Can We Have a Discussion about Lying If We Don’t Agree about Truth?

Lillie M. Thomas | December 15, 2015

Can We Have a Discussion about Lying If We Don’t Agree about Truth?

An article in the New York Times opinion section has invited a discussion on lying.

 

Gerald Dworkin, the author, alleges that while most of us condemn lying, we also all lie to each other regularly. So, he argues, there is not actually an absolute societal prohibition on lying, but rather lying in certain circumstances: 

 

“I am not arguing for the view that lying is morally neutral. I accept the fact that there ought to be a strong presumption in favor of honesty. But it is a presumption that not only can be, but ought to be, overridden in many more cases than we assume.”

 

Dworkin then goes on to give 10 scenarios in which he believes that lying is either permissible or obligatory, and invites a discussion on those scenarios. 

 

The article is thought provoking, and it is entertaining to consider whether or not one would lie in the given circumstances. But is it possible to have a meaningful conversation on lies when we cannot agree on even the basics of truth, or that absolute truth even exists? 

 

Dworkin defines lying as “John lies to Mary if he says X, believes X to be false, and intends that Mary believe X.”

 

This definition is about deception. John is deceiving Mary when he lies to her. But is the more important discussion not about whether or not John can justifiably deceive Mary about what he believes to be false, but rather about what John believes to be true? Does it matter if John lies to Mary if we believe that there is no such thing as absolute truth?

 

We live in a society where truth is flexible. You have your truth and I have my truth, and that is fine, as long as your truth does not interfere with my rights. Just look at the headlines to know that propositions that used to be considered self-evident are now up for grabs. 

 

Dworkin’s conversation on lying is interesting, but can it reveal anything of substance in a society without truth?