Life Without Lies
By Bryan Caplan
[Warning: Invention of Lying spoilers!]
The supposed premise of The Invention of Lying is that human beings never evolved the ability to lie. While I greatly enjoyed the movie – it’s the best cinematic critique of religion since Life of Brian – I’m afraid it doesn’t carefully reason from its premise. If people lost the ability to lie, they still wouldn’t have to constantly blurt out damaging information. There are many close substitutes for lying that people would turn to in a lie-free world.
At the top of the list:
1. Keep you mouth shut. Much of the humor The Invention of Lying is more about blurting than lying. But silence is not a lie! And obviously the people in IoL have the ability not to talk; it’s not like they constantly announce whatever’s on their mind. Now that would be weird: “Now I’m blogging about IoL. Still blogging. Oh, and typing. I’m hungry. Now I’m thinking about what to write next. Now I’m doing the meta version of that…”
My point: People who couldn’t lie could avoid a lot of bad consequences simply by not talking. As Thumper put it, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” In a world without lies, people would do this even more than they already do.
2. Change the subject. If someone who looks awful asks you, “How do I look?,” who says you have to respond? Why not say some true things about something else? E.g., “Oh, look at the time – it’s almost 7!” This is already a common practice; take away lying, and it would be even more common.
3. Strategically avoid others. If you can’t see someone without lying, why not just avoid him? If we really couldn’t lie, we would be much more eager to screen calls, sent notes, and otherwise avoid face-to-face contact.
Now why do I bring this up? Partly, I’m just being a petulant fanboy. But my deeper point is that, contrary to IoL, people don’t “need to lie.” I live by the old-fashioned view that lying is almost always wrong, and my principle hardly turns me into a social pariah. An eccentric, yes; but I don’t have to reduce strangers to tears to keep my hands clean. A “society without lies” would be different than the one we have today. But it would not be the Midas touch all over again. On balance, life without lies would be a big improvement over the world of today: We’d avoid the obvious disadvantages of mistrust – without giving up good manners.
P.S. Here‘s Robin’s take on IoL.