Truth is elusive. But so, in its own way, is untruth.
St. Augustine of Hippo wrote two books on lies. A website about how to lie well summarizes his taxonomy of lies as follows, in order of decreasing sinfulness:
Lies in religious teaching.
Lies that harm others and help no one.
Lies that harm others and help someone.
Lies told for the pleasure of lying.
Lies told to “please others in smooth discourse.”
Lies that harm no one and that help someone.
Lies that harm no one and that save someone’s life.
Lies that harm no one and that save someone’s “purity.”
As you can see, this taxonomy is organized according to the degree of moral harm caused. This list also presumes access to Truth; Augustine assumes that there is some standard by which we can tell the difference between the truth and a lie.
There are lies in which someone utters a statement that they know to be counterfactual. What about lies in which someone is deluded and utters a factual statement which they believe to be untrue?
There are also lies in which a subject utters a statement that is consistent with fact, but which is framed in such a way as to conceal or draw attention away from some other fact or group of facts. It is in this sense that the New York Times can be said to be a collection of lies, not in the sense that what is reported is counterfactual (although it is, often enough) but in the sense that the newspaper’s claim to include “All the news that’s fit to print” renders every item within the paper dishonest. The claim, along with the claim of the New York Times to be the “paper of record,” organizes and presents only those facts which serve the ruling elite.
I would like to propose another taxonomy that recognizes the lack of unity of the self. Not only do we lie to others, but we lie to ourselves as well.
GROUP 1. Lies that we believe and tell to ourselves and others.
This category of lies includes almost all culture. I would argue that culture (lean in to the root “cult”) is a network of myths that are sustained by acts of faith. This voluntary acceptance of something that is contrary to fact (believing on faith, trust in authority, conforming) almost requires the subject to turn around and repeat these lies to others for confirmation and support. One really can’t put any sort of moral onus on this kind of lie; the people who incessantly go around yammering these lies have been lied to and they’re scared of all the work they’d have to do if the lies break down.
GROUP 2. Lies that we don’t believe but which we tell in hopes that others will believe them.
This group of lies include the majority of statements issued by governments and corporations. This group of lies are classic lies, statements counter to fact which are uttered in order to manipulate others. This group also includes lies to make oneself look better or more impressive in another’s eyes (although there is a large grey area in where this zone overlaps with Group 1), lies to escape punishment for one’s crimes.
GROUP 3. Lies that we don’t believe but which we tell in hopes that others will believe that we believe them.
Say you’re a Jew in Spain during the Spanish Inquisition and an Inquisitor asks you if you believe that Jesus is the Messiah. In this case, you don’t believe, but you might lie and say you do, not because you want to convert the Inquisitor by your evident faith; no, you just want him to believe that you believe– whether or not he believes is not the point at all here. Anyone living in a cult(ure) who doesn’t “drink the Kool-Aid” is going to find situations in which they are tempted to utter this kind of lie. In a fascist state, I believe there comes a critical point when everyone realizes that they’re all lying to each other. This is the birth of irony.
GROUP 4. Facts that are told in order to manipulate.
Facts can be lies too. If you can tell someone something with the intention of getting them to do something, there is a mismatch between the form of the communication (the fact) and the content (manipulation.) Very clever people can come up with an array of selected facts that will lead to a false conclusion in someone else’s head. This group of lies overlaps with all the previous groups. There is nothing especially truthful about facticity. Husserl claims that imagination has a privileged truth-position over facticity.
When we reflect on the amazing strides made in “mass communication”– what used to be called propaganda– in the last century, we have to acknowledge that almost everything that is published serves a manipulative agenda and therefore can be categorized as a Group 4 lie.
Also, all marketing is untruth.
In the face of near-universal untruth, it is not surprising that some philosophers claim that truth is nonexistent or irrelevant. Our culture is accelerating away from truth as quickly as it can. The kind of moral sophistry which frees thought from truth-claims renders invaluable service to fascism.
These philosophers may claim as well that all truth-claims are oppressive, because, well, the Catholic Church was wrong. But one has to ask such verbose and honest liars, what are they trying to manipulate us into?
Much better, to my tastes, is the position of extreme doubt established by Theodor Adorno. Adorno debunks truth claims– but there is, in his work, a fundamental orientation toward truth that allows him to be honestly critical. Negative Dialectics is the most truthful work of philosophy I have read– and it’s because Adorno’s motivation, which he admits is ultimately metaphysical, keeps him honest. In other words, he cares. Adorno’s metaphysics is evanescent, but I believe it is rooted in his musical practice.
Margaret Mead seems to care too– but in her prose and in her verbal communications there is a pedagogical distance that points to her sense of herself as an elite subject who considers it her role to shepherd the clueless masses into their enclosures where they will be safe until they are hygenically slaughtered.
Existentialists, realists, realpolitikians, and “tough-minded” people who really believe that bodies are just sacks of chemicals and that all life is a struggle for survival see “survival of the fittest” as the ultimate truth. The will to power engages them completely and satisfies/exhausts them. In their eyes, anyone who subscribes to any sort of metaphysics is on one level a patsy, a chump to be lied to and manipulated. On another level, metaphysics is a huge threat, because were there to be a truth beyond “might makes right,” they would clearly be in the wrong. Most egregiously. What they don’t seem to realize is that their belief in “survival of the fittest” and “evolution” is itself a metaphyics– with survival as an ultimate and futile telos.
Now it is time for a prophetic crescendo. “Survival of the fittest” is vain and self-congratualtory; it lurks behind Western liberalism as much as the more openly fascist philosophies; and it is in every way a profoundly evil metaphysics. It is the prevailing doctrine of our ruling elites, and ultimately, the motivating dogma of our culture.
I don’t want to go too deeply into the idea of evil here; but to make a little sense of the last prophetic-crescendo paragraph for those who are lost– the perception of “competition for survival” is a profound misunderstanding of nature. Nature tends to set up interconnected networks of organisms that support each other, not charred landscapes with a single victorious apex predator. Darwin’s dogma emerged at a time when it was needed to support imperialism against the growing awareness that there might be something wrong with genocide. Existentialism serves as a philosophical support for Darwinism.