. If the grocery would have succeeded had it opened, the society was probably worse off by the deprivation of privacy. Privacy may facilitate initiative. Privacy can be maintained by silence but often not by an individual who is challenged on information that may be private (or secret). Organizations can keep secrets better, because a challenge can be redirected to a representative who really does not know the secret. If privacy requires lying, lying may facilitate initiative and thence societal growth.

With the loss by degree of privacy in modern society, a function of other people wanting to know secrets that are more cheaply found through modern technology (including surveillance, computer processing, and traditional recordkeeping) in a world with a growing and increasingly interconnected population is a loss by degree of the power of silence by those trying to preserve their privacy and that increases the demand for an alternative protectors can use, lying being it. With the erosion of privacy, lying will increase. It is imperfect, because of the risk of detection, but silence draws attention and suspicion, so, while lying when detected may be costlier than silence, lying without detection may be the least costly and not risky enough for concern.


Creativity may need inventing, juxtaposing, and concealing and thus may need lying. Yet societies that encourage creativity have grown. Lying may have preserved and enhanced entire societies without necessarily costing any other societies.

Gaining Efficiency

Lying for efficiency so that an objective is reached sooner encourages repetition so that more lying can help achieve more objectives. That may gain approvals.

Constraint on Answers

Where context constrains a statement to a permitted subset, the semantics of a statement offered from within the subset may broaden to fit toward what would have been the answer without the constraint. It cannot always change the semantics as if no constraint existed or either constraint or language would be meaningless, but it can change it toward the answer space as if unconstrained. The more a respondent feels limited by the constraint, a subjective predicate, the more the semantic flexibility. This can produce what is a lie when evaluated independently of the constraint when it is not a lie given the constraint. The effect is that, when the context is unknown, whether a statement is a lie will likely be misjudged, and recovery of the constraining context, or even solely of the fact that there was a constraining context, may be difficult or impossible.

Lie vs. Lie

Lying to counteract lying and for a good purpose (however goodness is judged) is widely accepted. As commonly viewed, two wrongs can sometimes make right. An example is a critical inaccuracy of information about a person, especially information that is given a lot of weight because of content or format (e.g., records being old and never before disputed), when it requires countering. A binary system employed to resolve that issue will heighten the likelihood of lying for the purpose of correcttion.

Rare Cases Perhaps Normative

Some lying may be impossible to justify except for pragmatic value with few people agreeing on it as right in any given instance, yet empirical evidence suggests that some forms of it are widespread, frequent, and largely uncounted.

Cred Covers Lying

Credibility being higher invites more lying. Credibility can come from the person or from content.

Someone asks a more credible person to lie (perhaps asking for a statement without saying it’s a lie) because it’s efficient. Thus, a large constituency, the askers, will support lying.

If adjacent to a lie is what a recipient believes is true, the lie can be more credible. It may not have to be strictly adjacent; that which is believed may have enough credibility that it still envelopes a distant lie in enough credibility to help the liar.

Perhaps paradoxically, a lie can enhance credibility while it is believed. If the recipient readily believes it because the recipient sees no need for new testing, the liar gains credibility useful for other lies.

Uttering a lie often requires uttering at least one more, to conceal the intentional falsity of the first.

Glad to be Lied To

We prefer to buy what impresses us. Impressing us can be honest but it’s often easier if based on lying. We may dislike advertising and promotion but they work, so we encourage more. We pay for sales representatives’ commissions. We tend to think that what’s a little more expensive must be of better quality, even without checking. In effect, then, we pay for the privilege of being lied to. We reward lies.

The Psychology of Lying

My impression is that the people who accused me of lying were people who I found lying in separate incidents. If so, maybe the accusers normalized lying so readily that they assume everyone does it and their criticism of me was merely that, in their view, I had lied inappropriately. There was probably no point in telling them that I had not lied; that would be deemed a lie, too, reinforcing their normalization.

