When is a Lie a Lie?

I find it interesting that when both major political parties send you endless emails, it is the other side that is always lying.  (If that were so, then our country is being governed by liars!) How could it be that the opposite party can lie and your party not? Politicians take the high road and point fingers, claiming their opponents do not have the good ethical and moral standards they have.

Unfortunately, many, if not most, people believe politicians lie and are basically dishonest.  A poll conducted several years ago reported that the general public thought all politicians lied and were dishonest – except their own senators and/or representatives.

It is like the old story about a group of politicians in a 15-passenger van going to a political rally.  They had a head-on collision and accident victims were scattered along the highway.  A farmer heard the commotion and went to the wreck site to see if he could help.

He called 911 on his cell phone and reported a van load of politicians had been in an accident and there were injuries.

“Are any of them alive?” asked the operator.

“Well,” said the farmer, “some of them say they are alive, but you know how politicians lie!”

We are taught from very early on that lying is wrong.  We parents appeal to an eternal, absolute ethical standard that says it is wrong.  Everyone seems to believe there are universal, absolute ethical and moral standards that must not be violated.  Every time we say, “That ‘s not fair!”, we are appealing to some universal standard of right and wrong.

Where are the absolutes we believe in?  Have they been written down?  Are they in the Bible?  Are they embodied in God’s being?  Are they in the Ten Commandments? The sense of right and wrong and knowing what is ethical behavior seems to be part of the human psyche.   We may appeal to authority, but our human limitations make it impossible for us to discover a final authority.  We determine when and how another person is lying to us according to what we believe is right or wrong, and the way we interpret moral standards is somewhat relative to each person.

What is a lie, anyway? A lie is to say, or do, something that is not true in order to deceive. It is motivation that is important.  This is evident in half-truths – lies disguised as data or statistics.  One political advertisement I received contained many footnotes, giving the impression that the claims were true and verified.  When checked, all but one of the footnotes were previously published statements made by the sponsoring organization.  This was a blatant and deliberate attempt to deceive voters.

Several years ago, a pro-life advocate accused a prominent religious leader of approving abortion on demand.  The proof?  The man had made this statement: “Free choice is a wonderful thing.”  Had he made the statement?  Yes, he had.  Was the statement about abortion?  No, it wasn’t.  His comment came in an essay about salvation, as understood by evangelicals.  Salvation is a free choice for every person.  It is a wonderful thing, because it is not coercive.  Unfortunately, the man was fired because of this deliberate attempt to deceive his supporters.

It is important to remember that we can say something we believe is true, but is not true because we lack complete information.  Politicians have this habit of talking “off the cuff” and using hyperbole.  Is what they say a deliberate attempt to deceive, or speaking to the crowd without full knowledge?

We can also have an opinion without any objective reason.  It is just the way we feel about an issue.  We may feel and believe it with heated passion, but have no valid reason for believing it.  I may believe and proclaim that the world is flat in spite of data to the contrary, but is this deception?

Often deception is used for national security concerns, which is a case of choosing the lesser of two wrongs. Is it better to lie in order to defend our nation, or be truthful and have many thousands of people deprived of life and property?

There are some universals that most people agree upon.  Deceptiveness for one’s personal gain is never right for anyone anywhere.  Deception to hide wrong doing is never acceptable.  Deception is treating others as if they are things to manipulate and not persons made in God’s image. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that the individual is more moral than his or her institutions.  That is possibly true, but we deceive ourselves if we think we are paragons of moral perfection. The problem is, we may use deception but be unaware of it.  We deceive ourselves.

By the way, this is all in the Ten Commandments.  Maybe we should read them and try to follow them, but that is a difficult task.  It is easier to put a sign in the yard or on a school room wall to exhort others to obey the Commandments!

Moral of the story: think before accusing someone of lying!


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