Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Born Liars: why we can't live without deceit

I started this book having read quite a lot of books about how we think and why - I'd just finished reading "the Heretics", which followed on from similar books. At first I felt that "Born Liars" was just too much like the previous books, and that I should have changed tack. However, I did get drawn in, I did find new information, and I did find it enlightening.

Why do we lie? It looks like it is a necessary part of being human. It may well be why our brains developed so much. The process of keeping track of a large number of social relationships and how they all relate to each other may well have been a key trigger in our brain development. How did early humans keep track of others in the group, who was allied to whom, who owed what favour? Our early ancestors needed to be aware of what others were thinking, without being too obvious about their own thoughts.

How do children learn to lie, and how do they learn that it is wrong? Interestingly, not by punishing them for lying, which seems to just teach them how to lie better. Most children learn not to lie as a matter of course, although for a small percentage, where lying serves a different purpose (eg: a fantasy world that they hope will impress others), if they haven't ceased habitually lying by about 7, then they are probably never going to stop. I know that I have certainly come across older students who will that what you just saw didn't happen. These people know the morals of lying, they just don't care.

There are interesting issues of philosophy - is it ever OK to lie? What about lying to the 'murderer at the door'? What about 'white lies'? Can you actually avoid lying? 

There are cultural differences in attitudes to lying - with clear differences in the 'seriousness' of a lie, depending upon what it is about, between different cultures.

Linking into my earlier reading about Shakespeare I also liked the idea that the best playwrights are adept at showing the real thoughts of their characters, contrasted with their actual behaviour. The techniques used by Shakespeare and others were developed at a time when the ability to dissemble could be a life saver in the fraught political and religious milieu of the Tudor court.

I found casuistry, the Jesuit concept of 'mental reservation', at least in the examples given, morally repugnant.  This is lying verbally, while adding a mental addendum to the contrary. For example: "He's not here" ("...to you"). Personally I think that there are times when lies of various types are necessary, but the examples given, where this was used to deceive legitimate enquiry into the behaviour of the church, disturbed me.

Overall, despite my early reservations, an absorbing book. But something very different next time, I think.


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