Complaining about having been lied to is generally counterproductive, because it establishes the lied-to person’s foolishness or naivete, lying being that normal, and encourages more lying to that same individual, since it evidently works. The complaint, however, has other utility to a liar, as it suggests the boundaries that the complainant exploited, so that the liar can adjust future attempts at concealment.

Calling a liar who passes tests of physiology psychologically ill, or psychopathic, is evasion of the issue of truth itself. The liar is merely not nervous about lying. Lying is normal for that person and for some other people with whom they often interact. Being normal and beneficial may even make lying necessary for the liar’s mental health, as defined by psychological service clinicians. It may increase a perception of understanding and a sense of control over much of the world at little cost and raise admiration from others and self-esteem. It may even be deemed useful by employers who use polygraph exams not to refuse employment to liars but to refuse employment to incompetent liars whose lies might be more readily detected by adversaries in real life. The polygraph may be used to hire people whose lies will be more effectual.

A lie, to be successful, generally requires the liar to recall the truth in order to maintain the lie, but, once it no longer would be challenged, usually because all communities accept the content as true, it can join the canon of apparent truth without recall of any other information.

A lie is more credible if adjacent to the lie is what a recipient believes is true. It may not have to be strictly adjacent; that which is believed may have enough credibility that it still envelopes a distant lie in enough credibility to help the liar.


Natural language, at least English, is, as a whole, neutral on lying, but it is a human property and humans have designed natural language to facilitate both honesty and lying. Language supports idiolects and dialects by which people differ on semantics without even noticing all the differences in real time, so concealment and misunderstanding are possible where subtleties matter.

Whether to Promulgate a Ban

Maybe It Has Been

One Federal law, 18 U.S.C. 1001, seems to have the effect of forbidding all lying because of the risk that a lie will be material to a Federal matter and that the lie will be reported to the Federal government as if true even by a third party who does not realize that it is a lie. However, it apparently is not applied that way, but more narrowly. It does not seem to specify to whom the liar tells the lie as long as it eventually arrives at the Executive Branch or a Federal court and, in some cases, in Congress, but perhaps the legislative history, common law, or other authority has been applied to narrow the scope.


Solitude eases honesty. Interaction with other people being less a part of someone’s life and less critical and self-reliance being higher lowers the risks that come with honesty. However, society thrives largely by denying solitude.

Society has room for the entirely honest, but not much room. There are not many roles for a fully honest participant. Society permits only a small percentage of its members to be wholly honest. There may even be evidence in anthropology that lying occurs in most societies worldwide, even the numerous small societies. Even close-knit subcultures likely rely on lying.

A Caution

An unwanted consequence of a law against lying could be use of the law against outliers, such as sociological minorities traditionally discriminated against. It would be another weapon against them, because they’re so often disbelieved already.

Choices For Law

If society is unsure about whether to make all lying unlawful, so that a compromise is all that could be enacted, one compromise could be to keep a public record of who lied when, with details identifying the event for corroboration, disproof, and so on. But no one very visible keeps a public log of lies and their perpetrators. Societal demand for such a record is extraordinarily low.


Some lying is unlawful. One jurisdiction even attempted a law against all lying on the Internet. It was passed and it had criminal power. I don’t know if it was enforced much, or at all. It was repealed. (This was in Rhode Island from to .) And I don’t think it forbade lying away from the Internet.

Many laws make lying illegal when the lies are to government officials, such as the police, or are part of commercial fraud, where money is taken because of it. Enforcing the law, however, being expensive lowers the incidence of enforcement, thus some lying gets through despite the law.

Yet, not all lying is unlawful; some may even be protected by the Constitutional freedoms of speech, press, and religious faith. That, doubtless, is largely purposeful. Saying it’s bad has societal approval and places an upper bound on it, but allowing some is widely beneficial, so we continue it from history and likely will into the future.

Maybe the prospect of global honesty is too horrible even to contemplate. Amusing on the surface, like a sugar coating, but toxic and deadly inside: is that how full honesty is made?