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Honesty not always the best policy position

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Monday, 24 May 2010

The biggest liars are those who claim never to lie and hence we should be embracing the honesty of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott for admitting the occasional fib. The people to be most suspicious about are the ones who push the sanctimonious nonsense that lying is always immoral.

We all lie. Yet none of us accepts that we are dishonest. That's the biggest lie of all.

We should be less embarrassed about lying and ditch the delusion that dishonesty is always bad.


That way we could focus on the circumstances in which lying is permissible and indeed desirable as opposed to engaging in the mother of all deceits by pretending honesty is an absolute virtue.

From the pragmatic perspective, lying is endemic and only getting worse as a result of new communication devices. It is particularly rampant in non-social settings.

A study by Friends Provident showed more than 80 per cent of people admitted to telling at least one lie a day, with two-thirds admitting to having lied at work. The most common workplace lie was faking a sickie. A quarter of employees stated they lied about having completed work and about 20 per cent lied to cover up a big mistake.

The study also showed facilities such as text messaging and email made it easier for people to lie because it made them feel less guilty than lying face to face.

This survey relies solely on self reports and, not surprisingly, is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the frequency of lying. The truth about lying is that we all do it much more than most of us care to admit.

We nearly always deny lying because we are scared of being viewed as pathological liars and hence never being believed.


An earlier survey by psychologist Jeff Hancock of Cornell University showed respondents lied during a quarter of their social interactions.

A University of Massachusetts study showed most people lie in normal conversation when they are trying to appear competent and likable. According to the study, 60 per cent of people lied at least once during the course of a 10-minute conversation.

There is no doubt that lying is normally morally undesirable. For us to plan, co-ordinate and structure our activities it is necessary to have an accurate understanding of the state of affairs in the world. Absent this, our plans and projects would be frustrated. Lies undermine our capacity to achieve our goals and projects.

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First published in The Australian on May 19, 2010.

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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is dean of law at Swinburne University and author of Australian Human Rights Law.

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