We live today in anarchy. Not even the most basic and longstanding moral beliefs can take root in anarchy. Let's take, for example, lying. I grew up believing that lying was wrong. A person who makes a habit of lying is, from my perspective, despicably immoral. But what is the state of lying as a moral concept in the modern world?
As Breaking Bad approached its series finale, a fan assembled a compilation of scenes in which the series' ever-slippery Walter White lied. Vulture's Caroline Shin wrote, "[O]n Breaking Bad, we got a time-lapse peek at just how far Walter White has come in his ability to lie. Back during his first meth cook in the desert, he had to rehearse before telling Skyler that he was working late at the car wash. Since then he's learned to slander, deny, prevaricate, and dissemble in 100 different ways without a moment's pause. Looking back on five seasons of the show, five distinct Walt strategies for bullshitting emerge."
This video prompted discussions of lying in various Internet forums. Many people made it clear in their remarks that they saw no immorality to lying. They regarded the occasional (or maybe not so occasional) mistruth as a highly useful tool. To them, lying was just a normal part of life.
My assumption at the time was that these people never had proper parents around to tell them lying is a bad thing. I know that the "lying is bad" message isn't something that television has ever bothered to teach children. I remember when I was a child that most television shows had characters who lied with no hesitation on a weekly basis. Think about Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, McHale's Navy, Hogan's Heroes, Mission Impossible or F Troop. You knew you were about to hear a whopper of a lie when Dr. Bellows brought to Tony Nelson's attention the latest evidence of Jeannie's magical mischief. Take, for instance, this scene in which Bellows says to Tony, "I can't wait for your explanation of what you are doing with an elephant in your bedroom."
I learned long ago never to look to television for valuable instruction. I certainly never depended on television to deliver a moral message to my son. I, myself, taught my own son not to lie. I am proud to say that my son has matured into an honest young man. But, evidently, other parents did not carry forth this message.
Ulrich Boser of U.S. News wrote, "Don't feel bad [if you lie]. You're in good, dishonest company. A growing body of research shows that people lie constantly, that deception is pervasive in everyday life. One study found that people tell two to three lies every 10 minutes, and even conservative estimates indicate that we lie at least once a day."
I cannot think of one time today that I lied. I cannot think of a time yesterday that I lied. Did I lie in the last week or the last month? No, not even once.
Let me tell you about something that did happen to me in the last month. I live in a friendly neighborhood where people are always bringing me food. One afternoon, a little old lady came to my door with a Tupperware container. "I made rice pudding and I thought that you would like some," the old woman said. The rice pudding was awful and I dumped it immediately into my trash can. Did I tell the old woman about this? No, of course not. But I didn't tell the woman that the rice pudding was delicious. I said at our next encounter, "I thank you again for the rice pudding. That was very kind of you." But it is asserted in this article that I should have said the rice pudding was delicious. Robert Feldman, a University of Massachusetts psychologist, said, "We use lies to grease the wheels of social discourse. It's socially useful to tell lies." Boser underscored this. He wrote, "Studies have shown that people who lie frequently are viewed as friendlier and more amiable than their more truthful counterparts."
It was made very clear in the article that the best lies of all were the lies that we tell to ourselves. Richard Gramzow, a psychologist at the University of Southampton, said, "Exaggerators tend to be more confident and have higher goals for achievement. Positive biases about the self can be beneficial." I know people who cannot acknowledge their flaws or their failings. It is a serious problem. Self-delusion is no way to go through life. The self-deluded can never improve themselves because they can never admit that they have anything to improve. But, beneath the lies that they tell themselves, they still carry around guilt and shame for their shortcomings. The truth is the elephant in the room. When we stand in a growing pile of elephant dung, we can never escape the smell.
If we as a society can't agree that lying is wrong, then we cannot agree on anything being wrong.