Anne Harris examines the philosophy of truth and lies and the moral implications of those old cliches. . .

Let’s go on a quick mental journey in circles around one of the most annoying ethical issues I’m faced with as a well-meaning yet secretly incredibly judgemental person. My problem is when to tell the truth to a friend and when to keep my damn mouth shut, or just lie. As a warning, all my extensive research for the Sherlock article last week has burned out my creative circuits, so I might end up talking in clichés.

Like this one: The truth may hurt, but it can also, apparently, set you free. From this I have to imagine the truth is kind of like the Saw movies; you can get out of that ankle shackle, but say goodbye to Lefty.

But really, we don’t have to get morbid: some truths are painless after all. For example, try saying ‘the mashed potatoes in hall taste like industrial sealant’, or ‘Even if I get an official email from Kate Kennedy herself, nothing is going to make me care about the various archaic traditions and mentalities of a group that I’ve been so successful in ignoring for the past three years.’ See? They just roll off the tongue.

Unfortunately not all truths are that palatable. So what do you do when your close friend tells you, in all seriousness, that post-uni she’s going to take her soulful-if-vague melodies on the road, or make a go of living full-time off of his papier-mâché Alf statuettes? Is it your moral duty to gently tell her that one Adele is more than enough, or that that the ’80s memorabilia market is at capacity, despite his interest in innovating form and function? Or should you just take the easier route and give some bland encouragement, figuring that if/when it comes back to bite her, at least you can claim you were just trying to be supportive?

When sorting out this moral quandary, you could take the philosopher’s way out- the exact nature of truth is hardly agreed upon, so by extension, isn’t what constitutes a lie just as hazy? I actually have no idea; I only bothered showing up to about four of my first year political philosophy lectures. After learning that Hobbes saw life as ‘nasty, brutish, and short’, I figured I had spent enough of my dwindling hours in there. But back to the point- if the brightest minds of countless civilizations can’t even sort out exactly what the difference is between truth and lies, how can little old you be required to tell only one and not the other all the time? Who knows, you might not even be ‘lying’ if the intention was good. Ah, but the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, isn’t it? Back to the clichés.

And speaking of Hell, let’s think about economics. Plenty of people refer to lying by omission (‘keeping your damn mouth shut’, if you will) as ‘being economical with the truth’. And being economical is a good thing, right? Imagine if a flatmate was spendthrift with the truth. You wouldn’t want to hang around them, for one thing.  They’d always be blurting out that your new haircut makes you look like a poor man’s Billy Idol, and by the way, if you refer to your four hours of class per week as being ‘really busy’ one more time, they will bludgeon you with their lab notebook until you know the true pain of a science student…

So yes, I don’t have any problem with lies by omission.

Ultimately, I guess one could argue that I haven’t been talking about any objective truth at all. And one would be right; it’s all various forms of opinion. Maybe you just have to reconcile your guilt about being selective with what you tell a friend with the resolution that if you have any objective information, you’d share it. For example, ‘The neighbours called the police about your three A.M. drunken renditions of ‘Someone Like You’. They thought it was an abandoned Rottweiler’. That’s factual, and you can almost manage hide the judgement in your voice. Progress!

So surprise Adele Jr. with a Whitney Houston CD in hopes that she can aim for that now-open niche instead, and register Mr. Alf with Etsy, since goodness knows there’s truly a market for everything on the Internet.

And a special truth from me to you: for the love of Louise Richardson, stop believing that any of this KK nonsense is as important as they think it is. Celebrate your own traditions instead.

Anne Harris

Image credit – Arte y Fotografia