The Truth Behind Lying

I don't know about you, but I've spent a lot of the past week pondering Ben Carson's lies about his background. It's fascinating. Here is a very accomplished pediatric surgeon running for president -arguably the most public job in the world - who fudges the truth about his alleged acceptance to West Point. He was offered a scholarship even though they don't give out scholarships. He also described himself as a violent youth who attempted murder and wielded a hammer to his mother. What's this all about? If you were going to lie, as a Talmudic principle goes, you would have told a "better" lie. You wouldn't make yourself out to be worse than assumed. And if you were going to tell a lie, wouldn't you do it about an arena where fact-checking wouldn't be so easy and the lies so outlandish?

It seems I am not the only one who is intrigued by this conundrum. The New York Timesrecently carried an article - "Candidates Stick to the Script, If Not the Truth" - to show the recklessness of any number of Republican and Democratic candidates who lie about simple facts that can easily be researched. "Today," the article contended, "it seems, truth is in the eyes of the beholder - and any assertion can be elevated and amplified if yelled loudly enough."  Instead of sheepishly backing down when caught in a gotcha moment, candidates in the new normal attack media outlets and strongly deny discrepancies in stories. Oy.

I've always taken the direct and unambiguous Leviticus approach to the truth: "Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another" (19:22). Lying is an act of stealing; you are literally stealing a reputation or creating an impression that does not belong to you. You are stealing the trust of someone else. Don't do it. The truth always seemed to me to be immutable; there is no wiggle room when a commandment is presented this way. But as I've aged, I've come to understand that this black and white way to think about the truth is grey matter for many. That's why I love the quote from Psalms above. If you hate lies then chances are you will love the law that prohibits them. You will not be a rule breaker because you see clear lines where others see a blur.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely in The Honest Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone - Especially Ourselves helped me understand society in a better, more nuanced, if not more depressing way. He cites a locksmith who claims that one percent of people would never steal. One percent would always steal, "And the rest will be honest as long as the conditions are right - but if they are tempted enough, they'll be dishonest too. Locks won't protect you from the thieves, who can get in your house if they really want to. They will only protect you from the mostly honest people who might be tempted to try your door if it had no lock." Oy. Again.

Make conditions hard enough, and most of us will set goodness as our default position. But if you make wrongdoing easy enough, the temptation will get larger and may become insurmountable with time. As Ariely concludes later, "Essentially, we cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals." 

If we cheat to the degree that we can get away with it while still protecting our self-image, then what are we to make of the lying going on in the presidential campaign? I take a page out of the Proverbs playbook: "Arrogant lips are unsuited to a fool, how much worse are lying lips in a ruler!" (17:7) If you're not wise, then what do you have to boast about? And if you're a leader who lies, you're even worse than a fool.

"We all want explanations for why we behave as we do and for the ways the world around us functions," Ariely claims. "Even when our feeble explanations have little to do with reality. We're storytelling creatures by nature, and we tell ourselves story after story until we come up with an explanation that we like and that sounds reasonable enough to believe. And when the story portrays us in a more glowing and positive light, so much the better." 

We will see how voters feel about liars. I know how I feel about them. Honesty should be a bi-partisan issue. God, Proverbs reminds us,  hates lying lips "but delights in those who are honest" (12:22). In the biggest campaign - namely, our lives - truth is a more compelling slogan.

Shabbat Shalom